international analysis and commentary

The conflict in Yemen: Saudi leadership and an Arab coalition in the making


Operation Decisive Storm, launched on March 25th by a Saudi-led coalition, is degrading the military capabilities of the Houthi militias and emasculating their illegitimate power grab campaign in Yemen. As the operation continues with air strikes it is worth reflecting on the reasons that led to this war and on the quiet period that preceded the swift and sudden Saudi-led intervention.

A storm was already brewing

For far too long, the Iranian-backed Houthi movement was left to meddle in Yemen. Now, while one realizes that war should always be used as a last resort and that every effort to use political and peaceful means should be exhausted, the reality time after time is that Iran and its agents continue to prove that they can’t be trusted and that they will always behave as rogue players.

Secretly aided by Yemen’s toppled leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh (who seems to have forgotten that he owes his life to Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries which negotiated his safe exit following the revolution which overthrew him back in 2011), the Houthis took over Yemen by force and terror. The Iranian-backed militia turned down every opportunity for reconciliation and opted to snub the GCC initiative and the outputs of the National Dialogue as they took over Sanaa and then – despite a loud and clear Saudi warning – went after the country’s legitimate President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi in Aden (which was named Yemen’s temporary capital). Hadi, cornered and concerned over the future and independence of Yemen, called upon the Gulf States, the Arab League and the international community to intervene in order to end the bloody progression of the Houthis.

What happened after that took everyone by surprise.

Serving notice to the world

Indeed, it would be fair to argue that Operation Decisive Storm came as an absolute surprise to most observers as it portrayed a Saudi ability and willingness – when required – to implement a rapid military Shock and Awe strategy.

As columnist Nawaf Obeid put it in a recent Washington Post article, the sudden launch of the recent operation in Yemen “should serve notice to the world that a major generational shift underway in the kingdom is sure to have far-reaching geopolitical ramifications.” According to Obeid, who is a Visiting Fellow and Associate Instructor at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the new Saudi leadership — centered on a cadre of youthful, dynamic royals and technocrats — is developing a foreign policy doctrine to address long-standing regional tensions. This doctrine is based on the legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy and the centrality of the kingdom to the Muslim world.

Evidently, the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis and militias loyal to the deposed Saleh garnered massive Arab, Muslim (apart from Iran which continues to back the Houthi coup) and international support – and perhaps deserves recognition for being one of the very few topics to get bipartisan support from the US Congress as well as from the White House.

However, despite Saudi Arabia’s strategic position and its religious, political and economic importance, obtaining such global support and forging such a solid alliance is not a coincidental matter nor could it be achieved overnight. More diplomatic efforts will be needed to transform what is essentially an ad hoc “coalition of the willing” into a stable and more cohesive grouping, if not a standing alliance.

This broader context became evident with the Saudi-backed announcement of the formation of a joint Arab military force at the Arab League summit in Sharm el-Sheikh on March 29th.

In any case, the coalition to deal with the Yemeni crisis was brought together in record time, namely within the few weeks that fell between King Salman’s ascension to the Saudi throne in late January and the inauguration of Operation Decisive Storm on March 25th. This short time span is note-worthy given that for years Saudi Arabia wasn’t known for its ability to make rapid decisions or take quick action.

Regional diplomacy backed by force

In the weeks that followed his inauguration, King Salman met – almost on a daily basis – with world leaders and delegates. Evidently, the meetings – particularly with the likes of Egypt’s Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip ErdoÄźan and Sudan’s Oman al-Bashir, , were about much more than the official and ceremonial statements he had announced at the time.

During these rapid, back-to-back meetings, the Saudi leadership managed to successfully convince traditional rivals such as Turkey and Egypt to put aside their differences and commit to a common cause. It also managed to bring Sudan back into the Arab fold after years of warming up to Tehran. In fact, Sudan – with its vital geographic proximity to Yemen – is fully backing the coalition and has contributed three fighter jets.

Furthermore, following a casual weekend get-together during which GCC leaders met with King Salman at the Auja palace, it seems the infamous Gulf rift has been – at least for now – resolved, with Qatar contributing 10 fighter jets and seemingly being in full-support of Operation Decisive Storm. Oman, following tradition did not contribute militarily, but it did not oppose the air campaign – its non-interference has been reportedly agreed on with other Gulf countries.

Within hours of announcing the commencement of military strikes, Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) pilots managed – almost instantly – to take control of Yemeni airspace and target and eliminate a number of senior Houthi leaders. Apart from the courage and excellent training of RSAF pilots, this is also a very good sign of successful intelligence sharing which was coordinated and agreed prior to the attacks.

With the situation continuing to develop in Yemen, the Houthi militias would be well-advised to accept King Salman’s invitation to return to the negotiating table without prior conditions, accept the legitimacy of President Hadi and work together with him and the global community to re-build Yemen. Indeed, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, his backers in Tehran and their ally Saleh, must understand that they have entered a war they simply can’t win and that with such a coalition, they are literally surrounded and helpless in the face of a new, pro-active and determined Saudi Arabia.


This article is based on two columns previously written for Al Arabiya News:

Why operation decisive storm was needed in Yemen (published on March 26, 2015)

The calm that preceded the Decisive Storm (published on April 5, 2015)