Analysis

Syria, Yemen and Now Lebanon: Will the Saudis' Latest Gamble Prove Another Reckless Failure?

The West's infatuation with the kingdom's natural resources has seemingly blinded it to its immense regional failures

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, March 14, 2017.
Evan Vucci/AP

The war in Yemen, which began shortly after the crowning of King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman in January 2015, is Saudi Arabia’s most resounding military and political failure. For this war Saudi Arabia set up the Arab coalition, comprising Egypt and Sudan, among others, which contribute their share in patrolling Yemen’s shore. Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who replaced Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef both as crown prince and war commander, was put in charge of the war. In the absence of official figures, the conflict’s cost is estimated as some $200 million a day and the end is nowhere in sight.

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Fighter jets from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are relentlessly bombarding Houthi insurgents with no regard for the innocent civilians living near, but this war is still seen as “justified.” It is seen as a war of good against evil, of Saudi Arabia against Iran, of the United States against terrorism. It is also the first war since the Arab Spring in which Arab states are fighting inside another Arab state, a situation that not even Syria brought about.

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The latest development is the sea and land siege that Saudi Arabia imposed on Yemen this week in response to a ballistic missile launched from Yemen toward Riyadh, which was intercepted by Saudi Arabia’s missile defense system.

More than 10,000 people have died in Yemen since the war began in 2014. The UN says more than seven million people are hungry, close to a million have suffered from a rapidly-spreading cholera epidemic and hundreds of thousands have been left without a home.

These horrific statistics have failed to touch world public opinion or stir Western governments.

The human tragedy in Yemen is troubling neither Saudi Arabia nor its American partner, which is providing the kingdom with full backing, apparently in exchange for the gigantic $110 billion arms deal, which Saudi Arabia signed with Trump’s administration. But the advanced weapons Saudi Arabia has purchased over the decades and its military capabilities are unable to defeat the Houthi rebels, whose weapons, despite Iran’s assistance, are far inferior. The explanation lies in the field conditions and in the nature of urban warfare, which requires an extensive land incursion into the state to win the war – a step the kingdom has avoided so far.

Saudi Arabia’s efforts to revive the Yemeni administration headed by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was recognized by the international community, have not been successful. Hadi, whose troops and administration represent only Yemen’s southern part, is running, if it can be called that, the state’s affairs from Riyadh through emails and telephone calls. He has no desire or ability to return to Aden, from where the districts that haven’t been conquered by the Houthis are being governed.

Arab media reports say Saudi Arabia isn’t permitting Hadi to return to Yemen, and that he and a group of his ministers and senior officers are spending their time in a Riyadh much like hostages.

The crown prince has stated several times recently that he wants to end the war in Yemen, but has offered no plan to do so. Mohammad bin Salman must also deal with Mohammed bin Zayed, Dubai’s crown prince, who has his own agenda. He objects to removing the forces from Yemen and is demanding to continue the war until it is won.

Bin Zayed has considerable weight in Saudi decision making, not only due to his state’s military contributions to the war but also because he is well connected with Egypt and the American administration. He is also a necessary partner in continuing the economic sanctions on Qatar and the overall struggle against Iran.

So when the commander of Abu Dhabi’s security services demands the resignation of Yemen’s president, it reflects the differences between Saudi Arabia and its ally. The problem of those two crown princes is that their forces are unable to conquer Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, and as long as the city is under Houthi control, only far-reaching political and economic concessions could induce the insurgents to lay down their arms. These concessions would include a new budgetary distribution, appointing ministers and perhaps even a prime minister of the rebels’ choice.

The Yemeni president isn’t the only one who cannot return to his country. This week he was joined by his colleague, Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister who resigned suddenly and has been staying in Riyadh since Friday, with no plans of leaving. His rivals in Lebanon say the Saudi authorities won’t let him return home, while his loyalists maintain he is staying in Saudi Arabia for his own safety, due to the threats on his life.

This isn’t the first time Hariri is spending time out of his country because of terror threats. In 2011, after his government collapsed, he wandered between Paris and Riyadh for almost three years before returning to Lebanon. Hariri himself reported he was meeting Western ambassadors and figures in Riyadh but so far he hasn’t issued any official statement about the reasons for his sojourn there. Saudi officials have also refrained from making any official statement about the matter.

There are no longer doubts that the Saudi administration, or more accurately, Mohammad bin Salman, planned Hariri’s resignation to cause a political upheaval in Lebanon, thus denying Iran and Hezbollah a legitimate ally like Hariri, and perhaps generating public protest that would force Hezbollah and Iran keep their hands off this state.

This dramatic move makes Saudi Arabia directly and blatantly involved in Lebanon’s internal affairs and drafts the lines of the political front between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But it is hardly likely to work. Hezbollah has no intention of renouncing its political strongholds in Lebanon, and Iran and may even increase its involvement in the country. The Saudi gamble could then transpire to be another painful failure of a reckless policy, in stark contrast to traditional Saudi policy, which was based on covert diplomacy and large sums of money.

The inventory of Saudi failures cannot skip the kingdom’s squandering the historic opportunity it had to make new ties with Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003. In fact, during all those years Saudi Arabia boycotted the Iraqi regime, even if not officially, closed some border crossings and prevented direct flights between Iraq and the kingdom. So while Iran and Turkey rushed to make ties with the new Iraqi government to their considerable economic and diplomatic benefit, Saudi Arabia was left behind. Last month a slight turning point occurred in the Saudi policy toward Iraq, with the two states signing cooperation agreements, setting up a cooperation council and opening the Arar border crossing to traffic. But these steps are too little, too late, paling in comparison to Iran’s strong status in Iraq obtained promptly after Hussein’s fall due to the Shi’ite affinity to the Iraqi administration and mainly due to Iran’s infrastructure investments in Iraq.

Syria is the last of Saudi’s failures. The war there proved that Saudi Arabia can support, finance and equip militias, but it was unable to set up an Arab coalition to fight against Bashar Assad’s army. It isn’t an active partner in Russia’s strategic moves to establish a cease fire in Syria and bring about a peace plan.

In this matter, Saudi Arabia’s main contribution was setting up a cluster of militias which is partner to the diplomatic negotiations, but doesn’t represent all the rebel factions of the Sunni coalition King Salman had set up to fight the Islamic State and block Iran’s influence.

Turkey and Iran have become partners in the Syrian peace process. Qatar, on which Saudi Arabia imposed harsh sanctions to induce it to renounce Iran, didn’t cave in to the Saudi dictate and hasn’t changed its policy. Egypt said it did not object to Assad’s continued reign, as did Turkey; the war on ISIS was run by Kurdish and American forces in Syria. The Iraqi army with Shi’ite militias and Kurdish forces were the main elements that brought victory in Iraq.

In view of all this, the question is if Saudi Arabia’s status isn’t overrated in the West, and whether the strategic partnership with it is based mostly on its economic strengths and natural resources rather than on its abilities to influence strategic and military moves in the Middle East.

Part of the answer will depend on the way the crown prince runs the kingdom. So far he has managed to impress mainly in muscle flexing and temper outbursts against his rivals.