The Saudi-led war in Yemen is one of the most dangerous and paradoxical developments in the region in recent decades. The six-month conflict continues to intensify and attract troops from other Arab countries, threatening to exacerbate violence and insecurity across the Middle East.
The war in Yemen is a rite of passage for members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who are asserting their power and the maturity of their statehood by launching a war against a weaker neighbor. It is equally driven by their exaggerated but nonetheless real fear of growing Iranian influence in the region. The Saudis were especially terrified of being surrounded by Iran’s involvement in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and finally in Yemen, given Tehran’s links with the Houthis.
Half a year into the war, the risks of this venture are just becoming clear for the Saudis and their allies. The aerial bombings that began in March have failed to wrest back control of all Yemen from the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who late last year swept into Sana’a and dissolved the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Saudi Arabia and its multi-nation coalition are expected to launch ground operations, which could threaten and burden the region for years. This may also increase local and global terrorism threats by providing Al-Qaeda with a substantial territorial base similar to that of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) already appears strengthened by the chaos in Yemen in its drive to anchor itself among disaffected populations. AQAP has built alliances with anti-Houthi tribes and political forces, penetrating into local governance systems in the southern Hadramawt province — including the port of Mukalla that allows the group to move men and materials at will. It has also informally fought alongside the Saudi-allied Yemeni forces that are trying to restore Hadi’s exiled government.
Al-Qaeda and ISIL have both attacked targets inside Saudi Arabia, a trend that could spread to other GCC countries if the chaos in Yemen allows them to cement their local presence.
“Yemen’s civil war has secured nearly all of AQAP’s immediate military objectives,” the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center, said in a report on Sept. 11. “The West retreated. The Yemeni military and security forces, what is left of them, are no longer fighting AQAP. The Yemeni state is broken, and local authorities have filled the void. … There is an active insurgency in Yemen rooted in Sunni communities that provides an opportunity for AQAP to further establish itself.”
The Yemen war has claimed some 5,000 lives — one-third of them civilians. Yet the bloodshed seems secondary to the Saudi-led coalition, which continues to fight on, with little regard for the perilous consequences of foreign interventions, as we still witness in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
For the Saudis and Emiratis in particular, this is also about their identity, their place in the region and the world, and their ability to come together when they feel threatened. It is about achieving maturity in the arena of statehood.
“Recent events are contributing to the development of national identity,” wrote columnist Ayesha Almazroui in Abu Dhabi’s newspaper, The National, on Sept. 9. “The death of a large number of UAE soldiers brought Emiratis together and reinforced unity within society. … This will have a profound impact on the Emirati national identity, which is maturing as the years pass by.”
The Arab Gulf states’ ongoing militarism seeks to counter a number of geopolitical developments that caused deep and genuine fear among GCC members. These included Iranian military involvement in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and, lightly, Yemen; concerns that Iran was provoking Shia agitation in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia; a perception that Washington was reducing its focus on the Middle East in favor of East Asia; and the potential consequences of a nuclear accord with Iran. Most of these concerns are exaggerated, but in one way or another reflect Arab Gulf fears of alleged predatory Iranian ambitions in the region.
The Yemen war follows several other notable military actions by the GCC since the 2011 Arab uprisings. In March 2011, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates moved troops into Bahrain to support the monarchy and squash a popular uprising there. Riyadh and other GCC partners also armed and funded rebels fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Qatari and UAE jets attacked targets in Libya in 2011-12, and Saudi Arabia has funded political and military allies in Lebanon and Iraq.
Following the pattern set by Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, the consequences for Yemen are grave. The country’s shattered economy, disappearing water resources, potential famine and deeply fragmented national identity will be exacerbated by resentments about being attacked by its neighbors in the region.
The Saudis and their GCC partners are likely to inherit responsibility for keeping a shattered Yemen afloat. The post-war financial burden will likely come at a time when they may have to scale back budgets and borrow more on the capital markets to offset the sustained, sharp drop in energy prices.
Washington, too, found itself in a similar mess after its failed military campaigns and state-building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The GCC will have to ensure that a protracted ground war against the Houthis doesn’t drag on for years, while also discouraging Yemenis from fleeing into the GCC seeking a decent life, imitating the Syrians and Iraqis fleeing to Europe today.
The GCC alliance appears to have ignored these possibilities before launching its American-style military adventurism in Yemen. Millions of people will suffer for years because of this reckless and narcissistic display of forced self-esteem by GCC countries. They might benefit from what my parents told me when I first started to drive a car: Don’t let your emotions push you to prove your manhood on the road. The same advice could apply to countries making wasteful war against weak neighbors, because in both cases what is on display is not the wisdom of adulthood, but violent immaturity.