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Will Saudi Arabia’s New King Regret the Arab Intervention in Yemen?

Taking military action against Yemen’s Houthi rebels is King Salman’s first foray into interventionist policy for Saudi Arabia. Depending on the outcome, it could also be his last.
April 4, 2015, 3:34pm
Photo by Vahid Salemi/AP

Saudi Arabia's new ruler, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, who rose to power in late January after the death of King Abdullah, has already formed a coalition of countries that is currently taking military action against the Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen. This is the new king's first foray into interventionist policy for Saudi Arabia, and, depending on the outcome, it could also be his last.

It's rare for the Saudis to lead a military force outside their own borders. It happened previously in 2009, also to battle Houthis in Yemen. Then as now, Iran was accused of supporting the Houthi insurgency. Saudi Arabia and Iran are rival regional powerhouses and the de facto leaders of the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam, respectively.

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While much of the Middle East outside of Iran is largely Sunni, there are a few pockets of Shia scattered about, most notably in Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. Being Shia doesn't automatically give Iran inroads into a population, but it does open doors for Tehran and makes it much easier for them to gain local influence. In recent years, Iranian activity has generated alarm for Saudi Arabia and its allies.

The 79-year-old King Salman did not come to power on the promises of hope and change for the Kingdom, and monarchs have long valued stability above all else to rule the population. Foreign interventions have been few and far between, and King Salman's actions will undoubtedly be compared to those of his predecessor, who was also his half brother.

Under King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia first deployed troops in combat outside its borders during the 1991 Gulf War. Then, in November 2009, fighting between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels spilled over the border into Saudi territory, resulting in a Saudi incursion that was dubbed Operation Scorched Earth.

Dr. David Andrew Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told VICE News the first Saudi intervention in Yemen was costly and inconclusive, and contributed to the downfall of former Deputy Minister of Defense Khalid bin Sultan. According to Weinberg, the Saudi military failed to accomplish its goals in Yemen partly because they had trouble distinguishing military from civilian targets in Yemen, a problem that still persists today. According to Reuters, an airstrike Saturday on a village near the Yemeni capital Sanaa killed a family of nine. The Red Cross has also said the Saudi-led coalition is blocking shipments of humanitarian aid and supplies into Yemen.

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More recently, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates deployed troops to Bahrain in March 2011 to quell an Arab Spring-inspired democratic uprising against the ruling Bahraini monarchy. Bahraini citizens have continued to protest against the Saudi and Emirati troops that remain stationed in Bahrain, and 47 countries signed a joint resolution last year criticizing Bahrain's imprisonment of political prisoners.

The airstrikes are a first for almost all of the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which has been a mainly economic coalition of Arab monarchies on the Arabian Peninsula. King Salman has been able to convince the country's foreign partners across the Middle East and North Africa to contribute military might and money to fight the Houthis in Yemen, and is now talking about building a permanent military force ready to deploy during the next major crisis.

Related: Saudi Arabia launches airstrikes in Yemen as president flees amid rebel advance

One reason the coalition has come together so quickly is that most of the authoritarian regimes that are participating don't need to indulge in extensive domestic debates about using the military. So far, King Salman has not drastically changed his country's policies regarding political oppression and human rights violations in the region. From a practical perspective, this has allowed him to consolidate power domestically while giving him the flexibility to quickly apply military force where he sees fit. Democracies tend to slow this process down, as legislatures can get downright finicky when it comes to agreeing to the use of military force.

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Sidestepping internal resistance to a military option may have been an important objective for King Salman. The Houthis gained major ground in the summer of 2014, and King Salman came to power at the end of January 2015 — two months before the start of airstrikes in Yemen. There are different opinions about why he delayed taking action. Some claim that Saudi Arabia was focused on internal politics after the accession of a new king. Others assert that the responsibility of dealing with Yemen was divided among different organizations within Saudi Arabia, slowing down the decision-making process. And still others contend that the Saudi government has been busy dealing with al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other extremist groups.

So far, 10 countries have signed up to directly fight against the Houthis, including Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco. At a summit last weekend in Egypt, the 22-member Arab League agreed to consider establishing a "joint Arab military force" to battle militant groups and insurgencies across the Middle East.

Related: Arab leaders agree to create joint military force to counter 'unprecedented unrest'

The joint military force would be based in Egypt, and Egyptian security officials said it could involve as many as 40,000 quick reaction troops, twice as many as NATO's rapid reaction force. But building a joint military force is a complicated and expensive, and it means contending with the internal politics of all of the countries involved.

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If building a large coalition proves unmanageable, the rapid reaction force could be drawn from the six GCC states instead. But questions remain about whether the structure of the GCC would allow for swift mobilization against external threats.

Weinberg called the possibility of a GCC fighting force "a load of baloney," noting that we've already seen the GCC coalition break down during the current conflict. The Sultanate of Oman decided not to participate in strikes against the Houthis, showing how tricky it can be to pull together a group of just six neighbors. International opposition could also be a problem: On Saturday, Russia presented UN draft resolution calling for pause in Yemen airstrikes.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State continues to creep into the Gulf states, and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is enjoying some temporary relief as attention is focused on Yemen's Houthis. But later on, assuming King Salman can pull together a joint military force, those troops could eventually be wielded against al Qaeda or Islamic State pockets in Libya, Syria, Iraq, or the Gulf states.

The changing situation in Yemen will test King Sulman's diplomacy, resiliency, and war fighting skills. As he reflects on the mistakes of his predecessors, he will have to strive to maintain and grow the current coalition of the willing that is arrayed against the Houthis. His performance during the conflict in Yemen will be a good indicator of whether this force can evolve into a long-lasting international coalition.

Unfortunately, the Saudi military is not well suited to fight a drawn out counter-insurgency campaign outside the country, and, in Weinberg's words, King Salman may find his initial push for interventionism, "crushed on the shoals of Yemen's harsh landscape."

Follow Steven Tomaszewski on Twitter: @stevetomski