Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to grasp how they see the world is the best way to understand their behavior. So 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 Arabian-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in Yemen and other Arab lands. I left with much better appreciation for the domestic, regional and global developments that have pushed the GCC into its new orbit of concern and vulnerability—but also with more questions than answers about the perceived threats and whether war in Yemen is the most effective way to deal with them.
There is no question that a new set of leaders at the upper and middle 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 witness 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 harbored for years has started to materialize—and virtually simultaneously. These include half a dozen different developments that is each dangerous enough on its own, but they take on tsunamic dimensions when they occur simultaneously. They have included, in the last four years: the expansion of militant Salafist-takfiri movements like ISIS and Al-Qaeda that are a security threat but also in ways 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 elected rise to power of Muslim Brotherhood parties in Egypt and Tunisia; the fragmentation of countries like Libya, Iraq and Syria that opens 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-based Ansarullah movement; the increasing structural influence of Iran in several Arab countries, especially Iraq, Syria and Lebanon; concern that a nuclear/sanctions agreement between Iran and the U.S.-led P5+1 powers would increase Iran’s power and its presumed hegemonic ambitions in the region; and, worry that Washington is both downgrading its overall Mideast engagements in favor of Asian relations, and will also distribute its strategic relations in the Middle East more evenly among Israel, Iran and its traditional Arab GCC allies.
All of these frightening developments taking place simultaneously have suddenly demanded from the GCC states an effective response that would 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 that shape 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 possible 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 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 it already responds to the GCC’s 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 the 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 in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global