The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia won bipartisan support and praise from Washington last week for its recent push to repel the advances of Iranian-backed rebels in the crisis-prone country of Yemen. Riyadh, along with a coterie of Sunni Muslim governments, launched airstrikes against a Houthi rebel movement that has pushed Yemen to the brink of full-blown civil war since seizing the capital city of Sana'a in September.
"We will do whatever it takes in order to protect the legitimate government of Yemen from falling," said Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi ambassador to the United States, during a press conference held in Washington last week.
Although some in the West have lauded the Saudis for taking such decisive action, a closer examination of this coalition of the willing reveals some not-so-coincidentally similar regimes. That list includes Egyptian military dictator-cum-president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, as well as unlikely champions of governmental legitimacy like Sudan, Pakistan, and Qatar.
And if Saudi Arabia's newfound faith in tranquility and continuity strikes you as odd or dubious, you probably aren't alone. Who, after all, could forget the last time the Saudi monarchy was called upon to defend local stability, when, in 2011, its national guard, joined by hired mercenaries from Pakistan, rolled into Bahrain to help the country's ruling Khalifa monarchy crush a mostly peaceful protest movement?
Indeed, Saudi insistence on the sanctity of global order and stability might surprise more than a few, seeing as its fingerprints can be found on decades of uprisings, insurgencies, and acts of terrorism. The monarchy's reliance on a radical class of Wahhabi clerics to ensure its hold on power has resulted in chaos all across the globe, and the kingdom has spent billions of dollars to push its rigid — and often violent — interpretation of Islam to every corner of the world, from West Africa to the far reaches of northwest China.
The embers of Saudi indifference toward global stability aren't difficult to spot, and though Riyadh may attempt to frame its most recent incursion as a kind of noblesse oblige, it is quickly beginning to look like another front in the kingdom's brewing cold war with Shiite Iran.
Loath to tolerate yet another Tehran-friendly government along its border, the Saudis have cobbled together an alliance of like-minded governments to help it wage what has become a turf war for power and influence in the Middle East. Its battlefields include the civil war in Syria, the highly sectarian campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq, and now Yemen.
But couching every complex Mideast crisis as the latest round in a regional tug-of-war is not only simplistic and self-serving, it's self-fulfilling. If, for instance, Houthi rebels are led to believe that their only true ally in the region is Iran, then Iran it shall be. The Houthis — a tribal people based in Yemen's north who adhere to a brand of Shiism that at times more closely resembles Sunni Islam — have received Iranian support, but how much, and to what extent, has been the subject of much conjecture and exaggeration. Moreover, if it truly were Iran's intention to conquer or control large swaths of Yemen, then the sectarian complexion of the Saudi-led alliance now bombing Yemen risks making that a fait accompli.
The Saudis have reportedly destroyed Houthi weapons stockpiles, but to truly quell the uprising will likely require ground troops; a fraught proposition for the well-endowed, but mostly untested, Saudi military. And there is little evidence, even with the assistance of Egyptian ground forces, that its efforts will pay off.
“The Kingdom lacks the military capacity to intervene decisively in Yemen, and if it tries by sending in large numbers of ground troops, the most likely outcome would be a debilitating stalemate that will drain Saudi military resources, financial reserves, and political will," argues Kenneth Pollack, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
But Saudi Arabia has been meddling in Yemeni affairs for decades now, often using its oil wealth to buy off rival tribes and warring factions. What plagues this incredibly poor country is largely local and inherently tribal, but none of that has stopped many in American media and government from painting the crisis in absurdly broad strokes.
Riyadh does have a few legitimate concerns regarding Iranian aggression. The war in Iraq created a giant geographic headache for the Saudis, putting an Iranian-backed Shiite government right on its doorstep. The alleged 2011 plot by Iran's shadowy Quds Force to assassinate Saudi Ambassador al-Jubeir is just one reminder that this would-be cold war points to very real, lingering animosities between the two governments.
Which is all the more reason for Washington to deescalate the situation and push for negotiations between Yemen's warring parties. Stoking sectarian tensions may suit the needs of some of the truly worst elements in the Middle East — from ISIS to Iran's Revolutionary Guard — but it should not be the policy of the United States government.