For the last 45 years, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has tried to mitigate its Yemen problem through short-term tactics, rather than construct and give resources to a strategy for solving it. That policy has failed repeatedly. A bold and lasting transformation is needed, not the same ineffectual meddling.
Traditionally, the attitude of most GCC members toward Yemen has been fond but standoffish. The Gulf states have been fairly generous in funding projects and providing aid, but held populous Yemen at arms’ length, for reasons both demographic and ideological, the latter being fear of Marxism and republicanism.
Saudi Arabia has always regarded Yemen as a direct threat. King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz is reputed to have warned his sons that “the good or evil for us will come from Yemen,” and so to keep it weak and divided. It is unclear exactly what the Saudi royal was wary of: Yemeni intentions of taking over the entirety of Saudi Arabia; efforts by Yemen’s Hamid al-Din dynasty to defeat their Al Saud rivals; or merely attempts by Yemen to recover the three provinces of ‘Asir, Jizan and Najran that ‘Abd al-‘Aziz had captured from Imam Yahya in 1934. But the king’s advice was taken to heart, and has been implemented ever since. “The Saudis want a moderate government in Sanaa—on a short leash,” Michael Van Dusen, a long-time senior staffer for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote in 1982, referring to hundreds of millions of dollars in annual disbursements to both the Yemeni government and Yemeni tribal leaders. Those payments now total several billion dollars per year, and go to individual officials and security men as well as the original recipients. Those on the Saudi payroll run the gamut of Yemeni politics. This policy “degrades the authority of the central government” in Sanaa, argues a descendant of Imam Yahya, ‘Abdallah Hamid al-Din. “In what other countries do citizens receive a salary from a foreign government?” In many ways, the Saudi approach in Yemen is reminiscent of Iranian policy in Iraq, which is castigated as interference by nationalist Shi‘i and Sunni Arabs in Iraq, and by the Saudis and their Western friends alike.
In addition, and as it has done in many Muslim countries, Saudi Arabia subsidized the export of puritanical Wahhabism into a nation that traditionally was Shafi‘i Sunni in the south, and Zaydi and Isma‘ili in the north. This state-sponsored evangelism was perceived as a threatening political encroachment on Zaydi space. It also grated on many Yemenis’ national sensibilities, something the Wahhabis should have known, given the words of the Prophet: “The people of Yemen have come to you, most sensitive in their souls, softest of hearts! Belief is from Yemen, wisdom is from Yemen! Pride and arrogance are found among the camel owners; tranquility and dignity among the sheep owners.”
The 2011 uprising in Yemen brought millions of people into the streets, protesting against precisely the elite corruption and autocracy that Saudi Arabia (with Western backing) had worked to entrench. Saudi policy toward Yemen since the popular revolt is almost certainly an attempt to maintain the status quo ante. Indeed, the GCC initiative that claimed to break the political impasse has been seen as an effort to achieve an apparent transition of power while ensuring, sub rosa, that the same coterie of Saudi clients remain in place. Certainly, the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm is an attempt to reinstate ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to the presidency. Yet Hadi was President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih’s long-term vice president, his clique shows traits similar to the deposed Salih’s, and a terrorist-traced salafi, ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Humayqani, has reportedly been appointed as Hadi’s “adviser.” Many Yemenis will see Humayqani as a Saudi-placed eminence grise.
Not only is this policy expensive, but it also doesn’t work to keep Yemen docile: “The Saudis have really gotten very little for their money,” according to Barbara Bodine, a former US ambassador in Sanaa. One reason, as the scholar Maria Eleftheriadou notes, is that many of the tribal leaders on the Saudi dole “became ‘city sheikhs’ having moved to Sanaa,” where they steadily lose “their moral authority, their power of persuasion, especially among the younger generation.” All of these problems come at a time when Saudi state incomes are falling (and likely to remain low) while domestic costs are rising (and likely to keep going up).
The “kinetic” approach of Decisive Storm is equally ineffective. The Israelis, and to a lesser extent US administrations, have adopted the tactic of “mowing the grass”—periodic military operations to keep perceived security threats manageable. Sixty-five years have shown this policy to be not only financially and morally ruinous, but also actively counterproductive: It generates ill will among the population, and encourages the salafi jihadism it aims to remove.
The GCC states could continue doing the same thing but expect a different result—Einstein’s definition of madness—or they could try a different way of achieving the desired end state of a non-threatening Yemen. The dying King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s admonition has always been interpreted negatively. “Beware of Yemen; it is your Achilles’ heel,” as Van Dusen paraphrased it in 1982. Yet the king left equal the possibility of good coming from Yemen, too. So, how could that be achieved?
Europe spent much of the last thousand years wracked by war after bloody war, with various nations trying to subordinate, or at least weaken, neighbors and “allies,” to no good effect. Only a decision to move to a strategy of mutual benefit finally achieved a peaceful Europe, and led to the prosperity (and gridlocked democracy) of the European Union. A prosperous, truly federal Yemen would be no military threat to the GCC as a whole or to Saudi Arabia individually. Indeed, were a federal Yemen admitted to the GCC, it could again supply cheap labor, but the remittances would also increase the consumer base for GCC goods and services. The only conflict would be for contracts.
The GCC fears that the Zaydi Houthis are a fifth column for Iran, and claims they receive a copious Iranian weapons supply. In fact, the Fiver Shi‘a—with their founding doctrine of resistance to an unjust ruler—are an ideological threat to the Islamic Republic’s theory of velayat-e faqih (rule of the jurisprudent), and were mostly armed by Salih. The Gulf states could regard the Zaydis as a cherished Arab ally against the Iranians, whose Safavid antecedents destroyed the first Zaydi state. Instead, GCC policy is driving Zaydis into Iranian arms.
This problem is not new or theoretical (nor are Persian hegemonic pretensions). As an Athenian politician advocated 2,500 years ago: “When a free community, held in subjection by force, rises, as is only natural…we fancy ourselves obliged to punish it severely; although the right course with freemen is not to chastise them rigorously when they do rise, but rigorously to watch them before they rise, and to prevent their ever entertaining the idea.”
The GCC tactic of divide, bribe and rule is a consistent failure. A new strategy is urgently needed, one based on the European model of building mutual advantage. It’s time to change.