Why Yemen Matters
The Middle East witnessed something radically new two days ago, when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia responded to a plea by Yemen’s president and led a 10-country coalition to intervene in the air and on the ground in the country. “Operation Decisive Storm” prompts many reflections:
Saudi and Egypt in alliance: Half a century ago, Riyadh and Cairo were active in a Yemen war, but then they supported opposing sides, respectively the status-quo forces and the revolutionaries. Their now being allies points to continuity in Saudia along with profound changes in Egypt.
Arabic-speakers getting their act together: Through Israel’s early decades, Arabs dreamt of uniting militarily against it but the realities of infighting and rivalries smashed every such hope. Even on the three occasions (1948-49, 1967, 1973) when they did join forces, they did so at cross purposes and ineffectively. How striking, then that finally they should coalesce not against Israel but against Iran. This implicitly points to their understanding that the Islamic Republic of Iran poses a real threat, whereas anti-Zionism amounts to mere indulgence. It also points to panic and the need to take action resulting from a stark American retreat.
Yemen at the center of attention: Yemen played a peripheral role in the Bible, in the rise of Islam, and in modern times; it’s never been the focus of world concern – until suddenly now. Yemen resembles other once-marginal countries – the Koreas, Cuba, the Vietnams, Afghanistan – which out of nowhere became the focus of global concern.
The Middle East cold war went hot: The Iranian and Saudi regimes have headed dueling blocs for about a decade. They did combat as the US and Soviet governments once did – via contending ideologies, espionage, aid, trade, and covert action. On March 26, that cold war went hot, where it’s likely long to remain.
Can the Saudi-led coalition win? Highly unlikely, as these are rookies taking on Iran’s battle-hardened allies in a forbidding terrain.
Islamists dominate: The leaders of both blocs share much: both aspire universally to apply the sacred law of Islam (the Shari’a), both despise infidels, and both turned faith into ideology. Their falling out confirms Islamism as the Middle East’s only game, permitting its proponents the luxury to fight each other.
The Turkey-Qatar-Muslim Brotherhood alliance in decline: A third alliance of Sunni revisionists somewhere between the Shi’i revolutionaries and the Sunni status-quotians has been active during recent years in many countries – Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya. But now, in part thanks to diplomacy initiated by the brand-new King Salman of Saudi Arabia, its members are gravitating toward their Sunni co-religionists.
In sum, Salman’s skilled diplomacy and his readiness to use force in Yemen responds to the deadly combination of Arab anarchy, Iranian aggression, and Obama weakness in a way that will shape the region for years.
Mr. Pipes (DanielPipes.org, @DanielPipes) is president of the Middle East Forum.