By S. Mubashir Noor, New Age Islam
21 February 2016
We have a folksy saying in Pakistan that loosely translates into “everyone picks on the poor man’s kid.” Why are world powers mum on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen? Are Yemenis any less human than those trapped in or fleeing Syria? Three thousand civilians have fallen to Saudi warplanes and weaponry since March last year. In seeking to pulverize the Houthi rebels who deposed unpopular President Mansour Hadi, Riyadh has laid waste an entire country. All for the sake of getting even with Iran.
By meddling in the affairs of a sovereign neighbour, the Saudis not only used a playbook they accuse Iran of scripting, but may also have created a whirlpool of hatred next door that could swallow the entire peninsula. Reports suggest that Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS) militants have already gained significant territory in south-eastern Yemen. Both groups, incidentally, condemn the House of Saud’s deep ties to western capitals as symbolic of a corrupt, un-Islamic regime.
Factor in the thousands of angry, young Yemenis that have lost loved ones to Saudi airstrikes and we have a veritable bumper crop of potential radicals itching for payback. Meanwhile, only crickets chirp in the general vicinity of Washington on the topic of Yemen. Why, because it is an impoverished land with little in the way of oil or other mineral resources. The White House, lest we forget, rarely invokes moral exceptionalism unless Halliburton and Exxon Mobil can make a killing.
Moreover, thanks to the broad devastation wrought by Riyadh’s war, international jihadists that were once on the run courtesy of the US drone program in Yemen are multiplying again, thereby nullifying billions in American taxpayer money. Aden province governor Aidarus al-Zubaidi barely survived an Al-Qaeda gun attack in mid-February, a month after his predecessor fell to a car bombing claimed by ISIS.
In chasing paranoid geopolitics, Saudi Arabia has inflamed a civil war born of political grievances into a Shia-Sunni death match with Iran. In the process, it has painted the moderate Zaidi-sect Houthis as another manifestation of Shia militarism akin to Hezbollah, which is plain wrong. We know that initial signs of a thaw in relations between Tehran and Washington back in 2013 first triggered Saudi fears of a sanctions-free Iran being able to pursue its “Shia Crescent” ambition with impunity.
Still, former Saudi King Abdullah was a pragmatic and cautious despot, not inclined to warmonger for hypothetical. The incumbent monarch Salman, however, brought an atypically martial attitude to Saudi foreign policy after his coronation in January 2015. Two months later, the Yemen offensive was underway. The Saudis were also livid when Washington green-lit the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran last July despite their vocal protests, calling it an impending train-wreck for the Middle East.
Riyadh has now offered to send ground troops to Syria for a joint offensive with Turkey under the US coalition banner. Everyone wants to defeat ISIS on the surface, but beneath the patina of mission-unity lurks an anxiety to settle old scores. Ankara detests the Syrian Kurds for their alleged complicity in Turkey’s bloody, three-decade old insurgency more than it fears ISIS. Riyadh, meanwhile, prioritizes the upending of long time Iranian ally, President Bashar al-Assad above all else.
This then begs the question: Have Saudi royals learned nothing from Pakistan’s errors in Afghanistan? Learned nothing from the human cost Pakistan continues to pay for tinkering with Afghan socio-politics in the name of “strategic depth”? Riyadh may feel compelled to reclaim the security umbrella Washington once held over the Arab world, but it must remember that bad karma results from forcibly rewiring neighbours.
For when people marvel at the longevity of the US as a superpower, they often forget that it has huge oceans to insulate itself from the fallout of failed interventions. Saudi Arabia has no such advantage in Yemen.
S. Mubashir Noor is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan