Tag Archives: Saudi Arabia

A turning point for Iran

A turning point for Iran

The lifting of the international sanctions against it is a huge breakthrough for Iran, even though it remains a challenge for its edgy Arab neighbours, writes Salah Nasrawi

For Iran, the beginning of the implementation of its landmark nuclear deal with the West this week was a moment to celebrate. It was another diplomatic triumph that will end the Islamic Republic’s isolation and reopen the doors to the international economy.
“Today is a historic and exceptional day in the political and economic history of the Iranian nation,” declared President Hassan Rouhani in a press conference following the announcement of the lifting of the Western economic sanctions on Iran.
The lifting of the crippling sanctions came after certification by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Saturday that Iran has successfully completed all the nuclear-related steps to which it had agreed with the 5+1 powers in July.
The 12 years of sanctions have had devastating effects on Iran where millions of Iranians have been left living with a shortage of medical services, basic goods and services. The punitive measures also imposed a state of diplomatic isolation on Iran that weakened its international standing.
The embargo compromised the Iranian economy, and the country suffered from the devaluation of its local currency, the rial, double-digit inflation and an unemployment rate of nearly 11 per cent.
The lifting of the sanctions, however, means the government and people of Iran will now start to feel the enormous benefits of the agreement, which will make this regional power rebound from its misfortune.
The removal of the oil- and gas-related US and EU sanctions means that Iran can now resume its sale of oil and gas worldwide, having been restricted to selling it to a handful of countries, including China and India.
Even with plummeting oil prices, Iran plans to ramp up daily exports by some 500,000 barrels per day from one million barrels currently. It plans further increases in the months ahead.
The cancellation of the embargo also means foreign oil and gas companies are now free to enter Iran’s energy market, with American and European companies poised to become Iranian partners and bringing with them world-class technology.
It will allow Iranian banks to restore ties with the Western banking system and to open new business opportunities in the country to multinational corporations.
More than $30 billion (Iran says $100 billion) in assets overseas will become immediately available to Iran. While the money is expected to be injected into the Iranian economy, much of the funds are expected to be used as foreign currency reserves to protect the value of the rial.
The lifting of the sanctions will also allow Iranians to resume foreign trade and travel, and the transfer of assets to a wide range of individuals and companies. Politically, the lifting of the sanctions on Iran is expected to have a far-reaching implication on the country’s global politics, mostly on its regional standing.
Iran is expected to emerge politically stronger and with its regional influence increased. For precisely this reason, celebrations in the region have been muted. While most Arab nations, such as Saudi Arabia, have abstained from congratulating Iran or welcoming the deal, only Iraq and Oman have voiced positive reactions.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, whose Shia-led government is one of Iran’s key regional allies, described the agreement as “historic”. Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi said: “The spectre of war has disappeared.”
Right from the outset, Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is known, and made every possible effort to thwart the agreement.
Saudi Arabia, an Arab Sunni powerhouse, has been concerned about Shia Iran’s growing regional influence and, from Riyadh’s perspective, a nuclear deal will leave Tehran stronger politically.
Saudi Arabia also suspects that the deal will not stop Iran creating a nuclear weapon, since the deal will only take effect for a relatively short period of time, 15 years, and will not destroy Iran’s technical capabilities to maintain a nuclear programme. The results will embolden Iran and its Shia allies in the region, according to this perspective.
Surprisingly, Iran has wasted no time in throwing down the gauntlet and defying Saudi Arabia for its opposition to the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions. Shortly after the announcement of the deal, Rouhani was quick to point to Iranian-Saudi political tensions and the security rivalry that has dominated the two countries’ relationship for nearly four decades.
“Saudi Arabia did not apologise for the pilgrims killed in the human tragedy in Mina,” said Rouhani, referring to the deaths of hundreds of Iranian pilgrims in a stampede near Mecca in September. He also said Saudi Arabia should pay reparations to the Iranian victims.
Rouhani blasted the oil-rich kingdom for “its behaviour towards the people in the region,” which he described as “not proper”. Rouhani specifically mentioned the Saudi-led campaign against the Shia rebel Houthis in Yemen, which he labelled as “the carnage of a Muslim nation”.
Rouhani bitterly criticised the Saudi government for the recent execution of the Shia religious leader Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr, a vocal critic of the Saudi government. Riyadh cut diplomatic relations with Tehran following Iran’s protests against the execution of Al-Nimr.
On the other hand, Iran has also been raising the blood pressure of observers for some time in many Arab countries over its actions in several regional hot spots.
Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have serious questions about Iranian intentions in flashpoints such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen. There is little doubt that the rise in Iranian regional standing as a result of the new deal will raise tensions between Iran and the Saudi-led alliance further.
Saudi Arabia seems intent on trimming Iran’s regional influence by seeking to build a broader Sunni Muslim alliance to confront Shia Iran and its regional allies. Riyadh hopes that heavyweights, such as Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey, will join the 34-country Islamic coalition it said it is creating to battle terrorism but is widely seen as an anti-Iran alliance.
From Riyadh’s perspective, the three powerful Sunni-ruled nations, whose armies are among the largest in the world, could provide the much-needed critical mass to confront Iran.
Such support has been hard to win, however, as Cairo, Islamabad and Ankara have shown no great interest in actively joining such an alliance. Indeed, both Pakistan and Turkey, which have long borders with Iran, have offered mediation between Riyadh and Tehran, sidestepping the burden of having to pick sides.
Inevitably, the prospect of rivalry between the two regional powers is expected to be on an upward trajectory in the post-nuclear deal era.
With several sources of short- and longer-term tension in different arenas already evident, the two countries seem to be heading towards further split. Unfortunately, the key element of this confrontation is the widening Shia-Sunni split engaging the two regional powerhouses and their proxies.
This standoff is perhaps most glaringly apparent in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, which are expected to bear most of the adverse consequences of the competition for regional influence by Iran and its adversaries.

Can Iraq survive the Iran-Saudi row?

Can Iraq survive the Iran-Saudi row?

Analysis: The Iranian-Saudi rupture threatens to derail Iraq’s war efforts against ISIL.

Salah Nasrawi

When Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior announced the execution of the Shia religious leader Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday, many feared that Iraq would inevitably be caught in the dark storm expected to gather over relations between Saudi Arabia and its regional rival Iran.

The question wasn’t whether al-Nimr’s execution would put Iraq in the midst of the crisis between the two regional heavyweights, but rather to what extent the new conflict will inflame the Iraq’s existing sectarian tensions.

Only a day after Riyadh cut its diplomatic ties with Tehran after Iranian protesters stormed its embassy in response to al-Nimr’s execution, blasts rocked two Sunni mosques in central Iraq.

A least one man, a muezzin, the person who calls for prayer, was killed in the attacks in two districts of south Baghdad.

Thousands of Iraqi Shia Muslims demonstrated on Monday outside the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad which hosts the Saudi embassy, condemning al-Nimr’s execution with some demanding severing relations with Saudi Arabia. There were similar demonstrations in other Iraqi cities.

The protests followed outrage voiced by Iraq’s Shia political and religious leaders over the execution of al-Nimr and other Shia activists. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shia authority, blasted the execution as “unjust and an aggression”.

Behind the backlash against the executions, however, lie more serious problems. Iraq is particularly vulnerable to the Iranian-Saudi feud, which threatens to deepen its own lingering sectarian conflict.

Both nations back opposing parties and groups in Iraq and pursue geopolitical interests in the country.

The question now is whether the crisis over al-Nimr’s execution will inflame existing ethnic and sectarian tensions in Iraq as its Shia-led government tries to bring the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL) to a successful conclusion.

The negative effect is due to two mechanisms which are not mutually exclusive: Peripheral, indirectly, through the spillover from Iranian-Saudi rift; and central, due to Shia-Sunni sectarian polarisation inside Iraq.
By and large, the Iranian-Saudi rupture is stoking tension that threatens to derail Iraq’s efforts to build a regional and global front in the war against ISIL.

A string of defeats inflicted in recent weeks in Iraq, most recently in Ramadi, have raised hopes that ISIL’s demise may be closer than had been thought.

The Iranian-Saudi escalation, which is bound to change the rules of the game in the proxy wars in Iraq, will most probably undermine Baghdad’s campaign to defeat ISIL. Saudi-Iran tensions will not only represent yet another hurdle for regional and international action to combat ISIL, but will pit both Iran and Saudi Arabia in a direct confrontation in Iraq.

Today, Riyadh’s new assertiveness –  as Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi security adviser, has summed it up in an article in the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat on Tuesday – is all about filling the vacuum in “the leadership of the Arab world” in absence of its “traditional pillars, Egypt, Iraq and Syria”.

Inside Story – The fight for Ramadi, a turning point against ISIL?

For Iraq, the rhetoric of this strategy is being translated into Saudi attempts to create a new multipolar regional order which could throw the delicate international coalition against ISIL off balance.

Saudi Arabia’s endeavours to create a new Sunni-dominated “Islamic military alliance” devoted to fighting global terrorism, and plans to set up a “strategic cooperation council” with Turkey, are seen by Baghdad as primarily motivated by a regional rivalry with Iran.

On the other hand, the acrimony between Iran and Saudi Arabia could bring more chaos to Iraq. As Monday’s bombings of the Sunni mosques have demonstrated the conflict increases fears of renewed Shia-Sunni violence.

The Iran-backed Shia militias, which have been increasingly operating as the country’s main military and political force, seem to be bracing themselves for a showdown if the Iranian-Saudi conflict worsens and spreads into Iraq.

Worse still, increased friction between the two regional rivals could shake up Iraq’s fragile political landscape.

The rupture between Iran and Saudi Arabia comes at a delicate moment in the fledgling effort to launch a badly needed and US-backed political process that will empower Iraqi Sunnis in the aftermath of ISIL’s pushback.

The tensions would only bolster hard-liners on both sides, feeding the deepening Shia-Sunni divide and hindering, or even blocking, a badly needed reconciliation in the fight against ISIL and efforts to bring stability back to Iraq.

Even if the political outrage over the execution of the Saudi Shia leader begins to fade somehow, tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are expected to continue simmering and Baghdad will remain caught in what could turn to be an apocalyptic Middle East sectarian storm.

Mecca disaster rekindles urge for Islam renewal

Mecca disaster rekindles urge for Islam renewal

As the causes of the 24 September stampede in Mina remains unclear, the world began asking: “How can Hajj calamities be avoided? Writes Salah Nasrawi

The footage of the bodies of pilgrims piled half naked near the site where nearly 800 were killed and hundreds wounded in a stampede near Mecca as Muslims gathered to perform a key ritual of the Hajj pilgrimage last week was shocking and heart-breaking.

The stampede apparently started when two waves of pilgrims on their way to and from a hectic stoning ritual collided in a bottlenecked footpath near the holy sites. In the ensuing chaos, hundreds were trampled underfoot or suffocated.

The tragedy, the worst to befall the Muslim pilgrimage since July 1990 when 1,426 pilgrims perished in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to the holy sites near Mecca, has rattled the entire Muslim world and raised serious questions about the management of Islam’s most sacred rituals and the world’s largest gathering.

Moreover, the crush has rekindled debates about the need for reform in Islam in order that this faith with some 1.5 billion adherents can conform better to progress and modernity and adapt to new circumstances.

A week after the deadly crush the most pressing question has remained unanswered, namely what caused the chaotic stampede.

The Saudi government has remained tight-lipped on how such a tragedy, which has drawn fierce criticisms of the Saudi authorities’ handling of the safety of the Hajj, could have occurred.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz has ordered a swift investigation into the “painful incident” and a review of the kingdom’s planning for the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

Yet, the kingdom’s mufti, or top religious leader, Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Al-Sheikh, has decreed that the catastrophic Hajj stampede was “beyond human control,” blaming it on “fate and destiny”.

Meanwhile, Saudi Health Minister Khalid Al-Falih has pointed the finger of blame at the dead, saying that the pilgrims were “undisciplined” and did not follow traffic instructions.

Among other suggested causes have been the pilgrims ignoring the timetable put forward by the Saudi authorities for the rituals, their rushing to end the rites, the sweltering heat, and confusion and a lack of guidance and assistance by the organisers.

While some eyewitnesses among the pilgrims blamed laxity by the Saudi authorities in crowd control, the pro-Saudi media talked about an Iranian and Shia conspiracy with others putting the blame on undisciplined pilgrims of African nationalities.

Whatever the causes behind the human crush, the disaster has echoed across the Muslim world, as countries from Africa, Asia and Europe all claimed citizens from among the dead and as some called for changes in the pilgrimage procedures to ensure greater safety.

Iran, which had the largest group of casualties with some 155 of its citizens killed in the stampede, was quick to condemn Saudi Arabia for what it termed the kingdom’s “incompetence” in organising the Hajj pilgrimage.

Iran’s supreme leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the Saudi government “must accept huge responsibility for this catastrophe.”

Iran’s state prosecutor Ebrahim Raisi said he would pursue legal action against Saudi Arabia’s rulers in the international courts over the crush.

Raisi and other Iranian officials accused the Saudi authorities of blocking a road used by the pilgrims to allow a royal convoy to pass through, causing the deadly convergence of two waves of pilgrims going in opposite directions.

Pro-Iranian Shia politicians such as former Iraqi prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki and the leader of the Lebanese Hizbullah group Hassan Nasrallah joined Tehran in the protests.

Criticism also came from Sunni Muslim countries. Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari urged King Salman “to ensure a comprehensive and thorough exercise that will identify any flaws in the Hajj organisation.”

The head of Nigeria’s Hajj delegation, Emir of Kano Muhammadu Sanusi II, said the Saudi authorities should not “apportion blame to the pilgrims for not obeying instructions”.

In Turkey, a Sunni powerhouse which maintains close relations with Saudi Arabia, a senior official of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) criticised the kingdom for failures in managing the pilgrimage.

AKP Deputy Chairman Mehmet Ali Shahin even called on Riyadh to give Turkey “the management” of the Hajj instead. Turkey, he said, would handle it in a “very orderly manner and solve the problems”.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who leads the world’s most populous Muslim nation, said “there must be improvements in the management of the Hajj so that this incident is not repeated.”

The crush came less than two weeks after a construction crane smashed into the Grand Mosque at Mecca, Islam’s holiest house of worship, killing some 100 people and wounding scores of others. The Saudi authorities blamed the sudden crash on strong winds.

In recent years, the kingdom has spent billions of dollars on upgrading infrastructure in Mecca, including the expansion of the Grand Mosque to increase its capacity to accommodate worshipers and improving transport.

Lavish mega-hotels, luxury residences with Kaaba views, and shopping malls with western fashion chains and international fast-food restaurants have also been part of the expansion projects in Islam’s holiest city.

Many of these projects, as well as the luxurious Hajj style they have introduced, have come under fire from critics who say they undermine the spirituality of the divine rituals which are one of the five pillars of Islam along with the declaration of faith, prayer, the payment of charity and fasting in Ramadan.

In addition, the expansions have been criticised for encroaching on or eliminating almost all of Islam’s architectural legacy in Mecca, such as the building where the Prophet Mohamed was born, the house of his wife Khadijah, and the shrines and mosques of distinguished early Muslims.

While many of Mecca’s architectural monuments were removed as part of the expansion projects, some of these sites have been demolished in line with hardline Wahabi thinking that considers them symbols of “polytheism”.

In many ways, the Hajj, which the Quran says all adult Muslims who are physically and financially able to should make once in their lifetimes, is increasingly becoming fraught with difficulties and sometimes unsafe conditions.

The discussions over the stampede and other accidents during the pilgrimage have thus far focused on the logistics of the Hajj, including organisation, infrastructure, transport and crowd management.

They have also centred on the inconsistencies and confusion in the statements made by Saudi officials and religious leaders and the political and sectarian bickering surrounding the accident, especially the Shia versus Wahabi interpretations of Islam.

The discussions have been avoiding how to deal with the basic theological and traditional elements relating to how the centuries-old and complex Hajj rituals are performed, however.

While the Hajj logistics and infrastructure are increasing being brought face to face with modernisation and globalisation, the rituals themselves remain deep rooted in the traditions of the 7th century CE when a few hundred of the Prophet Mohamed’s Bedouin followers began flocking to the rugged desert around Mecca for the newly imposed Islamic rituals.

Indeed, the repeated calamities during the Hajj season have highlighted the need for a serious debate among Muslims from all schools of thought about theological renovation and renewed traditions within the context of Islamic revival and religious reformation.

Despite a quota system imposed by Saudi Arabia which earmarks 1,000 Hajj visas for each one million in the Muslim population of each country, the number of pilgrims is on the rise due to population increases and improved economic conditions.

According to some statistics, the number of foreign pilgrims has increased by approximately 2,824 per cent, from 58,584 in 1920 to 1,712,962 in 2012. Despite a quota cut of 20 per cent due to the continuation of the construction work, some 1.4 million foreign pilgrims performed the Hajj this year.

In essence, the millions of Muslim pilgrims perform today exactly what a few hundred of their ancestors did 1,400 years ago on the same small chunk of holy land. Meanwhile, millions of others are unable to carry out the religious duty because of the visa quota or other restrictions.

If the expansion of Islam’s most sacred holy site has been a major result of the changes wrought by modernity, then it is time not only for Saudi Arabia but also for the entire Muslim world to develop or even modify the rituals in order to make them conform to modernity without compromising their spirituality or religious values.

The Islamic concept of ijtihad, the exercise of informed independent and legal judgement on issues of the faith, has always been used by enlightened Muslims to interpret and apply divine guidance to the problems of their time.

There are many historical examples. Working with such an understanding of theological expediency, Mohamed’s second successor, the caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, set aside the amputation of hands stipulated by the Quran as the penalty for stealing when the Muslims began starving during a time of famine.

Many of the Hajj rituals are not even mentioned in the Quran, and change or modification in the way they are performed would not affect beliefs, guidance, spiritual fulfilment, or attitudes towards worship.

Today is a moment of truth for all Muslims when the Hajj rites should be let free from the walls of Wahabi fundamentalism.

Supporting Arab interests

Supporting Arab interests

Egypt’s role in the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen is part of a carefully calibrated regional strategy, writes Salah Nasrawi

When scholars at Cairo’s prestigious Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies held a panel discussion on the turmoil in the Middle East and its implications for Egypt’s national security last week, one item was missing from the agenda: Egypt’s role in the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis in Yemen.

Even after leading sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim intervened to ask the panelists at the opening session if they expected President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to fulfil his oft-stated promise to help defend Egypt’s Gulf allies, none of the five distinguished experts on the podium was prepared to venture an answer.

“We will leave your question to be answered by the panelists in the next session,” Ali Al-Din Hilal, a prominent political scientist, told Ibrahim. His remark was met with amusement by the audience that had assembled to mark the 30th anniversary of the first issue of the centre’s Arab Strategic Report.

As the ongoing crisis in Yemen continues to plague the Middle East, questions remain over Egypt’s role in the conflict and the extent of its help to its ally Saudi Arabia, which is leading the Arab military alliance to defeat the Houthis in Yemen.

Al-Sisi has repeatedly warned that the security of Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states is a “red line.” His statement that “it’s only a short distance” to go to defend them has become a catchphrase in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.

Egypt announced on 26 March that it would join the Saudi-led military campaign against the Houthis, who are backed by forces loyal to Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Saudi Arabia regards the Shia Houthi group as a client of Iran, which the kingdom accuses of trying to increase its power in the region at the expense of the Arab countries.

Last week, Egypt extended by three months the authorisation for its military deployment outside the country but did not specify whether the renewed mandate could see Cairo deploy ground troops in Yemen to fight the Houthis.

Numerous media reports have since suggested that Egypt has joined the Saudi-led coalition in bombing the Houthis and has been sending naval vessels to the Yemeni coast. Some mainstream media outlets in the US have even speculated that Egypt could lead a ground operation in Yemen after the current air strikes campaign weakens the Houthis.

But there has been no evidence of Egyptians fighting alongside the Saudis in the war in Yemen, or of Egypt having plans underway to participate in a massive ground operation.

The Egyptian leadership continues to keep people guessing about its military moves in Yemen, while a debate goes on about whether Egypt should be partnering with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, who have provided billions of dollars in aid to help boost its ailing economy.

Egypt cannot spend time worrying about the repercussions of the conflict in Yemen and Iran’s expansionism in the region, which could have repercussions in the rest of the Middle East with a major impact on its regional role and security.

But it is critical that Egypt’s response to the Yemeni conflict and the wider implications of the Saudi-Iranian confrontation are carefully measured. Egypt must weigh its close relationships with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members against its vital interests in the region.

Like other Arab nations not directly involved in the conflict in Yemen, the war poses a regional dilemma for Egypt. Because of the intense polarisation the conflict has caused, Egypt may have hoped it had never happened.

Many in Egypt worry that the country’s participation in the war, especially if this were to take the form of ground battles, could further entangle it in the sectarian conflict that is spreading in the Middle East, fuelled by proxy wars in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

A considerable part of the debate on Egypt’s role in the current crisis has been about whether Egypt’s participation could turn into “another Vietnam,” using the phrase to compare Egypt’s costly foray into Yemen in 1964-1967 to the US war in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Many pundits who evoke the Yemen War in the 1960s argue that Egypt is not eager to enter into another military intervention in Yemen. The earlier war was a disaster for the country, and some 26,000 Egyptian soldiers died fighting Saudi-backed royalists.

However, this could be a false comparison since apart from the fact that the Yemen conflict in the 1960s featured a variety of factors that belonged to its specific historical and political context, today’s war in Yemen is not about the strategy for Egypt’s interventions abroad.

Instead, the war in Yemen started just as Egypt had embarked on a defensive project to assemble a joint Arab force to help it in its fight against terrorism both in the restive Sinai Peninsula and in lawless Libya on its western border.

The war in Yemen has clearly demonstrated the willingness of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to tackle such challenges and be ready to help Egypt fight terror groups such as the Islamic State (IS) group, which has declared its presence in Sinai and Libya.

Aside from shifting the focus from combating terrorism to fighting the Shia Houthis, Egypt’s other concern is that the war in Yemen will create a realignment that could allow the Muslim Brotherhood, Cairo’s other domestic foe, to resurface as a regional political force and thus threaten Egypt’s security.

Since the war on the Houthis started, reports have circulated that Saudi Arabia has been in contact with Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al-Islah Party in an attempt to position it as a grassroots political organisation that would be empowered in post-war Yemen.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the other major ally in the war against the Houthis, are also reportedly in contact with Egyptian Brotherhood leaders and the movement’s branches in other countries. If true, the move would be seen as an attempt to put pressure on Cairo to bring about reconciliation with the group, which was banned in Egypt after the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood leader.

The Yemen debate also comes at a time when Egypt is supporting a political settlement in Syria that does not include Sunni militants such as the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, who are widely believed to be backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. The rise of the Islamists in post-Al-Assad Syria could spell an extremist threat to Egypt.

Saudi Arabia’s newfound robust approach to regional conflicts represents a daunting challenge to Egypt. The war the kingdom has initiated in Yemen and its all-out confrontation with Iran indicate that Saudi Arabia wants to be seen as an increasingly influential player in the region.

But many Egyptians are worried about what sort of power Saudi Arabia aspires to be. Will it use its influence to promote shared stability and prosperity, or will it seek to unilaterally alter the regional status quo?

Egypt has long been a cornerstone of the regional order, and any attempt to alter the geopolitical equation without Cairo being consulted and involved could be at Egypt’s expense as a key regional actor.

The notion that Egypt could be taken for granted or seduced by financial assistance will then be seen as little more than wishful thinking.

It is for such reasons that Cairo’s involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen is not a mystery. While it is opposing Iran’s increasing influence and rejecting its proxy wars in the region, Egypt has also resisted a rush to a large-scale military confrontation in Yemen.

Al-Sisi has bluntly declared that “the Egyptian army is for Egypt,” which can only be interpreted as meaning a rejection of the idea of putting Egyptian boots on the ground in a theatre where Egyptian interests are not directly implicated.

Egypt has sensibly invited Yemeni and Syrian political groups for talks in Cairo in an attempt to resolve the conflicts in these two embattled Arab countries.

This action, which enjoys the support of most Arab countries and of the international community, underlines the need to maintain the long-term interest of the Arabs and to resist the temptation to use short-term military muscle.

Understanding the Yemen war

Understanding the Yemen war

Saudi Arabia has said it is scaling down its airstrikes in Yemen, but instead it has been stepping up both its rhetoric and the war, writes Salah Nasrawi

Two weeks after Saudi Arabia announced that the coalition it leads would end Operation Decisive Storm against Yemen after the airstrikes campaign had achieved its goals, Saudi jetfighters and gunships have continued pounding the kingdom’s restive southern neighbour.

The Sunni Arab powerhouse’s declaration that it is moving into a second phase of activities after downgrading the Iran-backed Shia Houthi group and eliminating threats from across its border has raised questions about what Saudi Arabia is up to in the war in Yemen.

Questions also persist about the role of the United States in the conflict as Washington tries to appease Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) following its tentative agreement with Iran last month over its nuclear programme.

The US dispatch of warships to the area to prevent possible Iranian arms shipments and Saudi threats that its navy would attempt to search the ships if they tried to dock in Yemen have raised concerns of a potential international confrontation in Yemen.

The disclosure by the United Nations envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, that Yemeni warring political factions were on the verge of a power-sharing deal when the Saudi-led airstrikes started is bound to raise even more eyebrows about this war on one of the most impoverished Arab countries.

With Saudi strikes continuing, sectarian sentiments rising and competition for influence and military capabilities increasing, Yemen could likely become a flashpoint in the volatile Middle East and Gulf region.

What is at stake is whether Saudi Arabia, which appears poised to achieve the subordination of the Houthis, will be able to avoid a quagmire on its borders and if the region can avoid a sectarian conflict on a large scale.

Riyadh claims four weeks of airstrikes have wiped out the weapons and military installations of the Houthis, who took control of the capital Sanaa in September forcing Sunni president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia.

But on the ground Saudi Arabia does not seem to have made much headway, especially in breaking the grip of the Houthis on power. The Saudi-led air campaign is no nearer to stopping the advance of the Houthis alongside army units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Thus far, the Saudi campaign has failed to split the Houthi-Saleh alliance, and it has not succeeded in creating a gap between the members of the alliance and the larger Sunni tribes in Yemen either.

The Saudis have been no more successful in creating a credible tribal or political opposition to the Houthis to help reinstall Hadi in power.

Many observers believe that Saudi Arabia may even have no viable strategy for achieving its political goals in Yemen and compelling the Houthis to come to the negotiating table on its terms.

The Houthis and their allies are still making gains. They have overrun large swathes of the country, including parts of South Yemen, and they have encircled the coastal city of Aden whose facilities were widely feared to be being used to unload possible Iranian arms shipments.

Meanwhile, Egypt and Pakistan, two key Sunni allies, have rebuffed a Saudi request to send troops into the country, underlining the Saudis’ inability to resort to a ground option to deal with the Houthis.

As if to underscore how fragile Yemen is, on Saturday the Islamic State (IS) group declared its official presence in the country in a video. IS is the second terrorist group operating in Yemen alongside Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) which has long been trying to take over the country.

Some of the political and human impacts of the war may be devastating and will have long-term implications on Saudi Arabia itself, which will have to live with the chaos and devastation in its backyard.

By the time Saudi Arabia announced it was halting its operations on 19 April, some 1,000 Yemenis had been killed, including 150 children. Thousands of others had been wounded, some 120,000 displaced, and millions more trapped in their homes in an attempt to escape the bombings.

The airstrikes have pushed Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, to the brink of disaster. The Saudi-led blockade has deprived the Yemenis of food, fuel, water and medicine, causing what a Red Cross official called a “humanitarian catastrophe” in the country.

According to UN reports, almost 16 million people, or 61 per cent of the total population, have required humanitarian assistance, hundreds of thousands of these having been displaced by the waves of conflict over the past decade.

As Yemen suffers and Saudi Arabia continues its bid to bludgeon the Houthis into submission, attention is also being focused on the United States, which has aided the Saudis both diplomatically and militarily.

By publicly claiming that Iran was still seeking to supply weapons to the Houthis the White House has not only given credence to the Saudi pretexts for waging the airstrikes but also added more fuel to the fire.

Moreover, Washington has provided Riyadh with intelligence information and tactical advice, including vetting military targets, and it has accelerated the sale of new weapons to Riyadh and its Gulf allies.

The US navy has beefed up its presence by deploying the warship Theodore Roosevelt off the Yemeni coast, reassuring Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies of its continued support.

American pundits have been defending the Obama administration’s approach in Yemen as part of the US president’s broader “Iran doctrine” to reintegrate the Islamic Republic into the rest of the world by encouraging Tehran to break through its isolation.

They explain Obama’s approach as a “dual engagement” strategy by which Washington will bolster the Saudis and their allies through new US military commitments while continuing to seek to finalise a nuclear deal with Iran.

Others commentators believe the US engagement is about weapon sales. According to the New York Times, US industry officials have notified Congress that they are expecting additional requests from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar for thousands of new US-made weapons, including missiles and bombs, to rebuild depleted arms stockpiles.

To many analysts, the fact that the United States is backing the Saudi campaign in Yemen despite the collateral damage and a general consensus about the campaign’s futility means that Washington has become an accomplice in the war in Yemen.

As for Saudi Arabia, failure in Yemen is certainly not an option. Saudi columnists and experts who usually reflect the opinions of the royal family have been toiling to convey Riyadh’s message that the kingdom is bent on confronting Iran not only in Yemen but also in places such as Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

Yet, the key questions being asked these days are what Riyadh’s other options are and if it has any way out of what could become its Vietnam. Few outside Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners believe the kingdom’s justification for the war and wonder if Riyadh is waiting for a ladder to get it down from the position it now finds itself in.

Many observers find the Saudi war in Yemen mystifying. What is Saudi Arabia seeking in Yemen? Why does Saudi Arabia feel it knows what is best for the Yemenis? Why is it fighting so hard when most Yemeni factions agree that talks can resolve the conflict?

Is it part of a short-sighted plan that has chosen Yemen as an arena to confront Iran and the Shia in the region? Is the incursion into Yemen part of an assertive Saudi foreign policy that uses the military to carry out its agenda?

Answering these questions and understanding the war in Yemen requires the meaningful evaluation of the potential outcomes that could ensue and in turn the complex implications of these outcomes and their broader ramifications in the region.

As doubts increase about the effectiveness of the Saudi air campaign, attention is being turned to a possible Saudi-led land incursion into Yemen. Though most analysts believe that talk about a Saudi invasion is just a bluff, Riyadh could resort to it as an act of desperation if it fails to achieve its goal of compelling the Houthis into submission.

But several unintended consequences could emerge either way which would undoubtedly impact the Saudi domestic front and alter Riyadh’s position in the regional order.

Domestically, ending the war without succeeding in subduing the Houthis would have dire consequences for the royal family and could trigger the power struggle that was thought to have subsided after king Salman moved quickly following his succession in January to put the House of Al-Saud in order.

Two of the most powerful members of the royal family, second-in-line to the throne, Minister of Interior and King Salman’s son prince Mohamed bin Nayef and Minister of Defence prince Mohamed bin Salman lead the war on Yemen and they could take the blame for its failure.

An unsuccessful Saudi military intervention would bolster the Houthis and would give them even more power in Yemen at the expense of Saudi Arabia’s allies. It would also give Iran more leverage and increase its regional status.

The implications of the failure to achieve the goals of the war on Saudi Arabia’s leadership role in the Gulf and in the Arab and Muslim world will be enormous. And the Yemen crisis and its outcome threaten to change the trajectory of the Shia-Sunni polarisation in the region for the worse.

One of its unintended consequences will be fertile land for radical organisations such as IS and Al-Qaeda to grow still further.

This article appeared frist in Al-Aharm Weekly on April, 30 2015