With the intervention in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s military is trying to kill several birds with one stone. In the near term, it is safeguarding the country from what Riyadh perceives as an immediate military threat posed by advancing pro-Iranian Houthi rebels. In the medium-term, it is asserting its leadership of the Arab world and consolidating its control over what has recently been a tension-ridden Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In the long term, it is redressing what it sees as a geopolitical imbalance in the Middle East between itself and Iran. In recent years, power has tilted heavily toward Iran, in no small part due to U.S. retrenchment.
The Kingdom is in a good position to kill the first two birds. And if it plays its cards right, it could make progress against the third and, as a result, shore up its status in the region at a time when other traditional powers such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria are bleeding influence thanks to domestic conflict, political turmoil, and economic implosion. There is no shortage of risk in Saudi Arabia’s strategy, and a lot could go wrong. But the new Saudi leadership has decided that the alternative—inaction— carries intolerable costs.
Yemen has been a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia (and other Arab Gulf countries, including Oman) since the latter was founded in the 1930s. The threats of Marxism, populism, and recently, Islamist extremism with the rise of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have made Yemen a high Saudi national security risk. Today, Saudi Arabia sees danger in the Shia Houthi rebel takeover of much of Yemen, particularly territory near the Saudi border. Last week, to drive back the Houthis, Saudi Arabia, in coordination with nine other countries (Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar, Sudan, United Arab Emirates) launched a sustained air campaign and is blockading the Yemeni coast.
Saudi Arabia, which itself warned Washington about the limitations of air power in the fight against
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