By Angus McDowall
RIYADH, March 27 (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s campaign to stop
the Houthis from ruling over Yemen could define its role in the
Middle East for years and shape its regional struggle with the
rebels’ ally Iran.
Success would establish Riyadh as de facto leader of the
region’s Sunni states it has pulled together in a complex armed
operation, and embolden it to pursue a more assertive stance
against what it sees as the expansionist ambitions of its arch
rival Shi’ite Iran in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain.
But failure could hamper Riyadh’s ability to persuade allies
and neighbours to join it in future ventures and deal a public
setback to its new monarch King Salman as well as other senior
princes early in his reign.
“This campaign has confirmed that Saudi Arabia is the
heavyweight power in the region. But they’ve taken a risk,” said
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist from the United Arab
“If this thing fails, Iran is going to be much more
emboldened and in this region there’s usually a zero-sum game
between Tehran and Riyadh. This is a test for the new king and
Saudi Arabia,” said Abdulla.
Riyadh wants to reinstate some stability and its own
influence in Yemen by ensuring President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi
is strong enough to force his opponents to negotiate.
The kingdom’s previous experience in fighting the Houthis,
during a brief border war in 2009-10, relied on U.S. satellite
imagery, while its participation in air strikes against the
Islamic State group in Syria has also relied on American command
This time it is not only striking targets across the country
from the air without U.S. help, but it is also overseeing
operations by allied aircraft, coordinating the role of several
naval forces and preparing ground troops.
While Riyadh has not ruled out a ground operation, analysts
close to Saudi thinking believe an invasion across the frontier,
which would play to Houthi strengths, is very unlikely, although
it is possible it will deploy special forces inside the country.
Riyadh’s tough military campaign is matched by an ambitious
political plan: to use the air strikes and sustained pressure
from a coalition of Arab states and Pakistan to drive the
Houthis to the bargaining table and force them to deal.
Saudi Arabia’s enormous firepower during the last war with
the Houthis was described by the U.S. Riyadh embassy in a cable
leaked to WikiLeaks as “imprecise” and “minimally effective”.
A senior U.S. official told Reuters on Thursday the latest
operation was a “panic response” by Riyadh to the
fast-deteriorating situation in Yemen and that the coalition had
been assembled so quickly its effectiveness was in doubt.
Despite Wednesday night’s strikes, Houthi fighters advanced
towards Aden on Thursday and were fighting in the city’s
outskirts as the president departed the city for the Arab League
summit via Riyadh.
If the Houthis manage to take Aden in the coming days
despite the Saudi-led strikes, and to stop Hadi returning to the
country, a crucial war aim of Riyadh’s 10-country coalition will
have been rapidly defeated.
Any setback of that nature would provide a keen test of the
coalition’s political strength, already somewhat fragile.
Pakistan contradicted early Saudi statements that it was part of
the coalition on Friday, saying it had not yet decided whether
Saudi Arabia’s proud claim to be a moral leader of the
Muslim world will also be tested should it sustain casualties
among its own fighters or accidentally kill Yemeni civilians
through misdirected strikes.
For King Salman, who only assumed power in January after the
death of his predecessor Abdullah, failure could dent his
personal authority and prestige outside the country.
The same is true for his son Prince Mohammed, who as Defence
Minister has become the face of the campaign, appearing
alongside his cousin, Interior Minister and Deputy Crown Prince
Mohammed bin Nayef, directing operations on television news.
On Al-Arabiya channel, which is closely associated with the
Salman branch of the ruling Al Saud family, the footage of the
pair visiting an air base as the strikes began was accompanied
by stirring martial music.
One observer warned that Saudi Arabia might be focusing too
much on military strategy and not enough on the political
strategy and negotiations that could follow should its military
“There’s got to be a political end point. The goal…was
that there should be a legitimate government that could be
sustained. I’m not sure that looks obtainable given the Houthi
advance,” said John Jenkins, head of the International Institute
for Strategic Studies in Bahrain and a former British ambassador
(Editing by Sophie Walker)
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