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Opinion: Is Saudi Arabia Responsible for Saving Yemen? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Students attend a class outside their school compound after Houthi rebels took over the school during recent fighting with government forces in Sana’a on September 29, 2014. (Reuters/Mohamed Al-Sayaghi)

Ever since September 21, when the “Peace and Partnership” agreement was signed between the Houthis and Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, producing an entirely new political order in the country—one later labeled by Hadi as a “coup”—and all eyes have been on Yemen’s large neighbor to the north, Saudi Arabia.

How can Saudi Arabia accept the prospect of the Houthis in power? Why is the Gulf Initiative being buried six feet underground while Riyadh simply watches? Iran is encircling Saudi Arabia  . . . How can Saudi Arabia do nothing with the Iranian specter at its gates? Each day such questions, and others like them, grow louder and louder—as if Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world responsible for saving Yemen.

Let’s agree that Riyadh’s policies are markedly different from Tehran’s. There is a huge difference between both countries’ respective political visions and strategies. Iranian foreign policy operates first and foremost on the principle of spreading the Islamic revolution and involves a great deal of interference in the affairs of other countries. Riyadh’s policies, on the other hand, stand entirely at odds with Tehran’s. Let’s assume Riyadh, in light of the current crisis, takes intrusive action in Yemen; is this justified given what some might say is a state of affairs the Yemenis themselves have chosen? Does the danger posed by the crisis give Riyadh an “entrance visa” into Yemen, to do as it pleases, pursuing totally unjustifiable policies the way Tehran does? Of course not.

But all this doesn’t mean that Saudi Arabia wants to totally wash its hands of Yemen, or that there are no dangers to the Kingdom’s security and that of the whole Gulf region as a result of this crisis. In fact, the international community’s non-involvement in the crisis—and especially the US’s—prefigure the grave danger it poses not only to Yemen’s large neighbor to the north, but also to the region as a whole. Very soon we will see the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) turning away from Iraq and Syria and focusing their attentions on Yemen; it is a terrain and environment that suits them perfectly. And no doubt in two or three years’ time, just as was the case with ISIS’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, the US administration will come to realize the damage caused by the time bomb it and the rest of the West has left in the region. At that time, Western intelligence services will tell us, just as we are being told now regarding Iraq and Syria, that the fight against ISIS in Yemen will likely take many years. (I wonder, if the US had intervened years ago against terrorist groups like ISIS, would we be in a position now where we must wait years in order to be rid of them?)

Looking at things from a different angle, we can see that despite the negative consequences the current crisis and the coming period will bring, and no matter how much political and military power the Houthis gain, Yemen—no matter who is in charge in Sana’a—will always need Saudi Arabia. If Riyadh ends its economic aid to the country, the whole of Yemen will be out on the streets calling for the Houthis’ departure. Riyadh, remember, has supported the Yemeni economy in recent years by offering grants for oil and basic commodities, the last of which came in August following a visit to Jeddah by President Hadi. Since the start of the political crisis in Yemen in 2011, Saudi Arabia has offered a total of three oil grants to the country worth 1 billion US dollars each. This is not to mention a 1-billion-dollar deposit made by Riyadh into Yemen’s central bank. So, are the Houthis prepared for the consequences that will follow as a result of this aid being cut off suddenly, and would Iran—for example—be able to replace this aid?

Saudi Arabia is serious about protecting its own national security and is very aware of the threat it faces from a group like the Houthis, fully in control of a whole country, its institutions, even its military. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is also serious about a danger that targets not just the Kingdom, but the entire region, one whose fires will extend even beyond the region and into the West, which will happen so long as the West remains an observer, awaiting the arrival of those who will put out the flames entirely on their own. Just take a look at Turkey: Ankara, a NATO member, is refusing to join any international action on ISIS in Syria—knowing full well the group’s black flags are fluttering ominously close to its borders.

It is truly unfortunate that the situation in Yemen has been left to deteriorate to the state it is in today: facing the Houthis on the one side and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on the other. And then there is ISIS, another ominous predator lurking in the shadows, waiting for the right moment to pounce on its prey. And, of course, the world just watches as it does with Syria and Iraq. The voice of the Yemeni people, in this instance, is best heard in a line of poetry from the legendary Abbasid-era poet Abu Nawas: “You wonder at my illness . . . When it is my health that is cause for wonder!”