Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East and known to have more weapons than citizens, has been a security nightmare for some time – but its recent downturn has finally spurred its neighbours to military action.
An unprecedented coalition of Sunni states has lined up to preserve what they consider as the legitimate Yemeni government. On the night of March 25, the Saudi ambassador in Washington announced the start of Operation Storm of Resolve at a news conference. The following day, the Saudi media confirmed that a coalition of states comprising Qatar, Morocco, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, and Sudan were sending aircraft to target the Shia-led rebels in Yemen.
On top of that, Egypt, Sudan and Pakistan also confirmed that they were ready to send ground forces into the country to save the government of President Hadi.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, also expressed support for the Saudi-led mission. Announcing that he was considering whether to provide “logistical support” to the new coalition, Erdogan warned Iran against trying to achieve dominance in the region.
His words cut to the heart of a very dangerous situation. While most Sunni states in the Middle East have allied themselves with Riyadh against what they consider a Shia takeover of Yemen, Tehran and its allies clearly see this as an open act of aggression – setting up a proxy conflict that could pave the way for a full-on regional meltdown.
Although there is a long history of distrust between Shia Iran and its Sunni neighbours, the conflict in Yemen will seriously inflame the problem. With the coalition explicitly organised on sectarian lines, foreign policy in the Middle East will get more and more sectarian as religious identity becomes an important basis on which it is made.
The Houthi uprising in Yemen and its links to Tehran will pave the way for further securitisation of Shia minorities in the Sunni states, which will pour fuel on some long-smouldering inter-state sectarian rivalries. And worse still, the conflict could well provide a newly hospitable climate for violent sub-state actors, who are already changing the geopolitical landscape of the region beyond recognition.
Over the last year or so Islamic State (IS) has been able to turn itself into the most successful brand in the world of trans-national Jihadism. Its phenomenal success both in Syria and Iraq has created a great challenge for al-Qaeda, which previously enjoyed something like a monopoly.
Accordingly, there have been numerous defections from al-Qaeda to IS, although al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is still very effective in Yemen – and as the already very weak Yemeni state becomes increasingly ineffective, the group will be able to expand its sphere of influence and reassert itself in the country. That may in turn reinvigorate its wider regional and global operations.
The same vacuum will also provide the Houthis with a new opportunity to redefine themselves. The Saudi-led military operation in Yemen could allow them to portray themselves as a persecuted sectarian minority, and in turn help them to re-mobilise Zaydi Shiites, who make up around 40% of Yemen’s population. Many of them could be easily drawn into the conflict to resist both AQAP and the Saudi-led military operation.
In another twist in the situation, IS is clearly interested in winning its share of the Yemeni spoils. Its raison d'être depends upon controlling territory and expansion, and it now finds itself on the defensive on several fronts in Iraq and Syria. But although the group is losing some battles, the war is far from over.
The security crisis in Yemen provides it with a unique opportunity to expand its territory. This could compensate for territorial losses in Iraq and reinvigorate the organisation – setting up a thorny conflict with AQAP, which of course will not tolerate a takeover of what it sees as its territory by IS.
Of course, the Middle East has been in serious security and political turmoil for decades, and the last 15 years in particular. But the conflict in Yemen could profoundly change the region at large.
Whereas the Syrian civil war unleashed sectarian hostilities in the region, the military escalation in Yemen will sediment sectarianism as a force to redefine regional alliances and rivalries. This could be the start of a new era, where identity politics more than ever determine who holds the Middle East’s balance of power.
And while the direct military involvement of the Sunni states in Yemen is drawing a new battleground for a regional proxy war with Shia states, it also heralds a new era for the rise of sub-state actors. The chaos in Yemen will only provide new opportunities for groups such as IS and al-Qaeda. In other words, the escalation in Yemen could be the start of a multi-dimensional war, one that comprises conflicts among states, spats between sub-state actors, and combinations of the two.
Rivals such as Iran and Saudi Arabia may or may not realise they are opening yet another Pandora’s box, one just as dangerous as the Syrian civil war – but make no mistake, this could be the start of a whole new chapter in Middle Eastern history.