Yemen’s War Is Debatable, But Probably Historic

Simultaneous adjustments at national, regional and global levels have been taking place across the Middle East region since the end of the Cold War. The Saudi-Yemen situation is important because it captures developments at all three levels.

Analysts and ideologues will long, actively and inconclusively debate the actual reasons and possible consequences of the Saudi Arabian-led war in Yemen, until the passage of a meaningful period of time—usually a few generations or so around here—allows us to note in retrospect the actual consequences of state actions.

The important discussion now strikes me as being about what the Saudi-led-coalition-fighting-in-Yemen tells us about the broad, slow shifts and adjustments that are occurring in the regional power balance across the Middle East—because this fundamental dynamic will determine conditions around here for many decades. Such changes occur slowly, but when they happen they tend to have impact for decades, or generations.

We are now living through a gradual series of simultaneous adjustments at national, regional and global levels that have been taking place across the region since the end of the Cold War in 1990 or so. The Saudi-Yemen situation is important because it captures developments at all three levels at the same time, and possibly marks a historic turning point at which regional powers mature in their self-confidence and capabilities, and step up and take greater charge of political dynamics across the region. I suspect the Saudi-led military action—whatever its actual motivations, aims and consequences, all of which will remain controversial and debatable—is an important sign of this very significant development: the emergence of a series of regional powers who actually take charge of their situations and initiate political and military actions to protect what they see as their legitimate national interests, instead of repeating past habits of just complaining to the United Nations, convening chronically meaningless Arab League emergency summits, or pleading for the United States to send in the Marines and Air Force to save us (as happened most recently with the fight against ISIS).

When after the end of the Cold War in 1990 the Soviet- and American-led camps loosened their engagements in many parts of the Middle East, we then witnessed the 9/11 attack and the Anglo-American war on Iraq. Three principal dynamics ensued from all this: Some Arab governments that relied heavily on super power support became weaker and experienced a decline in their domestic control of land, people and authority; numerous indigenous non-state groups (tribal, military, ethnic, national, ideological) developed quickly to fill in the vacuum created by the occasional retreat of their state and its foreign patrons; and, the regional powers (Turkey, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Iraq then) reacted either with heightened aggression or political dynamism (Israel, Iraq, Turkey, Iran) or were caught somewhat flat-footed and simply perpetuated their previous behavior.

This era may be ending now, and Yemen is its exclamation point. This is not occurring in a vacuum or without warning. One of the most dramatic developments during the Arab uprisings and consequent civil wars (Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen) of the past four years has been the steady increase in military actions across the region by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. These conservative states historically worked discreetly and indirectly to achieve their diplomatic goals, which focused mainly on preserving a status quo across the region that did not disrupt prevailing patterns of energy flows, conservative governance, and American-Western dominance, or at least prevalence. The war in Yemen signals the end—at least for now—of this GCC discretion. It also probably marks the start of what should be an exciting, complex and protracted process by which the surviving regional Arab-Islamic powers (mainly Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran, with Egypt aspiring to regain a role on Saudi coattails) negotiate new relationships that could shape a historic security architecture for the region for years to come.

This reconfiguration of the roles of indigenous regional powers will help to address the two other dimensions of violence, turbulence and uncertainty we have suffered in many parts of the Middle East, since 1990 primarily: the fragmentation and incoherence of domestic identity and authority, and the inconsistent roles of super powers, mainly the United States and Russia, but also comprising aspects of European and Chinese policies. How Yemen evolves in the coming months will determine if the dramatic Saudi foray into self-assertion across the Middle East will prod a continued restructuring of, and mutual understandings of the roles among, the existing regional powers, ideally leading towards a new era of locally-engineered security and stability. If Yemen goes bad, we are likely to suffer the alternative scenario of expanding the destructive trends of the past twenty-five years—until one day the regional and global powers grasp the folly of their recent ways and figure out how to adopt more rational uses of power and authority. That change must ideally reflect, rather than deflect, the rights, wishes and well-being of the citizens of this region—which has always been the only real guarantor of long-term stability and security.

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. Khouridistributed by Agence Global