Four years after the risings in Tunisia and Egypt, the Arab world is caught up in war from neighbouring Libya to Syria and Iraq.
Now a new front has burst out in Yemen, with Saudi Arabia heading up a coalition of Arab states and Pakistan. They have begun intervening in the Yemeni civil war between supporters of president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the rapidly advancing Houthi rebel army.
The Foreign Policy website commented, “A surprising feature of ‘Operation Decisive Storm’, as the Saudi-led operation in Yemen has been named, is the number and size of reported commitments to the coalition.
“The Saudis are contributing 100 fighter jets, 150,000 soldiers, and some naval units…Egypt is deploying unspecified naval and air force units, and ground forces will be deployed ‘if necessary’.”
To understand what’s happening we have to look at the regional context. All the different wars combine internal antagonisms and proxy struggles among regional powers.
So in Libya, Turkey and Qatar are backing one side, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates the other.
But the biggest conflict pits Saudi Arabia against Iran, the states claiming to represent the Sunni and Shiite wings of Islam respectively.
An Iranian MP recently boasted that, thanks to its alliances with Shiite parties, Tehran now dominates three great Arab capitals—Damascus, Baghdad, and Beirut.
The Islamic republican regime has just pulled off a diplomatic coup by agreeing an outline deal with the US and five other “world powers” over Iran’s nuclear programme.
Yemen occupies a strategic position on Saudi Arabia’s southern border and at the gates to the Red Sea. A rising in 2011 eventually led to the negotiated removal of president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
But forces loyal to him have allied themselves to the Houthi militias, who now control the capital, Sana’a, and the port of Aden. The US military has been forced to abandon the Yemeni base it has been using to mount operations against Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
The Houthis belong to the Zaidi sect of Shia Islam. Both Yemen and Saudi Arabia have substantial Shia minorities.
The elderly new Saudi king Salman and his minister of defence and favourite son Muhammed are clearly terrified of a Houthi victory. They fear it would spread Iranian influence in Yemen—and potentially within their own borders.
There is another dimension to the conflict. Yemen is important to Egypt as well as Saudi Arabia. During the 1960s the Egyptian nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser waged a proxy war in Yemen against Saudi Arabia in an unsuccessful attempt to overturn the monarchy there.
Foreign Policy website suggests the present Yemeni intervention may mean “Egypt is making a comeback as a regional leader in the Middle East. As Hosni Mubarak aged and his economy creaked, Saudi Arabia effectively added the leadership of the Arab world to its existing status as self-proclaimed leader of the Islamic world.
“This standing accelerated during Mohamed Morsi’s chaotic year in power. But since the emergence of president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—and the geriatric transition in Saudi Arabia, not to mention the collapse in the price of oil—Egypt’s claim to be the top dog has strengthened.”
This kind of manoeuvring between regional powers has increased with the retreat of direct US intervention after Iraq.
US president Barack Obama has been simultaneously encouraging states such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia to play a larger role and playing them off against each other. The deal with Iran, which infuriates the Saudis and Israel, fits them into this pattern.
But, as George Friedman of the intelligence website Stratfor points out, “this kind of approach is always messy…the US is providing intelligence and mission planning for the Saudi coalition ... In Iraq, the United States is providing support to Shiites by bombing Islamic State installations. In Syria, US strategy is so complex that it defies clear explanation.”
The danger for Western imperialism is that the mess—and with it the Middle East—escapes anyone’s control. Global disorder is spreading.