Months before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began his anticorruption drive against billionaires, he first silenced, detained and, in some cases, imprisoned, members of the kingdom’s religious elite: Salafi clerics who have vast numbers of adherents throughout the Middle East and North Africa for their media campaigns against Shiite Muslims and their determination to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unseated. The prince banned their television programs and censored the Twitter accounts they use to reach millions of followers.
This article was first published in The Washington Post
Wednesday’s tripartite meeting among Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), and two prominent members of Yemen’s Congregation for Reform Party (al-Islah) was an unexpected development in Yemen’s turbulent civil war and a serious setback for the Iran–Houthi axis. Up to this point, the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) opposition to al-Islah, which it views as a Muslim Brotherhood ally, thwarted cooperation between the organization and the Arab Coalition, despite the former’s hostility toward the Houthis. MBZ’s decision to put aside his suspicions is a clear indication that both he and MBS are committed to strengthening the credibility of the Arab Coalition in the eyes of the Yemeni public, in the hopes of turning back the Houthi offensive.
Although the Saudi–Emirati–Islah meeting convened just ten days after former president Saleh’s execution at the hands of his Houthi allies, it had been in the works for some time. Saudi Arabia took the lead in testing the political waters when MBS met with al-Islah President Mohammed Abdullah al-Yadoumi and his Secretary General, Abdulwahab al-Anisi, on November 10 in Riyadh. While the particulars of the MBS-Yadoumi discussion are unknown, it coincided with a concerted public relations effort by al-Islah to further distance itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, with whom it officially cut ties in 2013. This discussion was preceded by Saudi Arabia backing President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s decision to appoint General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, an al-Islah ally, deputy commander of Yemen’s armed forces in 2016.
Although long considered an opponent of the GPC, prior to the civil war, members of al-Islah served in Yemen’s parliament and benefited from President Saleh’s patronage network. The organization still enjoys widespread support throughout north and south Yemen and has warm relations with other Islamist, as well as Nasserist and socialist, currents. Al-Islah is also a major political power broker; in 2005, for example, it co-founded the Joint Meeting Parties, a politically diverse five-party coalition, to run against the GPC candidates in national elections.
Since the coalition’s 2015 intervention in Yemen’s civil war, al-Islah has been searching for an opportunity to coordinate with the alliance against the Houthis. Significantly, it was the only political party to voice support for the coalition at the onset of the war. However, al-Islah’s reputation as a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, an image cultivated by former president Saleh to discredit the organization, prevented it from doing so. Despite al-Islah’s repeated disavowal of its affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, the two groups’ shared ideology complicated efforts to achieve a rapprochement with the coalition in general, and the UAE in particular.
However, since Saleh’s execution, the Arab Coalition has been gaining credibility in areas nominally aligned with the Hadi government (Marib, for example) as well as in besieged northern cities like Taiz, Ibb, and even Sana’a. For the coalition, this shift in public opinion has weakened the Houthis’ strategic position. An alliance with al-Islah could help solidify this change in public opinion and help the opposition regain the momentum it lost with Saleh’s assassination. More importantly, the new alignment between al-Islah and the coalition, coupled with the GPC rebellion, has diminished the Houthis’ political legitimacy; absent a credible governing partner, it is extremely difficult for the Houthis to present themselves as something other than a foreign-backed sectarian interest group.
For al-Islah, allying itself with the Arab Coalition signals the triumph of the party’s anti-Houthi current over accommodationists like Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman. It also provides some measure of assurance that the coalition will not turn on al-Islah if the former succeed in defeating the Houthis. Most significantly, however, the removal of the UAE–Islah roadblock renews hope that the Arab Coalition will work to liberate Taiz, an al-Islah stronghold besieged by the Houthis. With Taiz’s al-Islah supporters outnumbering the Houthis, and with opposition forces advancing toward the city, many activists are talking about Taiz as the first step in a northeastern campaign that will move on to Ibb, Dhamar, and ultimately Sana’a, encircling the Houthis at Hodeidah. In other words, for the Yemeni opposition, liberating Taiz has become synonymous with national reunification.
On a regional level, the rapprochement between al-Islah and the coalition is clearly a blow for Tehran. After the GPC, al-Islah is the only other political force capable of providing a semblance of legitimacy for the Houthi government in Sana’a. By aligning themselves with the opposition, al-Islah denies the Houthis a coalition partner and the Iranians the opportunity to frame the Houthis as anything but an armed proxy. Al-Islah’s pivot toward the coalition is also a setback for Qatar. Doha has sought to bolster voices within the party that can advance the interests of Qatar, which include calling for dialogue with the Houthi government. The new alliance also means that al-Islah’s break with the Muslim Brotherhood, a major Qatar ally, may be permanent, in which case Doha’s ability to project its influence in Yemen would be diminished.
An accord between the Arab Coalition and al-Islah also suggests a temporary loss of influence for the United States, which has sent mixed signals to the Yemen opposition. On the one hand, the US has supported the opposition by providing refueling and targeting support for the air campaign and has helped make the case, as Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley did this week, that Iran is providing the Houthis with ballistic missiles and heavy weapons. On the other hand, Congress has introduced legislation to end US military support for the coalition, and the White House and State Department have called for lifting the blockade, just as opposition forces secured several critical wins against the Houthis. Worse, the Houthis have capitalized on these announcements, marketing them locally as tacit US support for their regime. If the Yemeni public’s shift in favor of the coalition persists and if the accord with al-Islah holds, the United States may be convinced to re-up its support for the Houthi opposition.
Any viable resolution of Yemen’s civil war requires consolidation among the Houthi opposition. Allying al-Islah, the GPC, and General Mohsen with the Hadi government and south Yemen leaders is a major step in that direction. For Yemenis, it is also the most hopeful sign since Saleh’s five-day rebellion that the dream of a pluralistic and unified Yemen is not yet dead.
King Salman’s 2015 accession to the throne and the subsequent appointment of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) as Crown Prince ushered in a period of unprecedented change in Saudi Arabia. This “tsunami” provoked polarized reactions, confounding many foreign observers while delighting, if not occasionally overwhelming, Saudis themselves.
The myriad challenges associated with restructuring the monarchy while simultaneously tackling extraordinary socioeconomic reforms and urgent foreign policy challenges have been accompanied by inevitable breakdowns in communication and occasional missteps in execution. This has disquieted friends and delighted foes and led many to assume the absence of a coherent plan built on sound strategic thinking. This is an entirely mistaken view.
In the foreign policy arena, a careful reading suggests that the new Saudi doctrine is based on three strategies: strengthening its military, reevaluating its alliances, and aggressively confronting Iranian expansionism.
For decades, Saudi Arabia relied on checkbook diplomacy, quiet mediation, secret agreements, and US guarantees to secure its foreign policy aims. Saudi leaders funneled billions in aid to friends, many of whom used that money to bankroll their own agendas (or line their own pockets), while delivering little in return. Attempts to buy off enemies often failed or backfired. Neighbors cast aside secret agreements signed in good faith. And US guarantees became less reliable and less credible.
Extraordinary geopolitical change accompanied these disappointments. The 2003 invasion of Iraq unleashed a wave of Iranian expansionism, and the chaos created by the 2011 Arab Spring accelerated it. The Obama administration decided to withdraw US forces from Iraq, announced its pivot toward Asia, and failed to fulfill its “redline” pledge after Bashar al-Assad unleashed chemical weapons on his own people. Unchallenged by American might, Iran tightened its grip on Lebanon, took control of Iraq and Syria, infiltrated Yemen, backed insurgents in Bahrain, and trained and supplied terror cells in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
In light of this new reality, the King and the Crown Prince concluded that Saudi Arabia could no longer rely on outdated policies if they wished to successfully confront these rapidly growing threats.
Strengthening the Military
With the era of pax Americana in the Middle East seemingly ending, Saudi rulers have moved to rapidly build up a military that does not overly rely on the United States and is capable of meeting both Iranian and jihadist threats.
With some exceptions, today’s Saudi military is, in many ways, a holdover from the parade ground army of the 1960s. In the aftermath of midcentury Egyptian and Iraqi military coup d’états, the Kingdom designed its military to be a predominantly symbolic force, incapable of mounting a takeover of the government. The United States, in turn, guaranteed the defense of the Saudi state in exchange for secure oil supplies and massive arms purchases. The armed forces were also meant to inspire loyalty by providing employment for ordinary citizens and senior positions for society’s grandees. Sadly, this patronage system also provided opportunities for tremendous corruption.
The Kingdom learned hard lessons during its first conflict with the Houthis in 2009–2010, where the Saudi military performed poorly. In response to this, Riyadh has sought to strengthen its armed forces by urgently enhancing its special forces capabilities, upgrading training across the board, localizing military production, reforming the military bureaucracy, and seeking out new sources of arms. Improved relations with Russia, for example, have allowed Saudi Arabia to diversify its arms and equipment purchases and has also augmented the Kingdom’s influence over global oil prices.
Despite these efforts, the Houthi takeover of Sana’a did not provide the Kingdom with adequate time to complete the restructuring of its armed forces. However, real combat experience gained from the Yemeni conflict has provided the Saudi military, as war inevitably does, with invaluable data on its performance. The sustained air campaign, for example, exposed deficiencies in the Kingdom’s precision bombing capabilities, which it is now working to improve. Changes such as this will inevitably take time to fully implement.
The second component of the strategy is to reevaluate existing bilateral and multilateral relationships by ensuring that the Kingdom’s “allies” hold up their end of the agreement.
To do this, the Kingdom began by focusing on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), its core regional security and economic alliance. Within the GCC, the recently improved Saudi-UAE cooperative security effort has acted as a force multiplier, augmenting the bloc’s ability to take collective action, as it did in Yemen. It has also empowered the organization to address internal threats, most notably by imposing a boycott to end two decades of Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood, political dissidents, subversive media campaigns against neighboring states, and attempts to co-opt (by buying off) Saudi, UAE, and Bahraini military, government, and religious officials, all of which the Kingdom and its allies saw as undermining their security and stability.
Outside the GCC, the Kingdom has moved to rebalance its relationships with Egypt and Lebanon. For decades, Saudi Arabia’s influence over these states was built on checkbook diplomacy, with an increasingly insignificant return on investment.
Following the 2013 coup against the Morsi Muslim Brotherhood regime, Riyadh poured over $25 billion into Egypt. After Egypt had received this bailout, a 2014 leaked audio exchange caught Egyptian leaders speaking derisively of Saudi aid and Saudis as “having money like rice.” In addition, many of Cairo’s policies seemed designed to demonstrate Egypt’s independence from, rather than deliver political support to, its ally. Cairo’s vote in favor of a 2016 Russian-backed Security Council resolution on Syria that was strongly opposed by the Kingdom is one such example. Because of these actions, Saudi Arabia temporarily suspended an agreement to supply Cairo with over seven hundred thousand tons of refined petroleum products per month in late 2016. Rice, it seems, would no longer be plentiful.
The same logic seems to have influenced the Kingdom’s recent approach toward Lebanon. In 2013, the late King Abdullah earmarked $3 billion to support the Lebanese Armed Forces. After many in Riyadh objected to the funding of an army they saw as heavily infiltrated by Hezbollah in a state “captured” by Hezbollah, the new Saudi leadership rescinded this offer in 2016.
More recently, Lebanese leaders’ aggressive lobbying of the US Congress to “soften” sanctions against Hezbollah vindicated those who increasingly believed that when forced to choose between Saudi dollar diplomacy and an Iran that assassinates those who cross them, as it did with Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, Beirut would take Saudi money but prioritize appeasing Tehran. The younger Hariri’s shocking resignation in Riyadh suggests that Saudi Arabia is signaling to Lebanon’s political class (and possibly the state) that they risk their political and financial relationships with the Kingdom if their actions (or inaction) continue to provide political cover and international legitimacy for Hezbollah.
Aggressively Confronting Iranian Expansionism
As Iran’s shadow grew and America’s footprint shrank, Saudi leaders concluded that the Kingdom would need to shift from a reactive to a proactive foreign policy posture when it came to dealing with the Islamic Republic.
Following the 2011 Bahraini uprising and the 2014 Houthi seizure of Sana’a, aggressively confronting Iranian expansionism became a strategic imperative in the Kingdom’s “near abroad.” But whereas Iran could rely on exploiting sectarian fault lines in order to create deadly proxies, the Kingdom had no such capabilities (its one attempt to emulate the Iranian model in Syria was an unmitigated failure). Saudi Arabia therefore needed to turn to multilateral military force to complement its soft power capabilities.
While a Saudi military intervention successfully helped deter an insurgency in Bahrain, Yemen’s mountainous terrain and size, and the considerable capabilities of its Iran-allied Houthi militias, posed a far more dangerous threat. Although it has been widely argued that Saudi Arabia’s foray into Yemen was based on the erroneous belief that the Houthis would quickly cave under a lightning “shock and awe” air campaign, this assertion is incorrect. On the contrary, the Saudis recognized that the Houthis had acquitted themselves well during their first war against them without the full support of Hezbollah and Iran. In the years hence, Iran dramatically increased arms shipments to, and Hezbollah accelerated its training of, Houthi forces. In addition, the Kingdom understood that fighting a guerrilla force swimming, to paraphrase Chairman Mao, among the civilian population would be a long, arduous, and messy process.
With the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah working hard to upgrade Houthi capabilities, Riyadh concluded that war now was preferable to war later; even if the cost to Yemen (and Saudi Arabia) was high, it would be far higher if the Kingdom waited. Striking now would also clearly communicate to the Houthis and the world that the Kingdom would not tolerate the emergence of a new Hezbollah on its southern border with thousands of ballistic missiles aimed at Saudi cities.
In contextualizing the Saudi response, it is important to recall that the Kingdom reached this crisis point at a time when the regional credibility of the United States was at its nadir. In addition to the United States’ Asia pivot and failure to follow through on its “redline” pledge in Syria, the Obama administration sent clear signals that, post-JCPOA, the Kingdom would have to “carry its own water” and learn to “share the region” when it came to Iran.
While the Americans did ultimately provide refueling and limited targeting support to the Saudi air campaign, the Kingdom also secured the backing of six other nations, most importantly the UAE, to prevent the Iranians from succeeding in Sana’a.
Outside the Arabian Peninsula, Riyadh has been strategic in choosing where and how to confront Iran. In Iraq, Saudi Arabia opted to push back against Iranian influence by engaging nationalist leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr and exploring opportunities to engage with the Abadi government by opening the Arar border crossing to pilgrims and commerce. The Kingdom has also ended its support where the cost was no longer justified. For example, in Syria, Riyadh stopped sending weapons and supplies when it became clear that the fractious opposition could not unseat Assad and was becoming increasingly dominated by radical jihadists.
Admittedly, the Kingdom’s execution of all these plans could have been handled better. Riyadh did not clearly broadcast its intentions, provide sufficient context or background for its actions, or effectively communicate its aims. As a result, the Kingdom’s moves appeared sudden and haphazard, unnecessarily rattling friends and allies. Also, the Kingdom could have done a better job anticipating some of the unintended consequences of its new policies. While these missteps did serious damage to Riyadh’s public relations image, this does not mean that Saudi Arabia lacks a well thought out strategy or that its strategy is an unsound one.
While critics have been unable to resist pronouncing any Saudi initiative that does not produce instantaneous success a disastrous failure, Saudi leaders are instead operating on a longer timeline and do not expect immediate results.
In Qatar, the Saudis can afford to wait, as the boycott imposes far less of an economic cost on the Kingdom and its allies than it does on Doha. In Lebanon, Riyadh can put Beirut’s valuable ties to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and their allies at risk, gradually increasing the price Lebanon’s political class pays for providing political cover to Hezbollah. And in Yemen, the Kingdom can wait for the opposition to splinter, the recent collapse of the Houthi-Saleh alliance being one such fracture. Riyadh is also learning from its mistakes. It has taken steps to be more proactive in tackling Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and has improved coordination with some international relief agencies.
For the Saudi leadership, the bottom line was that the cumulative effect of Iranian expansion and US inaction demanded that the Kingdom simultaneously tackle multiple foreign policy challenges quickly and decisively. This approach led to some tactical mistakes that disquieted and confused friends and provided fuel to critics. But for the Kingdom’s leadership, these missteps are a small price to pay if one believes, as Saudi leaders clearly do, that inaction would have put the country in the position of the proverbial frog sitting in a pot of tepid water that is slowly being brought to a boil.
Photo Credit: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the meeting of Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition defence ministers in Riyadh November 26, 2017. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser
Iran’s political elites are endorsing the assassination of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and signalling that Tehran’s expansionist aims in the region are widely supported across the Iranian political spectrum.
The assassination, presumably carried out by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels on December 4, was condoned by Iranian president Hasan Rouhani, the chief commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Mohammed Ali Jafari, and the editor-in-chief of Kayhan, a newspaper close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
This article was originally published in The National Interest
This week’s dramatic events in Yemen, leading up to the assassination of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, left many struggling to understand the drivers behind what transpired and what may lay in store for this already anguished country. One interpretation, supported by the Iranian-backed Houthis, has it that Saleh’s actions were a result of collusion with the Arab Military coalition, and the United Arab Emirates in particular, for which he paid the ultimate price.
While politically expedient, this is a flawed if increasingly accepted narrative. Saleh’s actions were, in fact, driven primarily by inter-Yemeni dynamics that that have, and will likely continue, to shape what is, first and foremost, a Yemeni civil war.
Saleh, who was ousted in the wave of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, was a controversial ruling figure who maintained a powerful patronage network based on an informal system of governance that advanced the narrow interests of the ruling political elite. He created the General People’s Congress (GPC) as a mechanism for monopolizing political power, cultivating personal loyalty and managing competition among different tribal and elite factions. He was also a political opportunist, forging an alliance with the Houthis despite the fact that the two parties fought six separate wars against one another between 2004 and 2010.
While it lasted, the Houthi-Saleh alliance was politically beneficial for both. For Saleh, the accord allowed him to reenter politics, protected him from retribution for his role in the assassination of Houthi founder Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, and gave him time to rebuild his political power and military strength. For the Houthis, the alliance gave them access to the GPC’s governing apparatus and experienced bureaucracy. More significantly, the GPC provided the Houthis with a veneer of political legitimacy, without which, they would have been seen as a sectarian group with a narrow support base, and political objectives which diverged from those that the 1962 Yemen Republic stands on.
Ultimately, the dissolution of the relationship was a gradual affair. Fault lines began to emerge as the Houthis’ pushed the GPC out of key ministries, monopolized military and state institutions, and refused to disband the Supreme Revolutionary Committee as agreed in the 2016 “national salvation government” with the GPC. For the Houthis, the GPC’s decision to hold a massive rally on the 24th of August to celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of the party seemed to vindicate their suspicions that the former president was planning a political comeback at their expense. As frustrations grew, so did opportunities for miscalculation and escalation.
Whether Saleh was simply swept up by events on the ground or believed that his time was running out is unclear. And although the Houthis argue that Saleh was forced into action by the Arab Military coalition in general, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) specifically, the coalition signaled its support for Saleh after the outbreak of violence, rather than before.
A more plausible explanation is that Saleh could no longer resist GPC pressure to take concerted action against the Houthis in order to end his own party’s marginalization. This may have been accelerated by what sources close to the former president believed was a Houthi plan to assassinate him. Under this scenario, Saleh may have calculated that fully mobilizing the GPC and attempting to rally the Yemeni people, presented his best chance for survival following the outbreak of hostilities.
Although badly outmatched, the GPC initially succeeded in capitalizing on popular frustration with a Houthi government whose oppressiveness has far surpassed that of Saleh, who lost full control of the army after the 2011 uprising. Systematic economic exploitation and egregious human rights violations have fueled this resentment. The Houthis destroyed the private sector by excessively taxing small businesses and residents, seizing control of the fuel supply, quadrupling the price of gasoline, collecting illegal telecom duties, and robbing the Central Bank. In addition, they have lost the trust of the population by using child soldiers, violating due process, reselling confiscated food aid and medicine at inflated prices and preventing humanitarian agencies from reaching those affected by the cholera outbreak.
For the near term, Saleh’s death has left the GPC in shambles. Its supporters do not share a coherent ideology or religious platform, and there is a real question as to whether the organization will outlast its founder. While there is some desire for Saleh’s son, Ahmad Ali, to return to Yemen to take charge of what remains of the organization, this in unlikely to happen without support from the UAE and the broader Arab Military Coalition. Even then, its short-term prospects are questionable.
While the GPC is in disarray, the same cannot be said of the Houthis. The party is well organized, disciplined, has a clear chain of command, and a shared ideology. During the battle for Sana’a, they deftly redeployed their forces, ceding ground in the capital in order to systematically subdue each of the tribes that might come to Saleh’s aid by kidnapping their sheikhs and inflicting heavy casualties on those who disobeyed. Despite having taken their name from their founder, the Houthis are also less reliant on any one individual than the GPC. They survived the loss of their founder and it is widely believed that they will quickly agree on a successor should their current leader fall.
But despite their victory and their discipline, the Houthis’ long-term prospects may have become murkier after Saleh’s death. They have now lost their political cover. Without the GPC, it will become increasingly difficult for the Houthis to maintain the fiction that they are not an Iranian proxy. One option for them to shore up legitimacy is to reach a new power-sharing accord with al-Islah, Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, although whether al-Islah would agree to such a partnership, and what they would ask for in return, remains an open question.
Past misgivings aside, for a very brief period this week, many Yemenis hedged their bets on Saleh as the one man who could put a stop to the Houthis and potentially end the conflict. Now that he is gone, Yemenis are bracing for a period of Houthi dominance. Yemen’s fate has become more uncertain than ever, now that Yemenis lost their favorite man whom they loved to hate.