Saudi airwaves are full of the war in Yemen. On television, fighter jets soar into the sky, soldiers march in columns against a backdrop of the national flag, and King Salman confers with his army chiefs. Patriotic songs blare from the radio.
Salman’s reign, not yet three months old, is already taking on a more martial tone. He’s assembled a 10-nation coalition to bomb Yemen and turn the tide of a civil war in which Saudi allies have so far been routed by Shiite rebels. The intervention is also being sold in the Gulf and beyond as a move on a bigger chessboard, aimed at the growing influence of Iran in the Arab world, with Saudi Arabia as the protector of Sunni Muslims.
“This may be the most decisive step that Saudi Arabia has taken for years,” said John Jenkins, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Middle East. “It comes from a widely shared analysis of the external threat.”
The world’s top oil exporter is abandoning its traditional preference for soft-power diplomacy, a shift that gathered pace after the Arab Spring. Analysts see vulnerability behind the show of strength: Saudis are concerned that the U.S., their historic protector, has different priorities now, as it negotiates with Iran and talks about pivoting to Asia.
“Saudi Arabia became persuaded that the U.S. was not ready to protect its erstwhile allies,” said Ana Echague, an analyst at the Madrid-based Fride think tank, who specializes in the Gulf, said by phone. “Riyadh started advocating Arab solutions to solve Arab problems,” she said. The Yemen strike force is “more radical than anything we have seen so far.”
Saudi Arabia also joined the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria. In Bahrain, it sent troops to help put down a Shiite uprising four years ago.
President Barack Obama spoke to King Salman Thursday to reaffirm U.S. commitment to the security of its Gulf partners, and has invited the six leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council to Camp David this spring to discuss security cooperation and conflicts in the Middle East, the president said at the White House Thursday. The address came after the U.S. and allies reached a landmark nuclear accord with Iran.
At home, the Yemen war effort has mobilized public support for the new Saudi monarch. It’s being run by the two princes who have shot to prominence under King Salman: Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and the king’s son, Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, who’s hailed as the “defender of the nation” in a popular patriotic song. “You have the air of kings when you speak,” the singer tells him.
Operation Decisive Storm began in the early hours of March 26. “We don’t seek war, but if the drums roll, we’re ready,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal told the country’s top advisory body. Newspapers say retired soldiers are bombarding the army with requests to be called up and sent to defend the border.
“There has been a notable groundswell of sectarian support for the new king in this venture,” Andrew Hammond, a Middle East analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said by e-mail. “The Sunni power is stomping in to show the Iranians and their devilish Shiite hirelings what’s what.”
For all the popular support, it’s not clear that the first week of air strikes succeeded in pushing the Houthi rebels out of Aden, the embattled southern port that’s the last stronghold of pro-Saudi forces. The rebels, supported by tanks, stormed into the city center on Thursday, seizing buildings including the presidential palace. The Saudis and some of their allies haven’t ruled out sending ground troops if they’re needed.
If the Houthis can consolidate their control over much of Yemen, “the Saudis then look like big losers,” said Gregory Gause, professor of international affairs at Texas A & M University. In that case, “it seems unlikely to me that the Houthis will be in the mood to accommodate Riyadh.”
Meanwhile, he said, as civilian deaths mount “it will be harder for the Saudis and their local Yemeni allies to make the case that they represent the legitimate Yemeni government against the Houthi usurpers.”
The Saudi-led coalition has a geographical range from Pakistan to Morocco, and shows the kingdom’s clout in the Sunni world. Much of that comes down to money. Egypt, a key member, has been largely dependent on financial support from the Saudis and their Gulf neighbors since the army takeover of 2013.
‘Sphere of Influence’
All the countries that joined “are either in the direct Saudi sphere of influence, like the GCC states, or in need of the kind of financial power and support Riyadh has increasingly provided,” said Toby C. Jones, a professor at Rutgers University, in an e-mail. He cited Morocco and Jordan as other examples in the second category.
At the diplomatic level, the intervention is a success for Salman, said Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate at Middle East program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That doesn’t mean it will achieve the desired goal in Yemen.
“Saudi Arabia lacks local allies on the ground,” Wehrey said. “History shows that air strikes without corresponding ground forces do not produce a decisive victory.”