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Opinion: Saudi Arabia is surrounded on two sides | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A Shi’ite Houthi rebel walks along a street in Sanaa October 16, 2014. (REUTERS/Mohamed Al-Sayaghi)

We have hard many warnings, from different parties, that Yemen is on the brink of a devastating civil war. After seizing control of the capital Sana’a and several other strategic areas, including seaports and airports, the Houthi militia is now preparing to take over oil and gas-rich areas including the strategic energy hub of Ma’rib province. After sensing the imminent danger that they are facing, this has prompted Ma’rib’s tribes to threaten to destroy oil facilities and power stations if they should ultimately fail to hold off the Houthi advance. At the same time as all this, tribes in other areas are complaining about the Houthi takeover of the main organs of the Yemeni state, something they regard as a fatal blow to the understandings achieved during the National Dialogue.

Yemen falling into the hands of Houthis or the eruption of a devastating civil war would pose a serious threat to the security of Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf as well as to the Bab El-Mandeb strait, which in turn is strategically important to Egypt. It is no secret that Iran has been supporting the Houthis in order to achieve influence in Yemen, along the lines of the influence it has managed to garner in Iraq, all the while keeping an eye on Saudi Arabia. Moreover, despite being roundly defeated by Saudi Arabia, Al-Qaeda continues to fight and in Yemen has found a safe haven to plan new attacks.

Should a civil war erupt in Yemen, Al-Qaeda would find an opportunity to maneuver, recruit and arm in the ensuing chaos. As we all know, terrorist organizations sustain themselves on chaos and turmoil.

The scene in Yemen is dangerous and complex as political, tribal and sectarian dimensions intersect with partisan and regional interests. The crisis in Yemen would likely exacerbate the conflict in the region which extends from Syria and Lebanon to Iraq and Yemen and even further afield. There are reports indicating that Iran’s support of the Houthis increased following the events in Syria and the well-known regional consequences of the conflict there. There are also those who think that Iran’s interference in Yemen and backing of the Houthis must be viewed as a response to Gulf support for Bahrain. While Houthi leader Abdel Malik Al-Houhi has sought to deny that his group has any foreign backers, this argument is ultimately unconvincing given the plethora of information and evidence suggesting otherwise.

What is happening in Yemen is not just a coup against legitimacy or an attempt to impose a new reality by force of arms. Rather, it is an attempt to tilt the regional balance of power in favor of Iran and its allies. The complete fall of Yemen into the hands of the Houthis would mean that Saudi Arabia would be surrounded on two sides—Yemen and Iraq—by Iran. This would also have repercussions in Egypt and Jordan, not just due to their ties to Riyadh, but also their own national strategic, political and security considerations.

Egypt considers the security of the Bab El-Mandeb strait as part of its own national security. With its security under threat in the Sinai Peninsula to the east and the border with Libya to the west, the last thing Cairo need is to see its maritime interests or ties with the Gulf—particularly Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait—threatened. As for Jordan, it remains threatened from Syria and Iraq and has always warned of what it describes as the “Iranian crescent.”

Even if the Houthis fail to take full control of Yemen and the country slides into chaos and civil war, Saudi Arabia will be affected by this, in addition to the repercussions of the turmoil and war raging in Iraq. Here we only need to look at the frequent attempts to infiltrate the Kingdom’s borders from these two countries to get some idea of the threat that Riyadh would face.

The situation requires urgent action to save Yemen and prevent it from sliding into an all-out civil war as well as to block Houthi attempts to extend their control by force of arms. For the time being hopes of stability in Yemen seem to hang on the efforts of UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar. But the Houthis, who have violated all previous agreements, do not seem to be interested in a solution that does not allow them to secure full control of Yemen. This, in itself, is neither a solution, nor acceptable to anyone but the Houthis.

The alternative would be a decisive Arab intervention in Yemen to support legitimacy. But what we mean by “intervention” here is more than resolutions and statements issued by the Arab League or calls for a unanimous action which do not see the light of day. Instead, capable and willing Gulf and Arab states should supply the legitimate authority and its allies with what it needs to enable them to regain the initiative. More than that, it is high time that calls for an Arab alliance to intervene in situations like this are answered. What is happening in the Arab world, from the devastation and division of countries to the fragmentation of armies and general deteriorating security situation is something that threatens everybody equally. Arab countries cannot afford to hesitate or wait for these fires to burn themselves out; they must take action now.