The war has demonstrated a newfound Saudi willingness to use force, but the country has not shown equivalent capacity to implement a political strategyby Jane Kinninmont / December 9, 2017 / Leave a comment
The Yemen war has been a dramatic foreign policy departure for Saudi Arabia. This unprecedented military intervention is just one of several areas of policy that have been radically altered since King Salman came to power in January 2015 and installed his son Mohammed as defence minister and then crown prince. Their decision to lead a military intervention in Yemen was something unprecedented for a country more accustomed to relying on the military protection of the US. But it reflects longstanding, pent-up anger and frustration in Saudi Arabia at the perceived rise of Iran in the Middle East and the failure of either Western leaders or previous Saudi ones to come up with any effective strategy to counter it.
Traditionally the Gulf countries have relied on western powers—first Britain and then the US—to guarantee their security against external threats, epitomised by the US-led liberation of Kuwait in 1991. But in recent years Gulf leaders have become concerned that the US will not necessarily defend them against the spectrum of risks that they perceive to their security. These are not only conventional external military threats, but hybrid threats where external enemies interact with transnational and domestic movements—which is largely how Gulf rulers saw the Arab spring uprisings from Egypt to Bahrain, even as many westerners sympathised with them as democracy movements.
Saudi elites were disturbed by Obama’s acceptance of the Arab spring, and furious at what they saw as his accommodation of an expansionist Iran through the nuclear deal. The international group that negotiated the Iran nuclear deal saw it as a stepping stone to further diplomacy that could help curb Iran’s support of militias in the region; the Saudis saw it as quite the opposite, thinking the West was giving Iran a green light to expand in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere under the guise of fighting ISIS.
In this febrile context, the 2014 coup by the Houthi-Saleh alliance was seen by Saudi leaders through the prism of their overarching concern about Iran: they see Iran as successfully expanding its hard power across the region by utilising opportunities in failed or collapsing Arab states, and they perceived Iran’s support for the Houthis as an indication that…