This memo is part of a larger collection, POMEPS Studies 34: Shifting Global Politics and the Middle East. All pieces from this collection are available here.
Maria-Louise Clausen, Danish Institute for International Studies
The Saudi-led intervention into Yemen that was announced on March 26, 2015, marked a departure in the direction of a more activist Saudi foreign policy. Saudi Arabia had previously undertaken smaller-scale military campaigns in neighboring countries, such as a short intervention against the Houthis in 2009, and the deployment of Saudi troops into Bahrain to shore up the regime there early on in the Arab Spring. However, the Saudi air campaign in Yemen marks a break because of its intensity and ambition. This break has frequently been explained by reference to internal Saudi politics, especially the changing of the guard that has led to the ascendance of Mohamed bin Salman, Minister of Defense and Crown Prince since 2017, who is widely considered the mastermind of the Yemen intervention. There are other explanations focusing on the importance of structural shifts following the Arab uprisings and the at least perceived disengagement of the US from the region. The more structural explanations gain credence from the oft-repeated truism that the Middle East as a region is particularly penetrated by external powers.
The case of the sustained Saudi-led intervention into Yemen illustrates how the foreign policy of states is shaped by a mix of dynamics internal to the state and the global and regional environments in which they operate (See Ahmed Morsy’s paper in this collection). This paper points to some of the key elements in the interactions between national interest and changes in the broader global and regional environment in the specific context of the Saudi-led military intervention into Yemen. To do this, the paper will first outline the domestic conditions within Saudi Arabia that impacted the decision to intervene militarily in the Yemeni conflict and then analyze how key developments at regional and international level has interacted with domestic factors. The analysis emphasizes the importance of the domestic level, specifically as it relates to the survival of the Saudi regime but argues that specific policy choices are influenced by broader structural shifts at the regional and international level.
Saudi Arabia since 2015: Internal weaknesses and external relations
The ascent of King Salman to the throne in early 2015 ushered in a period of change in the Saudi internal elite. Most notably, he restructured the line of succession; first in 2015 when his son, Mohammed bin Salman, was named defense minister, and again in June 2017 where Mohammed bin Salman became Crown Prince at the age of 33. The unprecedented centralization of power in the hands of Muhammed bin Salman has taken place at the expense of several older princes, who have largely remained silent so far but who may object to the centralization of power. Additionally, the Saudi economy was weakened by low oil prices leading to increased pressure on the ineffective public sector. The result has been a gradual undermining of the Saudi Arabian social contract that exchanges limited political freedom for substantial economic benefits, as seen in youth unemployment rates of approximately 30%. Muhammed bin Salman has sought to address this through “Saudi Arabia’s Vision for 2030,” an ambitious package of economic and social reforms.
Finally, there has been brewing internal unrest within the kingdom, most notably in the Eastern Province. The Eastern Province is both home to Saudi Arabia’s minority of Shia, that make up approximately 10-15% of the population, and the bulk of Saudi Arabia’s crude oil production capacity. The Saudi regime has violently cracked down on dissent, which has, in part, been justified by painting the Shia as disloyal to the Saudi regime and the resulting protests as potentially being a cover for Iranian attempts at destabilizing Saudi Arabia. The precarious position of the Shia inside Saudi Arabia illustrates the link between internal and external factors, as the presence of a domestic challenge is framed as being part of a regional competition with Iran.
While domestic changes explain some of the shifts in Saudi foreign policy, the structural context at the regional and international level matters as well. The key aspect in relation to understanding the regional context of Saudi Arabia is its rivalry with Iran. The current Saudi regime sees Iran as the major enemy and has been extremely critical of Iran’s policy of supporting (armed) non-state actors in the region to achieve its foreign policy goals. Thus, Saudi Arabia has moved to counteract the increased influence of Iran in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon by seeking to build strategic alliances. Yet, the efforts to thwart the increasing influence of Iran in the region has been hampered by the blockade of Qatar since the summer of 2017 by the Saudi-led alliance of Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE, as it has underscored the lack of a united anti-Iranian front.
The concern with Iran is shared with the current American administration. The Trump administration sees Iran as the main disrupter of peace in the Middle East. The most pivotal consequence of this has been the American withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 nuclear deal, a decision that President Trump defended at the opening of the 73rd UN General Assembly on 25 September 2018, where he referred to Iran as “the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism.” There has been a rapprochement between the US and Saudi Arabia during the Trump presidency. The US under Trump sees Saudi Arabia as a strategic partner to promote regional security and global economic stability. Trump has indicated that Saudi Arabia must pay for itself such as when he recently exclaimed that: “And I love the King, King Salman. But I said ‘King – we’re protecting you – you might not be there for two weeks without us— you have to pay for your military.” But the Saudi regime still believes that Trump is a better partner than Obama or perhaps just a more manageable one, because of the common threat perception towards Iran. In the specific case, Mohammed bin Salman called the Trump statement a “misunderstanding” and instead took the opportunity to criticize Obama. This narrative of opposition to Obama, an “anti-Obama imperative,” resonates strongly with Trump.
This relationship cannot be reduced to a simple bargain of oil for security although the position of Saudi Arabia as the holder of the second largest proven oil reserves in the world certainly has played a role in securing the Kingdom military support from the US.
The Saudi-led intervention into Yemen
The 2015 intervention in Yemen illustrates the interaction between the internal and external dimensions of Saudi policy. MBS has voiced a desire for the Kingdom to be more assertive in shaping events in the Middle East and countering the influence of Iran. He made the intervention into Yemen the symbol of his assertive foreign policy and thus, a key element in strengthening his position as the successor to the crown in the face of substantial internal challenges. The intervention was initially popular within Saudi Arabia and as such presented an opportunity to project an image of strong and decisive leadership and Mohammed bin Salman as a man of action. It boosted a sense of Saudi nationalism as it was framed as Saudi Arabia taking a strong stance against the perceived continued encroachments of Iran. MBS has resisted changing policy even as the intervention failed to achieve rapid or decisive victory and has played a substantial role in pushing Yemen towards what the UN refer to as the world’s current worst humanitarian crisis.
The uprising in Yemen in 2011, that forced the president of 33-years, Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign, ended with a negotiated transition guided by the so-called GCC Agreement. The agreement was criticized for being overly focused on stabilization as it largely retained the status quo for the political elites of the country. While the UN supported political negotiations went ahead in Sana’a as stipulated in the GCC agreement, tensions were growing as the economy and security situation continued to deteriorate. In September 2014, the Houthis militarily seized control of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, facilitated by a deal with the former president Saleh who continued to wield substantial influence. Although the Houthis framed these events as a continuation of the 2011 revolution, the Houthis became increasingly unwilling to share power, leading to the flight of the interim but internationally recognized President Hadi from Sana’a in early 2015. In March 2015, the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen commenced with the aim of reversing the Houthi takeover and return Hadi to power.
There is an often told story of how, while on his deathbed, the founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman al-Saud, warned his sons that “the good or evil for us will come from Yemen.” Whether true or not, the story illustrates how Saudi Arabia’s approach to Yemen has been shaped by a focus on containing the perceived security risk emanating from Yemen. The stated objective of the Saudi-led intervention was “to defend the legitimate government of President Hadi” who had requested help based on article 51 of the UN Charter. The intervention has also been legitimized through the right to self-defense. The Saudis consistently refer to the Houthis as an Iranian-backed militia. In the Saudi narrative, the Houthis not only threaten the Yemeni population but also Saudi Arabia itself. The Houthis have carried out numerous cross border attacks and at several occasions launched missiles deep into Saudi territory. Saudi Arabia see the Houthis as Iran’s pro-longed arm and has presented the intervention as necessary to prevent a regional plot that threatened to destabilize the Arabian Peninsula.
The linkage of the intervention to the regional rivalry with Iran – as well as the way MBS has made Yemen a symbol of his foreign policy – has made it difficult for the Saudis to either withdraw or accept a negotiated peace deal that would see the Houthis sustain substantial political and military influence in Yemen. Thus, whereas Saudi Arabia could relatively unscathed withdraw from their intervention in Yemen in 2009 despite it being framed as largely unsuccessful, it seems unlikely that Muhammed bin Salman will accept, or be able to accept, withdrawal from the current intervention into Yemen without being able to at least symbolically declaring the war a victory.
The international context does less to explain the Yemen intervention than the regional or domestic levels. Both Obama and Trump supported the Saudi-led intervention into Yemen. The Obama administration largely backed the intervention in order to support an ally at a time of considerable intra-alliance tension. The US has limited direct interest in Yemen beyond concerns over terrorism, and have a well-established tradition of approaching the perceived anarchy of Yemen through airstrikes. While the Obama administration supported the intervention relatively quietly, the Trump administration has widely adopted the narrative of the Houthis as Iranian puppets. The combination of improved personal relations between Trump and Mohammed bin Salman, which is undergirded by a shared perception of Iran as the biggest threat in the region, and an American desire to delegate to regional allies, has worked to give Saudi Arabia free reigns in Yemen. Thus, the Saudis have carried out the military operations in Yemen with U.S.- trained Saudi personnel with U.S. logistical assistance, and shared intelligence using U.S.-origin weaponry.
There is an economic dimension as well. The Yemen war has become “a huge financial boon for American and British defense contractors (and their shareholders)” despite concerns over the humanitarian crisis. Trump has underlined that the bilateral relationship between the US and KSA is transactional and that a key component of this is that the Saudis arms purchases move forward. However, as civilian casualties mount in Yemen, there has been increased internal pressure on the Trump administration to limit arms sales to Saudi Arabia. These have so far been unsuccessful although recent events following the murder of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, seem to have led to some, at least rhetorical, changes in the Trump administration’s approach to the Saudi intervention in Yemen. There is no doubt that the US is a key partner for Saudi Arabia as outlined above, but events also demonstrate that the US cannot dictate the policies of Saudi Arabia.
Interactions between the internal and the external in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy
The desire of Mohammed bin Salman to use a more assertive foreign policy as a way of boosting his internal powerbase has not just been visible in relation to the intervention into Yemen. Mohammed bin Salman has effectively undermined the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) framework that currently seems largely defunct as brought to the fore by Qatar standoff. MBS’s move away from the regional framework and towards a more security centered approach to regional affairs is echoed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE has played a major role in Yemen, particularly in the south of Yemen where the UAE have a large presence on the ground while it has also provided substantial support to building a network of loyal militias and political actors. The two states have chosen different but complementary strategies that reflect their separate policy preferences in Yemen. Whereas Saudi Arabia is enmeshed in an unwinnable and publicized air campaign, UAE has focused on gradually building its influence on the ground in a strategy designed to integrate Yemen, and its strategically placed ports, as part of a broader policy towards the Horn of Africa.
The current Saudi assertiveness is less a result of internal strength, and more an attempt by Muhammed bin Salman to use external assertiveness to build his internal reputation. The potential weakness of the Saudi regime adds a layer of complexity and unpredictability to the analysis. It can be argued that the increased fragmentation and the bilateral character of relationships based on transactional cost-benefit analysis has increased the importance of personal relationships. Moreover, it could be argued that the direct and personal linkage of Muhammed bin Salman to the intervention into Yemen has had the unfortunate side effect of making it difficult for the Saudis to withdraw without a, at least, symbolic victory as this would weaken Muhammed bin Salman internally. At least so far, the Saudi regime have chosen to continue the intervention in Yemen despite is substantial costs and limited outcomes rather than risk internal blowback.
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