Friday, January 30, 2015

Saudi Arabia's uncertain future as Yemen burns

During King Abdullah’s reign (2005-2015), the Middle East faced its most turbulent period. So new King Salman has inherited the emerging threat of ISIS, the oil crisis and fending off eternal foe Iran and how he deals with these issues will provide insight into his policies. It would be the ideal opportunity for the world to see how much King Salman’s approach will differ from his late brother’s.

Under King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia constructed a dual-track regional policy of attempting to contain Iranian influence whilst opposing the growth of extreme Sunni political Islam which its sees as a threat to its rule. Turmoil ridden Yemen could prove to be King Salman’s biggest test.

The recent resignation of Yemen’s president, leaving the country at the mercy of the Houthis, has Saudi Arabia feeling anxious. Yemen is at risk of breaking up with the ascent of the Houthi movement, a group whose main strategic alliance is with Riyadh's foe Iran, in a country also home to Sunni al Qaeda's most active affiliate. The rise of Houthis’ Ansar Allah militia is a new danger threatening southern regions of Saudi Arabia, however Riyadh did not undertake any direct or active role to try to prevent the advance of the Houthis, and the political and material support it provided was limited to Yemeni President Abed Rabo Mansour Hadi and his army, which has collapsed in the face of the Houthis.

Saudi Arabia has been constructing a series of tough border defences to insulate itself from its turbulent neighbour and has cut off funding to Sanaa, hoping that will eventually persuade Yemen's new rulers to compromise.

After decades buying the support of tribes, politicians and clerics in Yemen, the royal family is losing its grip on Yemen and is falling back on a defensive security policy. Saudi Arabia will now need more proactive policies in regards to Yemen instead of increasing security and building more border fences and guarding it. It seems like this is the only strategy Saudi has for Yemen; no strategy.

US President Obama and King Salman met on 27th Jan (Tuesday) to discuss shared concerns about the turmoil in Yemen and the fight against Islamic State militants, their first formal meeting in Riyadh.  The tense regional security situation means Washington needs Saudi Arabia as much as ever.

Saudi Arabia has backed the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. The two countries are also concerned about Yemen, where the country's U.S.-backed government collapsed last week following the resignation of Yemen President Hadi.

The US embassy in Sanaa has been closed to the public however it will still be handling “emergency cases involving US citizens”.

The Houthis are members of a rebel group, also known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), who adhere to a branch of Shia Islam known as Zaidism and originate from Northern Yemen. A representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in the Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guards compared the Shiite Houthi group, currently dominating Yemen to the Shiite movement in Lebanon, Hezbollah. 

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