The balance of power in the Middle East is shifting. Whereas traditional old guard regimes like the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan have been able to resist the Arab Spring, much of the old order has either collapsed or is embroiled in existential conflicts. Conflict remains the order of the day, from the apocalyptic civil war in Syria to the fierce military crackdown in Egypt.
Yet the old guard is being challenged by a new generation of democratic activists seeking a new Middle Eastern order. They are seeking an end to the age of authoritarianism and want representative government, employment opportunities and the prospect of a better future. At the same time, regimes have doubled down on their attempts to quash any perceived threats. Although the democratic awakening is seen as a threat to authoritarian states, broader threats continue to emanate from traditional fault lines, such as the sectarian Sunni-Shia divide.
Saudi Arabia’s attack on Yemen, which began March 25, has increased sectarian divide and brought forth changes in the regional balance of power. This conflict is reshaping historical alliances, heightening religious tension and could potentially set off a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race. The making of a new Middle Eastern order is beginning and can be seen through the lens of the conflict in Yemen and broader changes taking place.
The inception of the conflict in Yemen dates back to the beginning of the Arab Spring. Yemen got caught in the changing political winds as a wave of revolutions sparked by the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi led to upheavals across the Middle East.
Protests broke out across Yemen on January 27, 2011. Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been president since 1990, was facing increased pressure from opposition groups demanding political reforms. Saleh initially cracked down hard on the opposition but eventually came to the negotiating table under heavy pressure from the Gulf Cooperation Council. He agreed to leave office in exchange for immunity. Former Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi ran unopposed for the presidency and was easily elected in February 2012.
From Hadi’s election until his resignation in January 2015, Yemen faced a series of significant security challenges. Two primary challenges came from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Houthi rebels.
AQAP, which is part of Ansar al-Shari’a, managed to gain traction during the tumultuous period after Yemen’s revolution. It seized territory in several southern provinces and militants linked to the group captured the cities of Jaar and Zinjibar in 2011. In the aftermath, the U.S. launched an expansive drone program against AQAP with the approval of the Yemeni government. The drone program has managed to eliminate many of AQAP’s top leaders and continues to be used extensively. Although AQAP experienced significant setbacks during Hadi’s tenure, it is reasserting its influence in the chaos of civil war.
Houthi rebels are at the heart of the civil war. They are Zaidi Shia with a primary power base in north Yemen. The Houthis first launched an insurgency against the government in 2004 and intermittently fought the state until a ceasefire in 2010. With the collapse of Saleh’s regime, however, the Houthis expanded their control over portions of southwestern Yemen. They focused primarily on expanding their power base and countering militant Sunni groups, especially AQAP. But by September 2014, President Hadi had become increasingly irrelevant and the Houthis stepped in to fill the power vacuum. They captured the capital Sana’a that month and Hadi’s government was effectively sidelined. The Houthis seized the presidential palace on January 20 of this year and Hadi resigned two days later. He fled the country in March.
As Houthi rebels began to consolidate power, other groups sought to expand their own base. Forces loyal to Saleh began to vie for power along with continued pressure from AQAP. However, Yemen did not truly descend into full-scale civil war until Saudi Arabia began Operation Decisive Storm on March 25. The offensive launched with tacit U.S. support to weaken the Houthis, force them from power and help reestablish Hadi’s government. The Saudi military operation was supported by eight other predominately Sunni Arab states: Morocco, Sudan, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia provided the bulk of the fighting force, committing 150,000 troops and 100 fighter jets. The primary focus of the operation was an aerial bombardment of Houthi positions, a phase that ended April 21 without any decisive conclusion. The coalition continued its offensive in Yemen the next day, rebranding the military action as Operation Restoring Hope. Although this campaign is ostensibly aimed at beginning a peace process, for all intents and purposes, it’s a continuation of the same military actions.
The rise of the Houthis presents a vexing challenge to regional actors involved in Yemeni politics. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia staunchly opposes the Houthis and supports Sunni forces working to reestablish a government led by Hadi. On the other hand, Iran has provided political support for the Houthis, especially after Saudi Arabia’s armed intervention, which is reshaping old regional alliances and setting the basis for a new regional order.
On the most basic level, Sunni authoritarian regimes are the only states that have committed to military action in Yemen. This demonstrates not only the limited makeup of the coalition, but also its reactionary and sectarian makeup. The coalition appears unsustainable in the long run because it is entirely made up of sclerotic, reactionary governments pushing against the tide of history. Even though it has the support of the U.S., it appears to be operating outside the confines of international law. The United Nations did not authorize the coalition to conduct operations in Yemen and therefore the conflict is not legally sanctioned.
On the other side of the conflict are Houthis and their allies. Although Houthis are Zaidi Shia, a group that does not belong to the same branch of Shiism practiced in Iran, it has been receiving increased support from Tehran since Saudi Arabia began operations.
Iran has been increasing its influence and power in the region. It stands at the head of the Shia Crescent, which stretches from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and ends in Iran. It has been the primary beneficiary of what international relations scholar Vali Nasr has termed the “Shia Revival” — the resurgence of Shia Islam and power in the Middle East after the disastrous 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. That invasion eventually led to the establishment of a Shia-dominated Iraqi government that has created stronger links all along the Shia Crescent.
Saudi Arabia has tried to counter Iran by even reaching out to Israel. Although Israel and Saudi Arabia historically have had a frosty relationship and do not have diplomatic relations, both appear to be working in concert against Iran. Recent reports indicate that they have exchanged intelligence on Iran and are working to undermine its nuclear program. Iran appears to be the primary threat to regional order for Saudi Arabia and Israel. Continued uncertainty could help create deeper ties between the two countries.
Old alliances also appear to be shifting. When Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen, it sought military support from Pakistan, which previously provided such support on multiple occasions, including in 1969, when Pakistani Air Force pilots flew aircraft for the Royal Saudi Air force during its conflict with Yemen. Still, Pakistan did not provide the requested military assistance against the Houthis because of parliamentary opposition. Although Pakistan did make assurances that it would protect the “territorial integrity” of Saudi Arabia, its unwillingness to join the coalition against the Houthis in an offensive war was like a slap in the face of traditional allies. The United Arab Emirates’ Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Mohammed Gargash warned Pakistan that it would pay a “heavy price” for its ambiguous stance on Yemen. But Pakistan’s refusal to join the legally dubious war indicates its shift away from military actions dictated by friendships to one based on the interests and will of its people.
Pakistan’s decision to stay out of the conflict is in line with other nascent democratic Sunni states. Turkey stayed out of the conflict and has instead pushed for a diplomatic resolution. Tunisia also opposed military intervention. Even though these states did not prevent coalition action against the Houthis, it does indicate that newly democratizing Sunni Muslim states may be moving away from the military adventurism of the old guard authoritarian Sunni Muslim states. More importantly, it demonstrates that historic alliances will shift if the interests of traditional allies diverge. This could have a monumental impact if the region continues to democratize and get more representative governments.
A new Middle Eastern order?
With old alliance patterns appearing to shift, sectarian conflict on the rise and Yemen in a dire state of affairs, what will the new Middle Eastern order look like?
States will have to make a choice between perpetual conflict or principled diplomacy. The region has already seen too much war and many problems cannot be solved through military solutions. Although transnational threats from al-Qaida and now Daesh/ISIS may require some sort of military response, other issues like representative government cannot be bombed away.
What is needed now more than ever is a negotiated settlement to the disparate problems in the region, particularly to the Iranian nuclear issue and the crisis in Yemen. This will help pave the way for a more peaceful Middle East.
Leaving aside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the prospect for peace in the Middle East is contingent upon what occurs with Iran, which is at the center of an increasingly complex web of competing states and actors all with designs for greater regional influence and power. It is the bastion of Shia Islam and continues to chart its own independent foreign policy. It has committed itself to developing a nuclear program and to resolve outstanding issues with the international community through hard-nosed diplomacy.
The central dilemma with Iran’s nuclear program is that it wants to maintain a civilian nuclear enrichment program irrespective of the economic or political costs. Critics allege that the nuclear enrichment program is a cover for a nuclear weapons program. Although Iran has not been fully transparent with its nuclear enrichment program, the last several U.S. National Intelligence Estimates — which contain the consensus view of America’s 16 intelligence agencies — indicate there is no hard evidence that Iran is building a nuclear weapon. Iran has been negotiating in good faith with the U.S., Russia, China, France, the U.K. and Germany since 2006 for a comprehensive nuclear agreement. Negotiators reached a historic deal in July based on the 2013 Geneva agreement, a move that’s a win for principled diplomacy and a positive step forward for the Middle East.
But the nuclear weapons issue has become more urgent. Saudi Arabia opposes the negotiation with Iran and puts little faith in the allegedly peaceful intentions of its nuclear program, and is therefore considering developing its own nuclear program. After Pakistan declined to take part in military action against the Houthis, Saudi Arabia is no longer confident that it could turn to Pakistan for nuclear help. Even though Saudi Arabia financed much of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, there is no guarantee that Pakistan would provide the technical skills — or nuclear weapon(s) — to the Kingdom, especially after receiving harsh international criticism for Abdul Qadeer Khan’s nuclear proliferation activity. But if Saudi Arabia decided to develop nuclear weapons, this could set off a regional nuclear arms race.
Another chronic issue that remains unresolved is growing sectarian violence, which has deep historical roots inflamed by states in the region and beyond. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, radical Islamists received funding and support from different actors. Iranians exported Shia revivalism and built alliances with groups across the Shia Crescent, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia promoted puritanical Wahhabi Islam and funneled preachers, fighters and money to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet invasion. Saudi Arabia also joined hands with Pakistan and the United States to help the mujahedeen wage war against the Soviets. Eventually the interests of these states shifted, with Iran growing less interested in exporting revolution and more focused on development, while Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the U.S. focused on other issues. But the radical ideologies that had been promoted in the past continue to grow and expand, and have manifested themselves in increasingly violent ways across the Greater Middle East.
Although it would be too simplistic to read the conflict in Yemen purely in sectarian terms, there is no doubt that there is a sectarian element to the violence. Part of the country has come increasingly under that sway of al-Qaida and other radical Islamist fighters. Another part of the country is controlled by the Zaidi Shia Houthis who have an alliance with former President Saleh. Then there is the Wahhabi Saudi Arabian-led coalition that is waging war to reinstall Hadi’s regime.
Irrespective of which faction eventually gains control of Yemen, the ultimate losers are the Yemeni people. The Saudi-led coalition has already cost the lives of 5,400 people. At least 1.5 million people have been forced to flee their homes and the United Nations says that 21 million people need immediate help. Though intermittent peace talks have been underway in Geneva, Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners continue to wage war with no timeline for a cessation.
The new Middle Eastern order has the potential to go any number of ways. The ideal solution is an increase in principled diplomacy with a focus on the Iranian nuclear issue and ending hostilities in Yemen. From a realist perspective, states will continue to take actions that will advance their interests even if it costs regional stability. However, perhaps the democratic yearnings of people across the region may yet lead states to refocus and rebalance domestic and foreign policies. Regardless of which way the tide eventually turns, there can be no doubt that the new Middle Eastern order will look radically different.
This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2015 print issue of The Islamic Monthly.