The struggle for West Asian supremacy has engulfed one more country: Yemen. Saudi Arabia has called in every IOU it has to mobilise a Sunni military response to the Iranian-backed rebels who have captured much of northern and interior Yemen. The Pakistani and Egyptian military and even the far-off Moroccan monarchy — all long-standing recipients of Saudi money — have promised troops or aircraft. Riyadh’s response seems extreme. The Yemeni rebels a mix of Shia Houthi tribals and Sunni fighters allied to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh — are a minor threat. Many sources, however, say the Saudi’s fear encirclement. Over the past year, Tehran has gained a proxy government in Baghdad, saved the Shia regime in Syria from collapse and is on the verge of a nuclear breakout as its negotiations with the US move towards an end to economic sanctions.
The geriatric Saudi royal family also needs to whip up things to maintain its standing at home. Says West Asia expert Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institute, “The Saudis are pushing the Iran card to rally sectarianism. The narrative is more complicated than merely Shia-Sunni rivalry.” That Riyadh has a 34-year-old inexperienced defence minister doesn’t help much either.
Saudis at war
Yet the Saudis overseas are on a war-footing. Besides rallying Sunni countries, they have quietly backed the brutal Islamic State to hold Iran at bay. The drop in oil prices they partly engineered is designed to drain Tehran’s coffers. Riyadh has been generous. It paid the Lebanese Army $3 billion last year, double the country’s entire defence budget to counter the Shia militia, Hezbollah. They still hope Israel will bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. Cairo, Damascus and Islamabad have all been fed billions to ensure they do Riyadh’s bidding. The new king, Salman Al Saud, a reported Al Qaeda funder in the past, has no compunctions in using militant groups for Saudi ends.
A few years back, the dominoes were falling against Tehran. The popular revolts dubbed as the Arab Spring nearly brought down their only Arab ally, Syria. A fallout of Syria’s collapse was the violently anti-Shia IS, which then overran northwestern Iraq. It took an enormous Shia mobilisation, with thousands of Iranian and Hezbollah fighters egged on by the ayatollahs to contain the IS’s expansion. Yemen had been a sideshow for Iran, but one that has suddenly gone extremely well.
Saudi moves to mobilise the Sunnis are hampered by divsions among the faithful. Turkey also had ambitions to be the next Sunni leader. The horse they backed was the Arab Spring and the conservative Islamic political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. Ankara envisaged a new West Asian order with Brotherhood governments in Egypt, Syria and Jordan — all looking to Turkey as a model. It didn’t happen. Sunni monarchies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates helped the Egyptian military to overthrow Cairo’s Brotherhood government. Iran and Hezbollah poured in money and men to save the Syrian government. Ankara has begun to sound like Riyadh, calling on Sunnis to rally to keep the Houthis (a Zaidi Muslim group from Yemen) at bay, but there’s a ring of desperation as they try to remain relevant in West Asia’s Game of Thrones. “The Saudis are wooing Ankara by telling Egypt’s military to treat the Brotherhood less harshly,” says Turkish analyst Cengiz Cangar.
The Saudis have been able to corral the Qataris. Flush with funds and ambitions to be a new Sunni power centre, the Qataris initially mimicked the Turks, backing the Arab Spring and the Brotherhood. They remain a wild card, prepared to side with anyone except their hated rivals, the Saudis.
Despite all this, it is anyone’s guess whether Riyadh’s efforts will turn the tide against Iran. In this power struggle, fortunes change in a few weeks’ time. “I expect other states to fall, Egypt is a possibility,” says Riedel.
The most powerful West Asian player is missing in action: the US. President Barack Obama believes regional powers should be allowed to work out their own problems. When the going got rough in Yemen, the US forces there were moved out. The US is bombing IS but its sorties are few and far between. “The US strategy in Iraq has been successful so far largely because of Iran,” argues Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival. The US has almost washed its hands off Syria and Libya. Anyone who has betted on the US for support — the Abed Hadi government in Yemen, secular rebels in Syria and the Kurds in Iraq — has either gone down in defeat or survived because of additional Iran or Saudi support.
Henry Kissinger and others have compared the collapse of wide swathes of West Asia into sectarian warfare to the Thirty Years’ War that nearly consumed Christian Europe six centuries ago. It is nominally Shia versus Sunni, but really about a half-dozen regional powers vying to be king of the heap.
The fallout is still spreading. Hezbollah recently denounced Riyadh: “You destroyed an entire state just to bring down the Syrian regime.” With nearly every country between Libya and Pakistan in some state of military conflict, the only thing equal is the blame for the bloodshed.