What is happening in Yemen and why?
In the post-Arab Spring Middle East, the rulers of Saudi Arabia see no place for neutrality. Their default position has become that declared by President Bush after 9/11: You are either with us or against us. Even the winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, Tawakkol Karman, who is also a leading figure in Yemen’s Islah party, flew to Riyadh to join Abd Rabuh Hadi and bless the Saudi-led bombing campaign against Yemen, which killed thus far over 1000 people, including children and women. Indeed, neutrality is not an option when it comes to loss of life, but those who are inviting a foreign country to bomb their own people are siding with aggression.
Although the Saudi rulers started moving its military closer to the border with Yemen, it reassured the world community that the military buildup was for “protecting our borders only.” Suddenly, the kingdom did attack Yemen and without any provocation or threat to its territory. It did so under the umbrella of a coalition consisting of ten Arab and Muslim countries. This coalition empowered a 34 year old Saudi prince, the youngest defense minister in the world—and that is not a complement, to use all the military hardware his kingdom has accumulated over the years to bomb the Houthis and their allies to submission. The declared goals and justifications of this brutal war are: restore the legitimate government in all of Yemen and disarm the Houthis and their allies.
The said coalition is now shrinking forcing the rulers of the Gulf States to resort to intimidation and threats. For instance, when Pakistani lawmakers, reflecting the wish of the people who elected them, voted to stay neutral, Gulf States’ officials derogatorily branded Pakistan a “media ally.” After providing Egypt with billions of dollars to support the regime that overthrew Morsi, Saudi Arabia and UAE have pressured Sisi’s government to take a more visible role in the bombing campaign against Yemen.
As for legitimacy, it might suffice to quote an Arabic proverb that states: faqid al-shay’ la yu`tih [one cannot give that which one does not have]. Countries led by rulers who lack legitimacy lack the authority to bomb another country that is attempting to build its own representative government. Despite the Saudi claim, Hadi, like his predecessor and all other Arab rulers prior to the Arab Spring, does not represent a legitimate government in Yemen. However, the same way the Gulf States had supported Saleh, they are now supporting Hadi despite the fact that his term as interim president had expired February 27, 2014.
The social uprisings that forced the Tunisian dictator to escape disturbed the rulers of Saudi Arabia. They offered him a home even though he was accused of killing hundreds of Tunisians. Saudi Arabia’s rulers did not like the uprising that replaced Egypt’s Housni Mubarak with an elected president either. They spent billions to undo the “damage” brought by the revolution and were happy that a second “revolution” sent an elected president to prison and reinstated a new authoritarian regime in Egypt. Saudi Arabia’s rulers worked hard to contain the spreading wave of protest in Yemen and impose a compromise meant to preserve its influence over its southern neighbor. However, the Saudi and Qatari rulers used the same wave of protest to overthrow or attempt to overthrow Arab governments that did not succumb to their influence like the Libyan and the Syrian governments.
The so-called Arab Spring protest movements provided influential rich Arab rulers with serious challenges and enticing opportunities. The crisis in Yemen represents both challenges and opportunities, forcing to the forefront a flawed logic and bringing together an alliance that is fraught with contradictions.
First, the rulers of Qatar still consider Mohamed Morsi the legitimate president and that country’s satellite television channel, Aljazeera, continues to call anti-Sisi opposition “the supporters of legitimacy.” The Turkish government, too, refuses to normalize relations with Egypt unless Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood members are released from prison. Sisi’s government responded to these requests last week by issuing death sentences against a number of Muslim Brotherhood leaders. This did not bother the backbone of this alliance, Saudi Arabia, which, albeit under the leadership of the previous king, branded the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
Second, in 2012, then under the sway of Qatar, the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership and recognized the Syrian Coalition as the “sole legitimate representative” of that country. This year, the Coalition was not even invited to attend the yearly meeting that was held in Egypt.
Third, Saudi rulers reckon that a magnified fear of Shias would minimize the conflict among Sunni countries and, at least temporarily, unite them against the Iranian imagined threat. This strategy is more dangerous than productive. It exposed the Saudi rulers’ disdain to minority social groups and latent racism. It cannot be embraced by other Muslim countries, like Pakistan and Turkey, who have significant minorities and whose leaders gain power through the ballet, not the sword. With these contradictions aside, let’s examine the Saudi claim that its war on Yemen is for the purpose of restoring legitimacy.
After months of peaceful demonstrations, the Saudi rulers convinced then Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom they supported for decades, to resign and transfer his powers to his deputy, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, ahead of an early election and receive immunity from prosecution in return. Hadi was expected to form a national unity government and call for early presidential elections within 90 days, which he did and easily won since his name was the only one on the ballot. This process in itself was illegal since Yemen’s constitution (article 107) requires a minimum of two candidates competing for the presidency.
Nonetheless, this transition agreement which was engineered by Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies in 2011, set a two-year time limit on Hadi’s presidency starting from the date of his inauguration, which took place on 27 February 2012. This agreement, which was later endorsed by the UN, also stipulated that a new president be elected under a new constitution. Such constitution never saw the light of the day allowing Hadi to remain in power despite the expiry of his term.
Frustrated by delays, Houthis and their political and tribal allies, including former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, pushed for establishing a presidential council to replace Hadi and form a unity government to oversee the transition. Although Saleh was barred by the terms of the agreement from returning to power, he continued to exert influence and was hopeful that his son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, will be the next president. When the Houthis and their allies overran Sana`a in September 2014, Hadi reigned. After escaping to the southern city of Aden, then to Riyadh, he withdrew his resignation, providing a political, but not necessarily a legal, cover for Saudi Arabia to start its military campaign.
If it were not for their greed and disdain for the poor, the rulers of the Gulf States could have provided themselves with an actual legal basis for intervention in Yemen had they made that country part of the GCC. However, Yemen was excluded from the club of rich Arab nations despite the 1,100 miles of shared borders. After the Arab Spring, shamelessly, Saudi Arabia reached out to Morocco, which is thousands of miles away, and Jordan and invited (invitation was later revoked) them to join the GCC–but not Yemen. Yet, after allowing that country to fall into abject poverty, they now claim that the stability and welfare of Yemen are important enough to wage a destructive war on this impoverished yet proud country.
The Saudi intervention in Yemen is dangerous for the region and for the world and it is unprecedented. It is dangerous because the Saudi bombardment is creating the kind of environment (failed states) in which groups like al-Qaeda thrive. Curiously, after two weeks of intense bombardment, not a single bomb has fallen on al-Qaeda fighters who used this opportunity to solidify their control over Shibwa and expand their control over Yemen’s largest province, Hadramawt.
Hadi’s legitimacy aside, no country shall intervene militarily in another sovereign country without legal authority. Had Yemen been invaded by a foreign country, theoretically, Hadi could have asked for outside help. However, that is not the case here: Even the Saudi rulers admit that the Houthis are part of the Yemeni society –making the conflict an internal one. The Saudi rulers began their attack on Yemen and then asked the Arab League and the UNSC for legal authority
The so-called alliance is falling apart as the number of civilian casualties rises and the cost of destruction increases. The old adage, you break you own it, will apply here. Pakistan and Sudan cannot afford to be weighed down by the cost of war in and rebuilding of another country when their own peoples are struggling with poverty. Pakistan has already made its decision to stay out of this conflict. More countries will peel off as the human and financial costs of the war continue to climb, reducing the anti-Houthi coalition to Gulf States minus Oman and several other countries with debt owed to the rich Arab club of nations.
At home, the Gulf States are marketing their military campaign as a firm stance against the aggressive Shia neighbor, Iran, accusing it of supplying Houthiswith weapons. The Saudi Grand Mufti issued a call for mandatory draft to train and arm Saudis to protect “religion and nation.” This rhetoric is consistent with the internal Saudi discourse, which is sectarian in nature. Instead of facing their own internal problems and dealing with their chronic failure to embrace representative governance, the rulers of the Gulf States continue to blame foreign countries and inflame sectarian tensions.
There is another reason why Saudi Arabia launched its war on Yemen when it did: the Iranian-P5+1 preliminary nuclear agreement will transform the geopolitics of the Middle East. With Iran freed from being blamed for all the Middle Eastern problems, the politics of fear will be replaced with contesting ideas and expressing desire for open governance, which would expose the Gulf States’ retrograde ideology, political repression, and hateful sectarianism.
The post-Arab Spring Middle East is not the same as the pre-Arab Spring Middle East. The Saudi rulers want to preserve the old order and continue to privilege genocidal rhetoric. That is a failed strategy. As President Obama suggested in a recent interview, Saudi Arabia’s rulers fear not a Houthis’ takeover of Yemen on behalf of Iran, they fear most a new paradigm: an independent and democratic Yemen where leaders are elected by the people, not appointed by the head of the clan.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.