The problems with Saudi policies in the region
After gathering a formidable coalition of Arab states in March to fight the Shia Houthi rebels of Yemen, Saudi Arabia has tried to use the military intervention as proof that it will defend the Arab world against “Iranian proxies” and, more generally, against Tehran’s meddling in its affairs.
In mid-December, Saudi Arabia announced another coalition, this one to fight “terrorism” (not specifically defined). The coalition includes 34 Islamic countries from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. This coalition’s agenda is unclear. The Saudi foreign minister said there were no plans to create a joint military force but he did not rule it out, either.
Although many of the countries in the coalition are facing terrorist attacks from Sunni extremist groups, such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS) affiliates, and the United States has publicly called on the Saudis to do more against ISIS, the absence of Iran and Iraq, which the Saudis believe is under Tehran’s influence, from the coalition suggests that the Saudis still see Iran, rather than ISIS, as the main enemy.
Nonetheless, by taking the lead in the coalitions, the Saudis are trying to shore up their Arab leadership credentials.
However, there are two main problems with the Saudi policy. First, the Yemeni intervention has turned into a quagmire. While the Saudis have returned Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his advisers to the country and ensconced them in the port city of Aden, the capital city of Sana’a and much of the western and northern parts of the country remain out of reach.
The Houthis have put up a stubborn resistance. Although they have lost ground since the summer, the conflict is virtually a stalemate despite the substantial number of Saudi air strikes against the Houthis and their allies and reported Saudi military advisers attached to Yemeni troops loyal to Hadi.
The air strikes are the second problem. They have drawn considerable criticism from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for causing civilian casualties. According to UN figures, about 5,700 Yemeni civilians, including 830 women and children, have been killed since March. The war has created a severe humanitarian crisis, exacerbating shortages of food, water and medicine in Yemen.
Twice in a six-week period, Saudi air strikes were said to have hit health clinics run by Doctors without Borders, a non-governmental organisation. Officials with it said they had provided clinic coordinates to Saudi authorities but they were struck nonetheless.
Although Saudi Arabia continues to receive strong support from the United Arab Emirates and some other Gulf countries in its Yemen campaign, some Arab states appear to have reduced their contributions to the fight in more recent months.
This lessening of support is probably the result of several factors, such as not wishing to get bogged down in the Yemeni conflict, concern about domestic matters and seeing the Islamic State (ISIS), not Iranian proxies, as their chief threat.
For the Saudis, it is just the reverse. Their focus on the Houthis and other Shia groups in the region has led them to reduce support for the anti-ISIS campaign. US military sources have stated that Saudi air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq have dropped significantly since 2014 as the Saudis have concentrated their efforts against the Houthis.
It remains to be seen whether the Saudis’ recent announcement of a new anti-terrorism coalition will shift some of its military focus to ISIS. With the Saudis supporting a ceasefire in Yemen and peace talks between the Hadi government and the Houthis in Geneva, it is possible that they may be looking to reduce their military involvement in Yemen, but, given their antipathy towards Iran-backed Shia groups, it is unlikely they will countenance a dominant Houthi role in Yemen.
Military intervention also has unintended consequences. The chaos in Yemen — some of which is fuelled by the Saudi intervention — has allowed extremists to make gains. Recently, for example, the southern Yemeni towns of Jaar and Zinjibar reportedly fell to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
And in Syria, Saudi support for Islamist groups, some of which have fought alongside al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, also has caused concerns. Egypt, for example, is extremely worried that such extremists will emerge victorious in Syria, putting the entire region at risk.
Although many Arab governments, including Egypt, want to stay in the good graces of Riyadh to keep receiving financial assistance — for example, on December 15th, Egyptian officials received Saudi Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz in Cairo to discuss security cooperation as well as Saudi financial investments — Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen (and support for some questionable groups in Syria) is not inspiring much confidence in Riyadh’s leadership role.
On top of such concerns are Saudi Arabia’s financial difficulties. The low price of oil has hurt government revenues and the government has been drawing on reserves to cover budgetary shortfalls. The Yemen war is also a financial drain. While the Saudis are tight-lipped about the actual costs of the war, the price tag is likely in the billions of dollars.
All of this brings returns to the Arab leadership role. Saudi Arabia has coveted that role while other Arab countries, such as Egypt, have been consumed with domestic issues. However, as Saudi resources diminish, and with the Arab world divided over whether Iran and the Shias are a greater threat than ISIS, Saudi Arabia’s leadership position is tenuous despite presiding over a couple of coalitions.