The situation that is unfolding in Yemen has all the ingredients for a slow-cooking catastrophe with long-term indigestion for everyone in the neighbourhood and well beyond. It’s all beautifully scripted, with global, regional, sectarian and nuclear aspects in the mix – with the added spice of the country being blessed (or cursed as the perspective may be) with an enviable strategic location at the intersections of the Red and Arabian Seas – literally a hop, step and jump away from the Horn of Africa and at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula – opening up to the Indian Subcontinent and Ocean. Welcome to another Middle East horror story.
The sectarian element, namely Sunni vs Shiite, is suitably convoluted given the fact that the former president (a Zaidi Shiite backed for decades by the Sunni Gulf states) is now being championed by the Houthis (or Ansar Allah), a Zaidi Shiite grouping. According to one specialist on the sect, Zaidi Shiism is one of the more radical interpretations of Shiite Islam on the planet – more so than Jaafari Shiism which prevails in Iran. On the other side, by now the world is well versed in the thinking of the Wahhabi Sunnis who are dominant in the monarchies of the Gulf. They are part of a coalition, led by the Saudis, now bombing Yemen fairly indiscriminately.
Then there is a regional power-play aspect in terms of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. The Gulf Co-operation Council states (except Oman) have been ramping up the rhetoric against Iran for years now, while Tehran has not been shy about expressing its contempt for the peninsular Arab oil exporters. Suspicions are rife, and mutual allegations of interference in internal affairs are commonplace. There is deep animosity evident in the media all around, and all of it is laced with the rhetoric that widens the sectarian rift. Now we are in the heart of Islam, the peninsula where it all began, and the troubles are coming closer and closer to home – and some of the rhetoric is indeed medieval.
Of course, in keeping with the times, a nuclear component to the Yemeni conflict is inevitable. It is sure to speed up the nuclearisation of the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia a cargo flight away from becoming a cash-and-carry nuclear power, while Iran has just negotiated breathing space for a slower and quietly categorical advance towards nuclear capability, if not status. Reportage, analysis and nudge and wink articles in the Western media have for years been suggesting a Pakistani-Saudi nuclear connection – as in Saudi Arabia pays and Pakistan delivers. Saudi royals have been provided unprecedented access to Pakistani nuclear sites, the kind of access no one else gets (including former Pakistani prime ministers like Benazir Bhutto). Iran is not ignorant of all this. No matter what deal it signs with the West, if Saudi Arabia goes nuclear Tehran will follow suit. But the wily theocrats in Tehran are unlikely to be the first to bring that genie out in this specific area.
In a nut-shell, what we have here is a Saudi assertion of regional power, with the backing of the Pakistanis and the tacit but rather disinterested approval and support of “the West” (particularly the US, although the others are offering more than lip service). This coalition is ranged against Iran, which is involved and organised but – from all indications – not particularly supportive of the Houthis yet in any material way; though Tehran will scale up if the Yemeni Shia look likely to take a beating.
The Houthis are doing alright on their own so far, and may not need major Iranian support. If they manage to hold out, that in itself will prove to be a slap against the prestige of the Saudi-Pakistani air/ground combination with noises that Turkey will join in too. Of course, other countries (Russia, China, Oman perhaps) will be involved in different, subtle ways – in small measure at least to start with, a bit of arms here, some advisers there, etc. The US and its notional allies will certainly not have the playing field all to themselves.
What next? The biggest negative impact will be on Saudi Arabia, which has bitten off more than it can chew. No country, and that includes Pakistan (which has made an art form out of state level extortion and protection rackets), really has any interest in letting Saudi Arabia come out of all this soon, or with anything like a clear-cut victory. Pakistan’s interest is obvious: so long as the Saudi-Houthi animosity bubbles away, financial support will flow for Islamabad’s provision of cheap, trained, cannon fodder – keeping the higher ranks of the military establishment pampered.
In the West, some Saudi discomfort will not necessarily be regarded as a bad thing. Riyadh has been throwing its weight about of late, regionally, while displaying inclinations towards “independence” from the Euro-American combine. Some local pain will certainly be regarded as a way of disabusing Riyadh of such notions, on the one hand, while still others will smugly view it as just payback for the kingdom’s sectarian games in the rest of the Middle East.
Bottom line, Saudi Arabia is on its own though the positive sounds coming from across the world may lull it into thinking otherwise. Even if the immediate conflict subsides, this is by no means the end of the kingdom’s problems from its southern border. Not all the coalition will find it in their interest to continue as members indefinitely. Not all its Western allies will be able to maintain their enthusiasm for support as the months, and possibly years, go by.
For the rest of the world, it’s basically Afghanistan redux on the Arabian Peninsula – both a killing field and a breeding ground for terrorists who will fan out to the region and beyond. More work down the line for the spill-over management specialists in Western capitals, as well as in New Delhi, Moscow and Beijing. This horror story is just beginning.
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