Saudi Arabia’s Complex War in Yemen

The Saudi led Gulf Arab intervention in Yemen has now entered its 10th month and the incumbent but beleaguered president, Abd Rabbuh Masur Hadi, still lacks control over around half his country’s territory. The Saudis, who started the campaign in order to oust an ethnic Houthi regime aligned with Iran, have, in classic Middle Eastern fashion, supported the resurgence of an equally as dangerous enemy- Al-Qaeda.

Yemen, like so many of the Arab world’s states, is geographically and ethnically endowed for a proxy war between the Sunni Arab House of Saud and the Shia Persian regime in Iran. Like Syria and Iraq, Yemen’s deficient politics have over time exasperated deep-seated ethnic tensions but the move towards extremism that conflict generates means that Saudi Arabia now must play a delicate balancing game between the traditional Shia enemy and Sunni ultra-radicalism. Whilst the Saudis have pummelled the Houthi’s from the air, skirmished with them on the ground and cut of vital arms smuggling routes from Africa, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (an especially brutal faction of the terrorist franchise) has strengthened its grip over central Yemen whilst Islamic State has also taken its first scraps of territory in Aden, Yemen’s fourth largest city and commercial capital.

The coalition has simply been far too focused on the big geopolitical Iranian problem and they are still far more terrified of a Persian dominated Gulf than one that is swarming with terrorists. The truth is however that the Gulf States (Saudi Arabia in particular) will soon have to start directing at least some of their attention on Yemen’s Sunni insurgents. Saudi Arabia has had a recurring problem with terror incidents over recent years, a fear that has grown exponentially since the collapse of order in nearby Syria and Iraq. Even with tighter border controls and intense public propaganda, disaffected Saudi youths continue to be mystified by and drawn to groups like al-Qaeda. Young Saudis seek martyrdom and follow calls to Jihad more than almost any other nationality. Indeed, 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals.

The source of this attraction stems partly from the fact that state Wahhabi Islam is simply too difficult to distinguish in doctrine from that espoused by terrorists. After growing up with the intensely religious Saudi educational system, moving towards violent Jihadist ideas is not that large a step to take- indeed, Wahhabism makes it explicitly clear that Jihad is a goal of all Muslims. Many older and wealthier Saudis also see Jihadism as a noble cause which again stems from the blurred division between violent Islamism and official state religion. In addition to this it must be remembered that a young unemployed Saudi with meagre job prospects is still viewed as a complete failure by a culture that expects nothing less than all Arab men to lead successful careers in the civil service. These men, feeling a sense of shame, are inevitably drawn to jihadism as a way of venting their frustration with the state and also as a way of elevating their reputations in a society that, as explained above, continues to associate Jihad with righteousness and bravery. A lack of technical jobs in Saudi Arabia also means that far too many young men are drawn towards theological and literary careers which are more prone to nurturing extremist ideas. All of these factors contribute to Al-Qaeda’s continuing successful recruitment of Saudis, a process which perpetually undermines the safety and security of the Kingdom. It is this spectre of extremism that now lingers over the Saudi intervention in Yemen which has allowed Al-Qaeda to set up training camps and access vital resources right on its doorstep.

Even before Saudi Arabia’s intervention which began with Operation Decisive Storm, Sunni extremists inclined against the Kingdom have benefited from Yemen’s political instability and turmoil. In 2012 a group of eight men were arrested in Saudi Arabia on suspicion of plotting terror attacks in Jeddah and Riyadh- of them, six were Yemenis. In that same year, an Islamist website also called upon all its followers to “do everything possible to strengthen the jihadist front in Yemen as it serves as a source of back-up and reinforcement for operations in the Land of the Two Mosques [Saudi Arabia].” Ironically, Saudi Arabia’s military campaign is only serving to undermine its own security by creating the conditions in which groups like these can thrive. Deeper anarchy in Yemen means that Al- Qaeda has gained and is actually holding territory in the country- a frightening replication of Islamic State’s tactics in Iraq and Syria. Importantly, a strong terrorist presence in Yemen means the greater likelihood of cross-germination of ideas and men between Al-Qaeda and home-grown Saudi extremists.

In the Yemeni city of Taiz Al-Qaeda is known to be expanding its reach through a policy of integration with other Sunni Salafist groups and whilst they may impose a violent and puritanical government they are widely perceived as preferable to the Houthis. Continued success in recruitment in Sunni areas means that the extremist faction of the anti-Houthi resistance now makes up a full 40% of the force- Al-Qaeda’s proportion of this is likely to be significant.
In Southern Yemen too, Al-Qaeda has consolidated its grip after stunning victories against the Houthis in the towns of Zinjibar and Jaar last December. Further land acquisitions in Abyan province (of which Zinjibar is the capital) have been met with little resistance and Fadhl al-Rabei, a political analyst and head of Madar Studies Centre in Aden, believes that the group is likely to soon take control of all of Abyan province. Mr al-Rabei argues that Yemen’s popular committees (groups which have established control over towns and cities) are ceding their territories to Al-Qaeda as a way of pressurising the government into coming to their aid.

Without a change in tactics by the Gulf States therefore, Al-Qaeda’s strengths in the region will only continue to grow as it feeds off destitution, instability and ineffective administration. Indeed, the Kingdom’s tunnel vision approach to Yemen’s Houthis has shown how the severe complexities of Middle Eastern intervention apply even to familiar Arab countries too and if Saudi Arabia, like America, fails to show the necessary flexibility and commitment that intervention warrants, then it too may find itself being dragged into a horrifically expensive and bloody quagmire.

Cameron Chippindale 

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