The Arab League’s declaration of the establishment of a joint Arab military force comes hot on the heels of the escalation of the Yemen conflict, but both Yemen and the league’s declaration are about more than stabilization. They are also about restoring Saudi influence in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia used to be a major political broker in the region, but its role has declined in recent years largely as a result of internal power struggles within the royal family, which have meant its foreign policy sometimes lacked coherence. Yemen has witnessed the consequences of this.
The Saudis agreed that the 2011 uprising in Yemen against president Ali Abdullah Saleh threatened their interests and consequently led an initiative by the Gulf Cooperation Council to transfer power from Saleh to his deputy Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. But they did not have a unified vision for what to do about Saleh. As a result, he stayed in Yemen and was able to lead his own political party and plan a comeback. Some Saudis also believed in keeping channels open with the Houthis, as they were opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, while others painted the Houthis as dangerous proxies of Saudi’s nemesis, Iran.
The incoherence in Saudi policy encouraged Saleh, the Houthis and Iran to try to increase their influence in Yemen. It also paved the way for extremist groups, namely Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State (ISIS), to attempt to utilize Yemen as a hotbed of terrorism. The ensuing Houthi rebellion that began last September threatened to pull the country towards not just a civil war but also a regional conflict because of the involvement of transnational groups like AQAP and ISIS. This was a wake-up call for Saudi Arabia.
By leading a multinational force to quell the Houthi rebellion Saudi Arabia is making a show of decisiveness against those escalating threats. This is affirmed by the name given to the operation: “Decisive Storm.” The backing of the West gives Saudi’s position legitimacy. The participation of Sunni-majority countries such as Pakistan is also a strong message to Iran, that it cannot control the Sunni-majority Arab world, especially the Gulf.
The kingdom is saying that Gulf security is the Arab region’s security and, from now on, Arab states should look to Riyadh for direction to deal with the region’s political and security challenges.