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Saudi Arabia and its Challenges 30, May 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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The following article was published by King’s College London’s Defence in Depth blog on 25 March 2015.

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In 2010 at a conference in Riyadh, an academic presented a cogent case as to why the fiscal picture for Saudi Arabia was, in the medium and long term, looking grim. His figures were correct, and his conclusions were not hyperbolic, but sensibly grounded in the facts. Nevertheless, the Saudi participants around the table, ranging from ministers to CEOs to academics to the state’s leading journalists, greeted the presentation with a weary shrug. Their point was that they had seen just such cogent presentations every five years for decades and yet the sky never did quite manage to fall in.

It would be, therefore, really quite a significant call to suggest that on this occasion, as opposed to the countless previous assertions, Saudi Arabia is actually facing some kind of a crisis. Yet, it appears that the state may well be entering just such a concerning phase.

At the core of this thesis are three interlinked factors that are facing quite unprecedented change and these changes look set to – at the very least – vastly complicate the already Gordian difficulties facing the Kingdom.

Oil: supply and demand

Saudi Arabia is, understandably, a state synonymous with oil. The substance has transformed the state entirely and continues to be the centre of gravity of the state’s economy. Yet it could be argued that there are vast supply and demand-related changes afoot that may fundamentally undermine the state’s central reliance on its black gold.

On the demand side, the central problem is that it is rising in places that Saudi Arabia does not really want it to rise, and falling in places where it would rather it didn’t. Most importantly, demand is rising within the country. This is not a good thing. Given the subsidies that exist for oil and its derivative products, the government loses money refining and processing oil for its domestic market as well as having less oil to sell internationally. There are even studies noting that Saudi Arabia may be a net oil importer by the late-2030s, a notion that indicates just how much of a paradigm-shift the Kingdom may be about to undergo.

Otherwise on the demand side, as America becomes ever more self-sufficient, the importance of Saudi Arabia declines, if it doesn’t disappear given the US’s reliance on a stable Gulf region is critical to its economy. That this drop in US demand is being picked up by China is a boon, but even growth in China is slowing relatively speaking and nor is China in any position in the foreseeable future to provide Saudi Arabia with any kinds of security guarantees.

In terms of supply too, Saudi Arabia’s dominating role in the oil industry may be under threat. Eventually, the likes of Iraq, Kurdistan, Libya, or Iran – all of which have huge oil reserves – are likely to add in a few more millions of barrels per day in oil to the market. Similarly, the unconventional hydrocarbon revolution has allowed states to tap reserves of oil and gas that were previously uneconomical. This means, first and foremost, that America may transition to an oil exporter – a large one – by the end of the decade; something that will upend the recent dynamics in the market.

These factors coalesce to present Saudi Arabia with a range of problems. At a time of burgeoning budgets inspired by a fear of the Arab Spring and growing youth unemployment, the state looks destined to spend even more on its subsidies. Meanwhile, the plunging oil price that looks set to stay nearer $50 per barrel than the $100 that markets and states had become used to, robs the state of further income. This all means that the state will run a budget deficit for the first time in years in 2015 and will continue with them for years to come. With low interest rates on the international market, huge foreign reserves, and being relatively debt-free to start with, this is not that problematic in the short-term at least. But the fiscal medium and long term look decidedly murky.

Defence and security

Historically, the Gulf states do not really use their militaries in an expeditionary fashion. They have preferred to rely on alliances, defence guarantees, and international coalitions where possible. But this is slowly changing, and the states are demonstrating a willingness to actually use their expensively assembled military kit around the Middle East. This is most clearly seen in the recent Saudi-led large-scale bombing campaign in Yemen. There are a variety of likely causes of this increased desire to utilise their forces.

The increasing Gulf disenchantment with America in recent years has now become palpable. After America dropped their long-term ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Gulf leaders were irate, fearing, ultimately, that America may too one day drop them. This fear of being left alone by America was exacerbated by the ‘Pivot to Asia’ rhetoric and utterly compounded by America’s negotiations with Iran; something Gulf states fear will hasten America’s departure from the region, leaving an emboldened Iran to dominate.

The sense is, therefore, that Saudi Arabia is pointedly noting that if America will not secure the region, then they will. And they are clearly willing to utilise their military capacity towards this end. None of this bodes well for the future.

While America and her allies may well have blundered – spectacularly at times – in the Middle East, the local knowledge of Saudi Arabia is hardly affecting a different outcome so far: the bombing campaign in Yemen has been a brutal, ineffectual one to date. Moreover, Gulf states, unencumbered by the restraint inherent in believing the America will ultimately back them up, may act on their Iranian paranoia, further adversely affecting security in the region.

Succession

Succession in Saudi Arabia has long been a source of concern. In particular, many have been focused on the jump of leadership to a new generation of al-Sauds. Since the state’s modern inception in 1932, the Kings have all been sons of the founder, Abdul-Aziz al-Saud. This has meant that recent Kings and their successors have been exceedingly old and, on occasion, infirm. Two Crown Princes, for example, died in office waiting for now former King Abdullah al-Saud to pass.

But this gap has been breached. In a recent reshuffle, King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz ejected his brother, Prince Muqrin, from second in-line to the throne, and replaced him with a grandson of Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, Mohammed Bin Nayef al-Saud. More interestingly, he also installed his own son, Mohammed bin Salman, as the third-in-line to the throne. These two Mohammeds now have portfolios spanning all of the most important sectors of the Kingdom.

The jump to the 55-year-old Mohammed bin Nayef is no surprise and no cause for alarm. He is widely recognised as the leading candidate of the younger generation, and has steadily but effectively built up a reputation, internally and externally, as a diligent and effective minister.

But the jump to the 29-year-old Mohammed bin Salman is deeply surprising, if not shocking. He has emerged from nowhere to, in but a few months, be made Deputy Crown Prince, Minister of Defence, head of the centrally important economic committee, and Chairman of Aramco, the Saudi national oil company.

The implications of this shift are concerning.

Age and seniority are important aspects of Saudi social and political life. It is unclear how so completely trouncing established and widely regarded cultural rules will be received in the longer term. Similarly, both Mohammeds and the King himself come from the same Sudairi clique of the al-Saud. King Salman has, therefore, engineered that his section of the family hold practically all the most important portfolios and he has attempted to make sure that they will hold them for decades to come. Instead of the typical balance between Sudairis and non-Sudairis, this leaves most members of the latter camp completely disenfranchised.

Perhaps installing a young Deputy Crown Prince will prove to be a master-stroke, giving the aged Saudi leadership a voice for Saudi’s youth who dominate the state overall. But, taken together, the mix of a deteriorating fiscal situation, a far more militarily assertive foreign and security policy, controlled by a new leadership overseeing a delicate power balance, does not give confidence as to the longer term stability of the state.

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Breaking the Saudi Rules of Succession 28, May 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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The following article was published by the Washington Post in their longer-form blog on 27 May 2015.

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On April 29, 2015, King Salman of Saudi Arabia appointed Mohammed bin Nayef, a grandson of the state’s founder, second-in-line to the throne as crown prince and placed Mohammed bin Salman, a 29-year-old prince, third-in-line as deputy crown prince. The major change comes just months after Salman acceded to the throne on Jan. 23, following the death of his half-brother Abdullah. The relatively seamless transition is surprising after many years of fevered speculation about the complications surrounding what might happen when Saudi Arabia’s leadership finally jumped down a generation instead of just passing the kingly baton from brother to brother. What does this mean for our understanding of power dynamics in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia?

The latter appointment in particular challenges the expectations of both scholars and analysts. For instance, Saudi-focused scholars, such as Gregory Gause, as well as analysts, such as Simon Henderson, have tended to cogently emphasize the importance of age as a factor in determining positions of authority. How then to explain the appointment of 29-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, to one of the most important positions in the land?

Other popularly cited explanations for royal succession also fall short in explaining the appointment. Henderson has suggested a range of other important factors, such as being a “good Muslim,” having a suitable Saudi lineage, possessing experience and acumen, being popular and offering stability. But again, the most recent changes suggest that some of these attributes – seniority, possessing experience and acumen and perhaps being popular – could be jettisoned with ease when the need arose. The time is therefore ripe to reconsider some of the once self-evident truths that underpin understandings of Saudi Arabia’s political workings

First, seniority within the ranks of the royal family has often been heralded as the primus inter pares factor underpinning the rules of succession in Saudi Arabia. The current Saudi state was united by Abdul Aziz ibn Saud in 1932 when he was 56 years old. Until today, rule has been passed among Abdulaziz’s sons. In order of their accession to the throne, Saud was born around 1902, Faisal 1906, Khalid 1913, Fahd 1921, Abdullah 1924 and Salman 1935. Saud and Faisal were in their 50s when they took power, Khalid and Fahd were in their 60s, and Abdullah and Salman were in their 70s. Unsurprisingly, age has been seen as a “preeminent qualification” in determining the order of ascending to the throne, according to Henderson’s 1994 study and repeated in his 2009 “After Abdullah.” The apparent importance of age fits with widespread understandings of the “enormous meaning” of seniority within the royal family and Saudi society.

But age is not enough. Given that Abdulaziz is reputed to have fathered around 100 children by dozens of wives, older sons have been passed overtime and again, particularly more recently. So age has been a shaping, if not a determining factor. Saudi social anthropologist Madawi al-Rasheed has gone as far as to suggest that there has long been “no serious commitment to seniority.” Nevertheless, the meteoric rise of Mohammed bin Salman to deputy crown prince is an astonishing promotion for a man so young.

The rise of the new king’s son suggests that intra-family machinations deserve more attention. Analysts Henderson, Daryl Champion, Joseph A. Kechichian and Thomas W. Lippman have pointed to the importance of the Sudairi section of the Saud family. The name stems from Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi, who is often referred to as Abdulaziz’s most important wife and whose children have come to dominate Saudi politics in recent decades. There is much to support such a reading. Though King Abdullah ruled with three Sudairi crown princes (two of whom died), he represented for the Sudairis an interregnum between two Sudairi kings, Fahd and Salman. The Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of the Interior, two of the most important and influential in Saudi Arabia’s power structure, have been led by Sudairis for over 50 years. The current crown prince and deputy crown prince are both younger generation Sudairis and have centralized control of the key economic and security councils under their auspices.

What does this actually mean, though? The Sudairis are often implicitlydescribed as something approaching a unitary actor in direct, near-zero-sum competition with other groupings led by, say, former king Abdullah. Such suggestions make intuitive sense at the moment, with such a successful Sudairi full-court-press swamping key positions. But the cohesiveness of such groupings is questioned by Gause and Rasheed who frequently and persuasively frame these associations as being temporary and more “manifested in specific historical and political contexts.” The hint behind such assertions is that Sudairi cohesion is far from automatic.

A more positive spin, marketed by commentators ranging from formerambassadors to Saudi Arabia, pliant local newspapers, Washington-based Saudi Arabian lobbying organizations and, most recently, the former head of Britain’s external intelligence agency, has to do with what is being called an “embryonic embrace of meritocracy” taking hold in Saudi Arabia. The removal of Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz – who served as crown prince from January to April 2015 – might be explained by his lineage. Muqrin’s mother was a Yemeni slave, something that tended to rule him out as a potential successor as far as many Saudi-watchers were concerned before he was put in line to the throne – at which point the ever-flexible commentariat brushed off his heritage as hardly mattering at all. Nevertheless, few would disagree that his replacement with Mohammed bin Nayef is something of an upgrade in efficacy, judging by the new crown prince’s impressive domestic and international reputation. Similarly, the world’s longest serving foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, recently shuffled out of the portfolio he held for 40 years, has been plagued by illness and hospital visits for years.

Yet, any semblance of meritocracy falls apart with the colossal (over) promotion of Mohammed bin Salman to defense minister, to head of the Economic and Development Affairs Council, chairman of Saudi Aramco’s Supreme Council and now to third-in-line to the throne. For a young man with negligible experience in these (or any other senior) roles, it is difficult to see how it could possibly be interpreted as meritocratic in nature – though his promotion may be an attempt to reflect Saudi Arabia’s youth with60 percent of the population being under 21 years of age.

What about the rules? The key institutional innovation here was the 2006 creation of a 35-member Allegiance Council to agree upon and ratify succession decisions for future monarchs. In March 2014, King Abdullah used the council to rubber-stamp Muqrin as third-in-line to the throne and the statement from the Royal Court declared that this order “shall not be amended or replaced by any means or by whomsoever.” Abdullah seemingly tried to lock in Muqrin as crown prince because Muqrin, lacking a suitable heir, would likely have nominated one of Abdullah’s sons as his crown prince, thus avoiding the taboo of nominating one’s own son.

But this potential move was checkmated and the “irreversible” decree was easily dismissed. With Salman reversing Abdullah’s edict and undercutting the Allegiance Council’s initial decision, unseating a crown prince suddenly looks curiously straightforward. The council, then, appears to function more as a public relations approval body, with the real politics being done behind the scenes. A scenario where there is genuine disagreement in the council is possible to foresee, but would most likely be overcome firstly by closed-door politics or secondly by being bypassed by royal decree.

Rules, decrees, taboos and notional Allegiance Council mandates are there, it turns out, to be broken. Similarly, issues of age and seniority can be easily brushed aside in the short term at least. A certain acknowledgement of the importance of meritocracy, mostly around the edges, is seen as desirable – perhaps a counterweight, even – to naked nepotism at the heart of the issue. The importance of the small Sudairi clique is at best a useful term to group together a subset of the Saud family who continue to play the game of family politics effectively thus far. But its unity should not necessarily be taken for granted.

While ousting Muqrin was a coup for the Sudairis, it was, perhaps first and foremost, a coup for Salman himself – but with unpredictable results. This proves a salient reminder for scholars as to the ultimately changeable nature of domestic politics in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf – and the seemingly unrestricted power that leaders can exert. The promotion of Mohammed bin Salman to deputy crown prince has removed seniority as a decisive factor in Saudi politics in the short-term at least, though Gause et al’s emphasis on the importance of seniority may be an issue that returns in the future. But in the meantime, Salman has increased the players in the game. The zero-sum promotion of a prince inevitably leaves those not selected disgruntled and widens the field with a whole new age bracket of the royal family realizing that they too – all of a sudden – have a legitimate claim on a senior role. Salman’s flouting of tradition provides such princes with extra ammunition in plotting their bids for power. The ultimate test will come when Salman, a 79-year old with significant health problems, shuffles off this mortal coil. Saudi history is not kind to sons of kings who pass away, and with Salman’s precedent-setting unpicking his predecessor’s decree and his bypassing of the Allegiance Council, Mohammed bin Salman in particular is eminently removable.

Palmyra and the logic of loss 25, May 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Syria.
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The following article was published by the BBC on 23 May 2015.

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In Syria alone, the Great Mosque and the Citadel in Aleppo, the castle of every child’s imagination at Crac des Chevaliers, and the ancient city of Bosra have been damaged or destroyed. Arguably Syria’s most impressive and arresting site, the sprawling ruins at Palmyra (Tadmur to Syrians), is now under Islamic State control and many fear the worst.

Having visited Palmyra and these other sites while studying Arabic at Damascus University back in 2007, I am far from alone in feeling that something truly terrible is happening. That these symbols from a bygone era might be destroyed by modern-day barbarian forces when they have survived for hundreds or even thousands of years seems somehow deeply offensive and wrong.

Nevertheless, while I feel an acute sadness at the loss of these sites, I understand those who may feel a certain sense of unease at the outpouring of grief and anguish over their desecration. From this perspective, Palmyra is, after all, a collection of stone; albeit stone exquisitely carved and impressively presented, imbued with huge historical import. And compared to the staggering loss of life and widespread humanitarian disaster afflicting the Syrian people, bemoaning the loss of a historic tourist site seems crass.

But there are cogent arguments, of course, suggesting that sites like Palmyra are far more significant than that.

Important cultural sites are often pointed to as focal points that can be used to (re)unify a people. Sites can act as potent symbols of a united past that may cross ethnic, tribal, linguistic, or cultural lines. In essence, their importance can be seen and used as a low common denominator to promote reconciliation in a post-conflict environment.

Most famously, the reconstruction of the old bridge in Mostar in Bosnia-Hercegovina acted as a focal point of wider metaphorical bridge-building between Serbs, Bosniaks (Muslims) and Croats after the civil war in the 1990s when the bridge was demolished. In Syria, too, there have already been tentative attempts towards this kind of a goal, with meetings between regime and opposition officials nominally in charge of antiquities.

Similarly, the sheer barbarism of IS, exemplified in its brutality against people and against shared cultural monuments, could be a foil to coax more unity among the dispersed opposition groups and factions.

Moreover, these kinds of sites are the heritage and birthright not just of this generation of Syrians so adversely affected by the conflict, but of all Syrians henceforth. As such, focusing on the protection of sites of great historical concern is just, it can be argued, given that the ultimate goal is to preserve and protect the essential character of a people for hundreds of years to come.

Some may find it distasteful that many seem to be increasingly inured to the human toll in Syria, while interest is piqued by attacks on historical sites. Doubtless, they might prefer that some of the yardage given over to glossy pictures of Palmyra in its glory days be given over to reporting of the day-to-day devastation faced and experienced by ordinary people. On the same theme, one can hope and advocate for better, longer, more in-depth pieces or more funding for foreign reporters.

A righteous lament this may be, but it is an ineffectual one. The numbing reality is that if these were the types of stories that were demanded, more news services would answer the call. It must also be remembered that there are rarely mutually exclusive choices here. The words written and arguments elucidated over the importance of saving cultural heritage sites are also a part of wider discussions and pressure to cobble together anything approaching a meaningful plan to intervene or otherwise halt the worst excesses of the violence in Syria.

The takeover of Palmyra has generated a unique media storm, flinging the Syrian conflict back to wider consciousness. If that can be harnessed in the uphill struggle to galvanise a plan going forward, then no-one will complain.

Whatever the intellectual or moral merits of focusing on such examples of historical desecration, the fact remains that, for me – and I doubt I’m alone – there remains a unique sadness in the loss of such sites. The abstract and horrifying numbers of deaths that the conflict has produced are not undermined or further ignored, as it were, by the focus on the fate of the likes of Palmyra. The loss of Syria’s cultural heritage represents the loss of far more than some tourist attractions, but the loss of connection between multiple generations.

As with all things, politics is but the art of the possible. So leveraging the fate of these magnificent and important monuments in the wider hope of incrementally building a pressure to bear on the powers that be is a just and vital thing.

What does the summit between Barack Obama and Gulf leaders mean? 15, May 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, The Gulf, Yemen.
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The following article was published by The Daily Telegraph on 14th May and can be found here.

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Anger at America

The US’s refusal to stand by the ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the face of Arab Spring protests was taken badly in the Gulf. If America can break one multi-decade relationship, the Gulf states fear, perhaps America would, if protests erupted, break their own long relationship.

President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ rhetoric amplified and drove home these concerns; here was proof of the US’s focus shifting away. And theObama-led decision to engage with Iran has been greeted with a mixture of scorn and horror as the sum of all their fears – a so-called ‘Grand Bargain’ with Iran – begins, for some, to materialise.

Indeed for years the Gulf states, like a jealous partner fearful of being spurned for another, has fretted that America might seek to come to a widespread accommodation with Iran at their expense. The logic runs that in return for a complete halt to Iran’s questionable nuclear programme, America would somehow defer to Iran’s interests in the Gulf region at the expense of its Sunni Gulf allies. An extra advantage and motivating factor of this ruse would be that Israel’s security would be bolstered without a theoretical Iranian nuclear threat, and thus the US could disengage from the region.

While such a series of events has a certain logic to it, the reality is somewhat different.

Explicitly implicit guarantees

The fact is that the US will be the prime security guarantor for the region for the foreseeable future – decades at least.

The US has constructed for itself or otherwise has the run of a litany of huge and important military bases around the Gulf region that will remain central to US power projection throughout the wider Middle East region.

Though the US may no longer be hooked on Gulf oil as it once was, its own supplies of unconventional hydrocarbons coming increasingly on-line in recent years, the Gulf region remains the linchpin of world hydrocarbon production and as such is of central and critical importance to the world’s economy.

As the state with the largest open economy in the world, America’s interest in securing a broad peace in this region is unshakable and America’s self-image as the world’s indispensable nation also behoves it to quite explicitly provide for the region’s stability.

Indeed, this is another curious aspect of this whole issue. Several Gulf leaders have gone to America to lobby Mr Obama for a greater US role in the region. They would ideally like explicit, formalised US guarantees of protection for their states.

Such explicit guarantees are entirely off the table, but, whether through existing arrangements or the region’s pivotal importance to the world’s economy, America remains – no matter Mr Obama’s preferences – deeply intertwined in the region. It is the same with the UK.

For example, whatever bilateral defensive or security agreements are or are not signed and sealed with Qatar are irrelevant. If something catastrophic happens in the Gulf state, Britain is obliged to send the cavalry if we are to keep the lights on. Qatar’s liquefied natural gas, arriving multiple times per week in the UK via tanker, is crucial in the UK’s energy mix.

Moreover, America has sold tens of billions of dollars’ worth of arms to the Gulf states in recent years. This kind of investment is far from a one-time deal: you do not just fly over an F-16, C-130, or Apache helicopter, park it at the airbase and wave goodbye: the necessities of through-life maintenance, upgrades, supplying, and training for such equipment spans decades and is yet another facet of almost inseparable US-Gulf interaction.

This is not to deny some level of US lowering its focus on the Gulf. But after leading two wars in three decades in the Gulf, the latter of which cost trillions of dollars, thousands of lives, and is widely seen as a failure, a US drawdown is an obvious necessity.

But any domestic rhetoric exhorting the US to leave the region, a fiscally-led preference to drawdown resources, or even a presidential preference to disengage America where possible can all be trumped by the realities on the ground.

Careful what you wish for

The status quo has, therefore, not really changed. America under Mr Obama has shifted its focus away from the Gulf, but remains deeply entangled in the region.

There is an element of the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen and other Gulf-led unilateral military strikes in recent months that appear to be not-so-subtly aimed at America. “If you won’t secure the region, we will,” seems to be the Gulf retort.

While regional states stepping up and taking more control in their own security affairs may be greeted hopefully in the White House, Mr Obama should be careful what he wishes for.

The Saudi-led seven week bombing campaign in Yemen meandered along being far more effective at causing humanitarian suffering than halting the Houthi advances, with a barely-believable 15.9 million people – 61 per cent of Yemenis – needing humanitarian assistance, according to the World Health Organisation. Indeed, the realisation is dawning that beyond bombing whatever targets it can find, Saudi Arabia really does not seem to have any kind of strategic plan.

The Gulf states are far from wreaking upon the wider Middle East the kind of peace that the US brought to Iraq when it upended and hollowed out the state leaving a brittle, weak state from which no functioning government emerged. But their efforts to forge a coherent, effective opposition to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria or to counter the Houthis in Yemen do not bode well.

How far is Saudi-Iranian rivalry fuelling Yemen war? 8, May 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen.
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The following article was published by the BBC and can be found here.

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The Saudis see growing Iranian influence everywhere – to the north in Iraq and Syria, to the east in its own country and in Bahrain, and now pointedly to the south in Yemen.

But this view belies the complexities of Yemeni domestic politics, overemphasises the role of Iran, and is unlikely to lead to anything approaching a successful conclusion, as is being seen with the Saudi-led bombing campaign, which is yet to achieve its stated aims.

The Houthi moniker, originally but a clan name, has been associated with the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam and, thus, by overly simplified if not erroneous extension, the “Twelver” Shiism predominant in Iran and Shiism in general.

Firstly, Houthis are not all Zaidis, and neither are all Zaidis Houthis. And secondly, Zaidism is considered to be the branch of Shiism least in dispute with Sunni doctrine.

Whatever the religious similarities between the Houthis and Iran, there is an implicit notion that any commonality matters. Whether nominally united or separated by faith, it is seldom as determining a factor in action as it is fatuously perceived.

None of this is to ignore commonalities between Iran and the Houthis.

Map showing Houthi and al-Qaeda areas in Yemen (22 April 2015)

Both display a vociferous anti-American and anti-Israeli streak, and there are obvious instances of the Houthis co-operating in some way with Iran in recent years.

A day after the Houthis took over the Yemeni capital Sanaa in February, an aviation agreement with Iran was signed and an Iranian Mahan Airlines plane landed in the city.

Domestic dispute

But simplistically labelling the Houthis as “Iranian-backed” obscures the domestic nature of the conflict which predates the Arab Spring.

Zaidis ruled parts of Yemen for almost 1,000 years until 1962 and were even supported by Saudi Arabia in the 1970s.

But then the Houthis, who emerged as a Zaidi revivalist movement in the 1990s, fought a series of wars between 2004 and 2010 against the Saudi-supported central Yemeni state led by then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who also happens to be a Zaidi.

Religious divisions have, therefore, played a surprisingly minor role in the past until they were deepened not least by Saudi Arabia’s attempts in the 1990s in particular to spread its own austere version of Sunni Islam in Yemen.

The Houthis believed that such policies were designed to further marginalise their position, given their historic powerbase of Saada province being right on the Saudi border.

Spoils of war

The numerous wars fought against government forces gave the Houthis all the training and combat experience that they needed to humiliate Saudi forces when they intervened in Yemen in 2009 and to apparently fare so well against the recent air campaign launched by Saudi Arabia and its allies.

More importantly perhaps, many years of war have festooned Yemen with weapons.

There are plenty of accusations that Iran supplies the Houthis with weapons. Some reports lack credibility, like Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV’s insistence that 185 tons of Iranian weapons miraculously made it through the international naval taskforce currently blockading Yemen.

Other stories, like the Iranian dhow that was stopped on route to Yemen in 2013 with a range of advanced equipment, are far more plausibly an example of Iranian weapons shipping.

While one UN Security Council report noted independent verification was unable to confirm the allegations, a more recent, as yet unreleased one, concluded that a pattern of Iranian support had emerged.

Houthi resilience

Nevertheless, a perennial problem with such instances is that the evidence of Iranian involvement often comes from sources that have a vested interest in plugging such a line: whether from the Saudi, Yemeni or American side.

External supplies notwithstanding, an obvious source of weaponry for the Houthis came thanks to a new-found agreement with their erstwhile adversary, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who seemed to support the Houthis in their takeover of Sanaa in autumn 2014.

This gave the Houthis the opportunity to help themselves to an unknown quantity of US weaponry from army bases captured curiously easily.

Overall, the perennial resort to the “Iranian-backed Houthi fighters” logic is problematic as it simplifies the conflict too much and mandates too much of an external focus.

If Iran is the major source of supplies, then an air campaign to destroy stores and interdict resupply might make sense. But this logic is being sorely tested by the complete lack of a collapse of the Houthis (quite the opposite, so far) in the face of the bombing onslaught.

Al-Qaeda ascendant

Similarly, the urgency to combat the Houthis lest some hypothetical Iranian proxy force develops on the Arabian Peninsula means that, as a direct corollary, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has received a free pass to expand its orbit of power.

Recently, the group reinforced its hold on Mukalla in the southern province of Hadramawt taking over an airport, a military base, and a prison, freeing dozens of prisoners including AQAP leaders.

Given that AQAP remains the core US interest in Yemen, such a turn of events will surely have given its leadership pause to reconsider its open support of the Saudi campaign.

It would not be surprising if US cautions about the knock-on effects of the campaign enabling AQAP played a role in Saudi’s announcement on 21 April 2015 that it was ending the air campaign.

But the sense that the Gulf Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, are simply winging their policy in Yemen is inescapable.

In lieu of anything approaching a cogent, strategic plan, the short-termist resort of bombing to win does not inspire hope for the near future.