Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Saudi quagmire

Long before the USA got addicted to interventions in Iraq and indeed even before the USA was breaking its addictions to interventions to Vietnam, Saudi Arabia was already addicted to interventions in Yemen. What changes is the external counterpart/foil. In the 1960s it was Nasser. In recent years it is, allegedly and plausibly, Iran.

Since the prospect of another Saudi military intervention in Yemen cannot be ruled out, the poor record of the last one, in 2009, is worth recalling. Following a border incursion by the now ubiquitous Houthis, Prince Khaled bin Sultan directed a large Saudi operation against the Houthis, in conjunction with the Yemeni army. It didn't go very well, the Saudis had hundreds of casualties and eventually withdrew with little more than a verbal promise by the Houthis not to get too close to the border again. Prince Khaled's reputation took a blow and he was subsequently eased out of his position as Deputy Minister of Defence and probably lost whatever position he had in the ultimate succession stakes.

As subsequently revealed by Wikileaks, Khaled's forces did at least manage to avert a fiasco when they realized they were being tricked into a bombing a Yemeni general, Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, a rival of then President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Note that Saleh is widely considered to be a player and likely funder of the current Houthi military sweep through Yemen. One mystery is why, despite knowing Saleh's duplicity, Saudi Arabia allowed him to recuperate in Riyadh from a bomb attack on his palace -- an attack which would have turned out better for the average Yemeni had Saleh lost his life in it. One possibility is that Saleh tricked the Saudis -- again -- by saying that he would stay out of Yemen for good once he recovered. He's back, and making trouble.

The bottom line at this point is that the Saudis probably see little alternative to another military intervention in Yemen, even knowing the dim prospects thereof.  Maybe Benjamin Netanyahu, who's recently be claiming to the voice of the Gulf Arabs as well as Israel, has some advice for them.

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