As an oxymoron to rank alongside jumbo shrimps and the living dead, the term “united Arab front” must be a prize-winning confection. Even when pitted against arch-enemy Israel, Arab states have struggled to stay in the same alliance, nay the same room, without stabbing each other in the back.
Now, though, they have mustered the strength to counter Iran. In dusty Yemen, the long cold war between Saudi Arabia and the clerical regime in Tehran has finally turned hot.
It doesn’t look good, a Shia-Sunni war in a region already up to its ankles in blood.
“I wonder which archduke is going to be shot this time,” says a US official, suggesting the conflicts were getting closer to a Great War. If Yemen falls to Iran — that is, to Iranian-backed Houthi rebels — the very existence of the House of Saud could be under threat. That’s how it seems in Riyadh and that’s why it is leading an Arab force into battle. Last Saturday, clinching the argument for a Sunni army, it smuggled Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to a conference room in Egypt where he denounced as “Iranian stooges” the rebels who had forced him out of his palace.
Iran is indeed stirring up the trouble in Yemen. Until the Saudi airstrikes began, there were 28 flights a week between the rebel-occupied capital, Sanaa, and Iran, some by an Iranian airline that is US-blacklisted for supporting terrorism. Cash and arms are the presumed cargo.
Iran is using commanders from the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militias to co-ordinate and advise. The Houthis and their military allies (units loyal to the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh) are shifting Scud missiles with a range of between 200km and 650km towards the Saudi border.
Despite all this the US, Britain and other world powers are pushing for a deal with Iran to restrain its nuclear program. The underlying logic of the talks is that Iran, once it falls under international scrutiny, will be transformed into a regional ally. Yet the subversion of Yemen suggests it wants to exploit the situation to expand its reach and establish itself even more firmly as an enemy of the West, Israel and the Sunni world. It foments unrest among the Shi’ites in Bahrain, it props up Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, it funnels arms and aid to Hamas and Hezbollah, and its Shia militias (currently on “our side” in the fight against Islamic State) are active in Iraq.
The Iranians, in short, are the masters of disorder. If their Houthi proxies take control of Yemen’s side of the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb they will be in control of a strategic link between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Four million barrels of crude oil a day travel through the strait; it is one of the great choke points of global trade.
The Saudis are rattled enough to resort to armed force to set limits to Iran’s disruption of the area. The Western caricature of the Saudi kingdom is that it is both passive and pampered, living under the US security umbrella. That umbrella, however, has turned into a sieve. The kingdom’s first instinct has been to weaponise oil prices, driving them down so that Iran cannot unduly profit when the West lifts its sanctions against the Tehran regime. Now, though, it has gone much further by stringing together a military coalition that stretches well beyond the usual Gulf allies and takes in Morocco, Jordan, Sudan and, crucially, Egypt. On paper that is a far stronger force — much of it with expensively bought Western equipment — than could ever be put up by Iran.
Egyptian warships are mobilising to defend the straits. Riyadh has earmarked 100 fighters and its coalition partners have pledged to match that number. More than 100,000 Saudi ground troops are said to be on the Yemen border. Even Pakistan has been approached for military assistance. All that could add up to the makings of a short war of between three and six months rather than the Great War that the US is beginning to fear. It could, however, get out of control. Iran has the capacity to destabilise another Saudi neighbour, Bahrain. And it is capable of bringing terror to the kingdom.
Much hinges on Iranian intentions. The US and its allies have chosen to believe in a modernising Iran that has more to lose than gain from regional unrest and bloodshed. The Saudis cannot see the evidence for this. Rather, they judge Iran by its current attempts to subvert its neighbours, by behaviour patterns set by centuries of rivalry and by the balance of forces within the clerical regime that indicate a resurgence of the hardliners.
I’m with the sceptics, indeed with anyone who makes policy on the basis of close and sober observation. We should have learned by now that the Middle East and Dreamworld are separate places. It is natural to have reservations about Saudi Arabia, but this Sunni coalition deserves our political support.