Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Saudi Arabia Flexes Its Muscles

The last week has seen a trickle of press on the escalating conflict in Yemen between the Houthi rebels, the Yemeni government, and now Saudi Arabia.

The news has been startling for its lack of detail and the conflicting nature of the reports. There are few journalists on the ground in North Yemen and so our news on the conflict has primarily been taken from the vague and often contradictory reports being issued by the Houthis, the Yemeni government, and the Saudi government.

What we do know is the following: the on-again, off-again conflict between the Zaidi rebels and the Yemeni army has plagued the country now for five years. The Zaidis are a sect of Shi'a, although far removed from the twelver sect that dominates countries like Iran and some say that they are actually closer in their beliefs to Sunnis. The conflict began in 2004 when the Yemeni government tried to arrest the leader of the Zaidis in the northern Yemeni province of Saada and the group, calling themselves Houthis after this same leader, launched an armed revolt against the Yemeni authorities.

In August, the Yemeni army decided to try to eradicate the rebels once and for all (they called this effort Operation Scorched Earth). They pressed into the region and have been engaging in heavy fighting with the Houthis since, with both sides claiming to be gaining advantage. Then ten days ago, the Houthis raided a valley directly across the border in Saudi Arabia, claiming that the Yemeni army had been using the location as a launching pad for strikes against the Houthis. Saudi responded to the raid with a blistering series of rocket attacks as well as limited ground operations. The most recent update is that the Saudi forces have pushed rebels back away from the border and are continuing to shell the border region of Jebel al-Dukhan in order to enforce a 10km buffer zone along the border.

So what does this all mean? Since we can't talk much about what's actually happening on the ground, most of the commentary out there is on how this conflict might play out and what its implications are for broader regional affairs.

The two most prevalent theses out there are: 1) this could be the beginning of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Saudi supporting the Yemenis and Iran supporting the Houthis. And 2) this could have extremely negative implications for Yemen's stability and security, escalating a domestic conflict into a regional one which will quickly spiral further out of its control.

On the first point, most analysts and experts are pointing out that despite Yemen's frequent accusations that Iran has been supporting the Houthis with weapons, there is little evidence to believe that this has been happening at a significant level -- until now. The danger is that Saudi Arabia's sudden entry into the conflict will propel Iran to make a similarly bold step.

From Saudi Arabia's perspective, most are arguing that Riyadh thinks it may have made a mistake and will make sure to limit its involvement as much as possible. The last thing Saudi wants is to get bogged down in a prolonged proxy way with Iran, fighting guerrilla rebels on their own turf and further destabilizing an already unstable neighbor. There is certainly merit to this argument.

But the sheer size and awesomeness of the Saudi response strikes me as significant. It may be that Saudi does not want to get caught up in a proxy war with Iran. But its response to the Houthi attack went far beyond what would have been necessary to simply repel the incursion and secure the border. On the first day of strikes there were reports of over 100 missiles raining down on a single location in one hour. It has employed Apache helicopters and long-range artillery (perhaps straight off the US assembly lines). The scale of this response suggests to me that Saudi may be trying to flex its muscles. The country has a lot of guns and missiles. It is by far the number one purchaser of foreign arms in the Middle East, but has rarely put these arms to use. The disproportionate response to the Houthi incursion may be an effort to show off some this potential might to its regional rivals. Riyadh probably does not want to get into a war with Iran. But the bombing may be a calculated way of showing Tehran that if a war does begin, Saudi has more than enough means to win it.

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