By Rami G. Khouri
April 22, 2015
Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to grasp how they see the world is the best way to understand their behavior.
I have been discussing conditions around the Arab world and the Gulf with friends and colleagues in Dubai this week, seeking to understand the reasons for the newfound militancy of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council states in Yemen and other Arab lands. I left with a better appreciation of the domestic, regional and global developments that have pushed the GCC into its new orbit of concern and vulnerability. But I also have more questions than answers about the perceived threats and whether war in Yemen is the most effective way of dealing with them.
There is no question that a new set of leaders at the middle and upper echelons of state authority in the GCC have embarked on a radically different way of dealing with the regional threats they perceive. They are using a combination of policy tools that include offering or withholding massive financial support, military assistance to like-minded allies across the region, and overt war, as we are witnessing most sharply in Yemen, following lesser episodes in Libya, Bahrain and northern Iraq.
Seen from Riyadh, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, the world around the mostly wealthy oil-producing GCC states has been turned on its head in the last four years. Every major geo-strategic potential threat or fear that they have quietly harboured for years has started to materialize – virtually simultaneously.
These include half a dozen different developments that is each dangerous enough on its own, but now take on the dimensions of a tsunami as they occur simultaneously. They have included the expansion of militant Salafist-Takfiri movements such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda that are both security threats and challenge the religious authority of Saudi Arabia’s custodianship of Sunni Islam; the populist street revolutions that overthrew several Arab leaders; the consequent widespread assertion of desires for democratic pluralism in many Arab countries; the rise to power of Muslim Brotherhood parties in Egypt and Tunisia; the fragmentation of countries such as Libya, Iraq and Syria that opened the door to the expansion of terror groups and unchecked militias; the demise of GCC-supported elements in Yemen in the face of the nationwide military expansion of the Houthi Ansarullah movement; the increasing structural influence of Iran in several Arab countries, especially Iraq, Syria and Lebanon; concern that a nuclear agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, would, by removing sanctions, increase Iran’s power and its presumed hegemonic ambitions in the region; and, worry that Washington is disengaging from the Middle East and will also pursue its strategic relations in the region more evenly among Israel, Iran and its own traditional GCC allies.
All of these frightening developments taking place simultaneously have suddenly demanded from the GCC states an effective response to reduce the impact of the new dangers. The intensity and military nature of the Saudi response in Yemen reflects how deeply the GCC states feel the threats, though it remains unclear whether the war coalition in Yemen can provide credible antidotes to the long list of dangers shaping current GCC attitudes. The war in Yemen seems designed in the first instance to send a message to all current or potential enemies, real or imagined predators, or just ill-willed troublemakers, that from now on the Saudi-led GCC will initiate its own swift and tangible response, instead of waiting for others to step in.
Years will be required to learn if the military actions in Yemen will result in greater stability in the Arabian Peninsula, or create a new source of long-term tension, refugee flows and Arab radicalism for export. How quickly the war there can end and a shift to a negotiated political solution begin will be a crucial factor in answering this question.
What remains unanswered is the equally important question of whether the GCC’s new militarism will respond to the long list of perceived troubling regional threats as well as to its need to assert itself as a dynamic, strong actor capable of safeguarding its own national interests. The problems of terrorism, democratic Islamism, state collapse, popular revolutions, Salafist-Takfiri expansion, refugee flows, Iranian assertion and rebalanced U.S. interests are all real and very serious threats in the eyes of GCC leaders. All of them also seem to have been enhanced, not reduced, by recent wars across the Middle East, making the shift from war to diplomacy in Yemen all the more urgent.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.