On October 31, 2016, United States Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Samantha Power called on Saudi Arabia to end its airstrikes against Iran-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen. Although Saudi Arabia has rhetorically expressed willingness to consider a peace settlement, Riyadh has continued its relentless air campaign and has shown few signs of kowtowing to international pressure.
Since the start of the Saudi military intervention in Yemen in March 2015, many analysts have framed Saudi Arabia's actions in Yemen in strategic terms by highlighting the kingdom's rivalry with Iran for hegemony in the Middle East. In recent months, the ambiguous linkage between Iran and Yemen's Houthi forces, and the steep financial costs of Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen have caused some regional analysts to challenge these assumptions.
Growing skepticism of strategic arguments and official justifications for Saudi Arabia's conduct in Yemen is justified. Based on my research at Oxford on the foreign policy conduct of authoritarian regimes, there is compelling evidence that Saudi Arabia's seemingly endless war in Yemen is motivated largely by domestic political considerations. Several factors stand out as particularly striking and I will delve into these rationales in greater depth below:
1) King Salman is Using the War in Yemen to Rally Anti-Iranian Nationalism Around the Saudi Monarchy
Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Saudi Arabia's foreign policy has been defined by Riyadh's overarching desire to undercut Iranian geopolitical influence in the Middle East. In recent years, however, Saudi Arabia has been increasingly willing to use military force to counter Iranian involvement in Middle East crises. Saudi Arabia's 2011 repression of Shiite demonstrators in Bahrain, extensive arms provisions to Sunni Syrian rebels and bombings in Yemen have spiraled Riyadh-Tehran tensions to new heights.
Despite the growing coherence of Riyadh's anti-Iranian foreign policy, there is clear evidence that much of the anti-Iranian rhetoric surrounding Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen is based on hyperbolic assessments of Tehran's geopolitical role. Even though Iran's Fars News Agency has admitted to supplying missiles and providing military training for Yemen's Houthi rebels, the scope of Iranian support for Houthi forces in Yemen is unclear.
In a May 2016 Chatham House Report, Thomas Juneau argued that the Saudi monarchy has mischaracterized the Houthis as Iranian proxies. According to Juneau, Iran has used its alliance with the Houthis to gain leverage in Yemen but lacks the capabilities or the will to provide enough resources to drastically shift the balance of power in the Houthis' favor.
Saudi Arabia's exaggeration of Iran's destabilization role in Yemen bears striking parallels to King Abdullah's conduct during the Arab Spring. At the height of the protests in 2011, Saudi media outlets frequently insinuated that Bahrain's Arab Spring demonstrations were not genuine demonstrations of discontent, but were instead instigated by the Iranian government.
Concerns about a potential Iranian coup in Bahrain allowed Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to intervene in Bahrain with little backlash and helped prevent large-scale Arab Spring protests in other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Fears of Iranian interference also allowed the Saudi monarchy to repress the 2011 Shiite demonstrations in the Eastern Province with impunity.
During a period of low oil prices and economic turmoil, King Salman has used its air campaign in Yemen to rally the Saudi public around a common Shiite enemy. The Yemen war, combined with escalated repression at home (execution rates are at their highest level since 1995), has entrenched the Saudi monarchy's stability and has durably increased the importance of foreign policy as a guarantor of regime legitimacy.
2) Saudi Arabia has Rallied Public Support Around the Idea that its War in Yemen is a Defensive Mission
Even though the hardening of anti-Iranian sectarian sentiments in Saudi Arabia has made military aggression easier for the kingdom to justify, Saudi policymakers have been careful to frame Riyadh's air campaign in Yemen as a defensive mission. The origins of Saudi Arabia's defensive war against the Houthis date back to November 2009, when Houthi forces killed 2 Saudi border guards and occupied the strategically important Saudi territory of Mount al-Doud. Saudi Arabia retaliated by launching military operations against Houthi forces, which successfully countered the threat posed by the Shiite insurgency.
Even though Saudi Arabia justified its 2009-2010 military operations in Yemen on national security grounds, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted that Saudi Arabia was primarily interested in destabilizing Yemen rather than protecting its borders. Nevertheless, Saudi policymakers have continued to downplay the strategic dimensions of the Yemen conflict to the public, insisting that Houthi rocket firings on Saudi soil demonstrate that Iranian belligerence in Yemen poses an imminent threat to Saudi Arabia's security.
Periodic Houthi retaliations and concerns about Iran's growing military capabilities have allowed Saudi Arabia to extend the length of its campaign in Yemen with little risk of domestic war fatigue or public backlash. To prove that its ambitions in Yemen are largely defensive, Saudi policymakers have also denied allegations of war crimes leveled against King Salman.
On November 3, Saudi Major General Ahmed Asseri vehemently denied Riyadh's use of cluster bombs in Yemen, and accused international media outlets of smearing Saudi Arabia's reputation. Saudi Ambassador to the United States Prince Abdullah Al-Saud repeated Asseri's denials, by bizarrely asking the journalist who questioned him to stop beating his wife. Saudi policymakers' clever deflections from the humanitarian costs of the Yemen war have prevented the Saudi public from viewing King Salman's Yemen campaign as an act of unbridled aggression, and bolstered confidence in the Saudi monarchy during a critical period.
3) Saudi Arabia's Yemen War Bolsters Domestic Perceptions of Riyadh's Regional Influence
In addition to the security concerns associated with instability in Yemen, King Salman has been able to rally the Saudi public around the Yemen war by highlighting its positive impact on Saudi Arabia's international status. The expansion of Saudi Arabia's perceived international influence has been palpable both in the Middle Eastern context and with respect to Riyadh's relationship with the United States.
Saudi Arabia has been able to assert itself as a country powerful enough to lead a GCC military coalition in Yemen. This is a historic achievement for Saudi Arabia, as Riyadh has been able to demonstrate its regional influence outside the umbrella of US leadership. The unilateralism inherent in Saudi Arabia's military actions differs markedly from past successful campaigns like the 1991 Gulf War. During the Gulf War, Riyadh was one of the leading financiers of the campaign to expel Iraq from Kuwait but was undeniably a secondary military power to the United States.
Other GCC countries have been willing to participate in the Saudi-led coalition, because intervening in Yemen is a relatively low-cost endeavor. Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, and the limited ability of Yemeni rebels to retaliate against Saudi Arabia or its allies have encouraged the creation of a durable military coalition. Public perceptions of Saudi hegemony in the Middle East give considerable credit to the increasingly beleaguered Al Saud monarchy.
In addition, Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen has demonstrated its indispensability to Western powers and the limits of any US thaw in relations with Iran. The decision of US officials to arm Saudi Arabia, in spite of growing tensions between the two countries is a major symbolic victory for Riyadh.
As Gulf security expert Theodore Karasik noted last summer, Saudi Arabia's war with Yemen has increased public consciousness of the country's international status and fuelled nationalist sentiments. The perception that Saudi Arabia, by staying in Yemen, is on the cusp of a major strategic victory over Iran that will give it international respect, has justified Grand Mufti Abdel Aziz Al Sheikh's increasingly vocal calls for national support and self-sacrifice.
Even though Western analysts have frequently described Saudi Arabia as an archetypical strategic, realist actor in the Middle East, Riyadh's conduct in Yemen reveals that the Saudi monarchy is greatly concerned about national identity and regime consolidation. In order to implement a durable resolution to the Yemen war, Western policymakers must recognize the importance of international status and nationalism to the legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy. Only then will the US will be able to propose a deal that King Salman views an honorable enough peace to end the harrowing violence in Yemen once and for all.