When Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal declared that Iran should not be given “deals it does not deserve”, in reference to what looks like a looming agreement between Tehran and the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany), few calculated the long-term consequences of an accord that overlooked regional concerns and, equally important, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members’ putative responses.
Speaking alongside the visiting British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, in Riyadh, the affable Saudi foreign minister pointed out to Iran’s “aggressive policies”, its interferences in the internal affairs of several Arab countries, as well Tehran’s unabashed desire to acquire nuclear weapons that threatened regional and international security.
“It is impossible to give Iran deals it does not deserve,” Prince Saud hammered, illustrating the apprehension that his government, along with most GCC States, felt. The seasoned diplomat made several references to Yemen, a country on the brink of civil war, which has now been condemned to a power struggle between emboldened Al Houthis that successfully carried out a coup d’etat in Sana’a and supporters of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Al Hadi in Aden.
What was interesting to note was Riyadh’s linkage between P5+1 negotiations with Iranian activities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and especially Yemen, which was a pivotal state for the GCC alliance. How the GCC states reacted to developments in Yemen mattered far more than generally assumed.
In fact, the key question is whether the Al Houthi coup may be reversed peacefully, or whether foreign fighters will be deployed to defeat those who opted to disregard the process of national dialogue.
Few should doubt that Saudi Arabia will take the necessary measures to protect the region from what Riyadh perceives is an Iranian orchestrated pincher movement — Iraq in the North and Yemen in the South. Even fewer should pretend that cutting deals with Tehran will not further embolden the latter to flaunt ambitious colonial aspirations.
How the GCC states will respond to the latest Yemen crisis is difficult to ascertain although the UN-brokered talks to be held in Doha, aimed at resolving the political brinksmanship, will be critical.
Hadi appealed to the GCC for military assistance, though there were no guarantees, at least over the short term, despite what Prince Saud said with respect to what his country would do, namely to “take necessary measures if needed” to protect Yemeni sovereignty.
To be sure, there were other measures that could be introduced short of a full-fledged GCC military deployment, including a UN peacekeeping operation, a joint GCC-P5+1 arrangement, which would have international legitimacy, or even the establishment of a no-fly zone that would ground the Yemeni Air Force. Indeed, given the fact that so many foreign powers are involved in the Yemen crisis, it is eminently logical to assume that those who benefitted from the conflict should also be responsible for its resolution.
Still, military intervention is easier said than done because of Iran’s support for Al Houthis — its oft-repeated denials notwithstanding. Prince Saud acknowledged that Saudi Arabia was “against Iran’s intervention in Yemen [since Tehran’s behaviour was] actually an act of aggression” — a declaration that highlighted a clear dilemma.
How could Riyadh and its GCC partners protect and defend Yemen’s sovereignty, back its legitimate president and resolve the crisis peacefully, when Tehran was committed to a military solution? Were GCC states truly ready to respond to any demands made by Hadi, including calls for military deployments?
No matter how unpalatable some of the options that confront GCC leaders appear to be, it is clear that a form of military intervention from the GCC, as well as the imposition of a no-fly zone by the UN, may be inevitable even if neither of those options are favourable.
Hadi’s government is frustrated and may no longer function as an effective institution though its fate — and in fact, the fate of Yemen as a united country — is now clearly in the hands of the GCC. Either that or few should be surprised that Iran will gradually take over the country, one city at a time.
What happens in Doha over the next few days is therefore crucial. If the GCC states decide to take matters into their own hands — and, in the words of the Saudi Heir to the Heir Apparent and Minister of the Interior, Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef, choose “to take all efforts to defend the country’s security” — then Yemen may be saved. If, however, GCC leaders postpone their decision, there are strong possibilities that Al Houthis will win.
Hadi needs help to reassert his authority and to stop Al Houthi advances throughout the country. The latter managed to reach the outskirts of Aden from Saadah through Taiz and Al Houta. At the current rate of Al Houthi progress, it will not be long before Yemen’s territorial integrity is severely compromised.
There is no pretending otherwise and though the onus is on Yemenis to sort out their differences themselves, GCC states may have little choice but to engage on the Arabian Peninsula. That is the case with Iran refusing to heed warnings, confident that the P5+1 stands by it.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of Iffat Al Thunayan: An Arabian Queen, London: Sussex Academic Press, 2015.