The extreme nature of both the war and the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen cannot be explained without reference to the shifting dynamics of broader geopolitical change in the Middle East. The region’s current pattern of violence is rooted in the repeated US efforts to re-make the region to its advantage through the use of coercive force since 2001. Washington’s interventions and proliferating counterterrorism operations around the region—along with the new Arab wars that followed the Arab uprisings—have led regional middle powers to attempt to reshape that system to serve their own interests. The Saudi–Emirati war in Yemen is just the most tragic example of an Arab state suffering from the geopolitical transformation of the geopolitical and regional order.
The Sana‘a Center for Strategic Studies begins its 2018 year-end review: “Yemen is no longer ‘on the brink’ of catastrophe. Rather, it has already been pushed into the abyss and therein continues to fall.” Yemen’s free fall into a humanitarian abyss has roots in its longstanding internal political divisions and power struggles, some dating back decades, which came into open conflict following Yemen’s popular uprising in 2011. Less understood, however, is that the extreme nature of both the brutal war and the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe cannot be explained without reference to the shifting dynamics of broader geopolitical change in the Middle East since 2001.
Yemen has long been exploited as a strategic location for transcontinental empires or proxy battles, such as between Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the 1960s. The war in Yemen today, however, is not a proxy war between rival regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yemen’s catastrophe reflects how, since the Arab uprisings of 2011, the Middle East regional order has transformed from a system organized around and against a US-dominated and managed system into a multipolar system lacking the shared norms, diplomatic channels or balancing mechanisms that previously constrained inter-regional conflict and the use of force. The Middle Eastern geopolitical order is experiencing its own kind of free fall into an abyss of violence and disorder; the war in Yemen is symptomatic of this transformation, not its cause.
The region’s geopolitical disorder was not caused by a power vacuum, Iran’s alleged quest for regional domination, sectarian differences between Shi‘a and Sunni or even reckless leadership in Saudi Arabia or the United States. Rather, the region’s current pattern of violence is rooted in the repeated US efforts to re-make the region to its advantage through the use of coercive force. The post-September 11, 2001 US military interventions throughout the region failed to establish a stable regional security architecture; on the contrary, they generated intense insecurity for both rival and allied states—as well as within societies—while facilitating the proliferation of armed non-state actors and weapons flows. As the regional system has become more complex and multipolar, continued US reliance on coercion rather than accommodation and compromise has intensified the forces of regional instability that the United States seems both unwilling and unable to control.
Regional insecurities generated by US interventionism since 2001, followed by the post-2011 downscaling of US efforts to shape regional order due to its diminished political leverage, have accelerated these trends toward regional power rivalry and conflict. Previously, the United States and other external powers sought to contain regional conflicts. But Washington’s interventions and proliferating counterterrorism operations around the region—along with the new Arab wars that followed the Arab uprisings—have led regional middle powers to project power at the regional level in an attempt to reshape that system to serve their own interests.
Iran, Qatar, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia have all sought to project power beyond their proximate neighbors in the wake of the decline of US dominance. While Israel had long been the only regional power with the capacity to project military power at the regional level, a number of middle powers now seek to pursue their interests in a similar, generally destabilizing, manner. While the United States has refused to constrain the behavior of its Saudi and Emirati allies, it also has been unable to contain Iran’s expanding influence. The efforts of these states to project coercive power have led to new levels of destructive civil wars, weapons proliferation, state fragmentation and humanitarian crises in the region.
The Saudi-Emirati war in Yemen is just the most tragic example of an Arab state suffering from the transformation of the geopolitical and regional order. Congress has joined humanitarian organizations and peace activists in seeking to limit US involvement in that destructive war, but US responsibility goes far beyond its ongoing weapons sales and support for the military campaign.
US Interventionism and Regional Destabilization
The post-World War II Middle East state system, presided over by British and then American dominion, was fraught with tendencies toward inter-state conflict and rivalry. But external and local states during the era of the Cold War, with a few exceptions, sought to balance threats, limit escalation and restrain revisionist actors, including their own allies. Over the past two decades, however, the mechanisms that mitigated conflict in the past have eroded. At the center of this process are US polices that destabilize a region they claim to protect.
With the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the United States became an agent of instability as it engaged in interventions including regime change and the arming of proxies to fight its expanding War on Terror. The collapse of the Iraqi state and the rise of a domestic insurgency that mobilized transnational jihadists—along with a massive US military presence and its disregard for international law and norms—generated heightened insecurity among US rivals, including Iran and Syria. Normative restraints on the aggressive behavior of regional states also was diminished. Iran and other US rivals sought to challenge American power by supporting armed militias and insurgent networks and by acquiring new military capabilities through local manufacturing and imports. By 2010, the US vision for an American dominated post-Cold War regional security architecture—based on the containment of Iran, support for US-allied regimes and managed progress toward Arab-Israeli peace—was in disarray. Amidst this turmoil, the American era in the region came to an end. Middle East states no longer looked to the United States to provide security or order. After 2011, these dynamics and support from regional and external powers enabled the rapid militarization of several uprisings and the outbreak of multiple civil wars leading to the fragmentation of territorial control in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.
Rival middle powers seeking to reshape the regional system to meet their own interests have deployed military force and armed non-state militias, leading to the fragmentation of centralized states and territorial control. The immediate security interests of US allies began to take priority over US policy preferences. Meanwhile, the emergence of multipolarity at the global level—with Russia and to a lesser degree China seeking to gain leverage in the Middle East—together with the rise of multiple regional powers with rival goals, means that the Middle East is no longer either a unipolar system organized around US domination or a bipolar system defined by Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
Toward the end of President Barack Obama’s first term (2009–2012), the United States downscaled its quest for regional dominance due to its declining political leverage and the rise of new sources of instability. The United States could no longer manage regional order though balancing and deterrence, and longstanding ideas about what constituted American interests were contested. While the security of Israel and Saudi Arabia had long been central to US regional strategy, these states were at times obstacles to US policy initiatives to contain Iran, promote an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and limit regional arms proliferation. Meanwhile, both US allies and rivals in the region came to feel more insecure. Increased rivalry and conflict led to widescale intervention and deployment of military force—the new Arab wars.
Even with growing regional turmoil during his second term, Obama suggested that the United States did not face pressing strategic security threats from the Middle East. Terrorism and Iran’s regional role were strategic challenges, but these concerns failed to offer a guide for broader regional strategy. The United States might have sought to establish a regional balance of rival states through a diplomatic vision broader than the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Instead, Washington only encouraged regional conflict by tolerating repressive regimes, offering arms and military support to allies, deploying coercive sanctions against rivals and failing to establish mechanisms to address conflict. Most striking was the contradiction between the ongoing deployment of military force against ISIS in Iraq and then Syria and the failure to mitigate other ongoing conflicts involving Yemen, Israel/Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Libya.
Meanwhile, like other states in the region, the United States sought new tools and techniques to either influence or contain emerging networks of non-state actors. US special operations forces developed networked forms of warfare and counter-terrorism, while intelligence services backed both non-state militias and specially trained local counter-terrorism units, fostering the flows of arms and intelligence needed to sustain them. These trends deepened with the inauguration of the Trump administration and its more unilateral and transactional form.
Unleashing the Saudi-led Counter-revolution
With the exception of the state collapse that followed the US invasion of Iraq and the nightmarish descent of Syria into civil war, the Saudi-led effort to direct a regional counter-revolution against the Arab uprisings and impose its vision for new regional order has had the most destabilizing effect. The development of an aggressive, expansionist Saudi approach to regional politics was a reaction to the US invasion of Iraq, which produced a Shi‘a-dominated government and the expansion of Iranian influence in Iraq and beyond. Riyadh remained distant from the new Iraqi regime, while private Saudi funds supported jihadists and the insurgency in Iraq. Saudi Arabia sought to redefine its regional rivalry with Iran along sectarian lines as a means to shore up political allies within Sunni populations in the Arab world. In doing so, it placed its own interests over those of the United States.
Saudi distrust of Washington’s role in the region spiked when in 2011 the United States acquiesced to the fall of Egypt’s long-ruling dictator Hosni Mubarak. Saudi leaders were especially threatened by Obama’s declaration—which was not without major contradictions—that US interests were aligned with those of the democracy-seeking protestors in Tunis, Cairo and elsewhere. Saudi and US approaches to regional politics, if not also their core interests, began to diverge. While the United States struggled to redefine its regional role, Saudi Arabia launched what can be viewed as a regional counter-revolution. Not only did Riyadh seek to derail the democracy-oriented narrative of the Arab uprisings and reverse any democratic gains—for example by crushing the uprising in Bahrain, managing an elite transition in Yemen and supporting the 2013 coup in Egypt. It also struggled to maintain its regional influence in the face of expanding Iranian power and the rising influence of Turkey and Qatar, which often backed Saudi rivals.
On the one hand, these actions follow the trend of other rising regional powers pursuing assertive policies to advance state interests in the wake of the declining US role. On the other hand, while Turkey, Qatar and even Iran seek a new regional order that serves their own interests, Saudi policy under the aggressive leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—with support from the UAE—resembles the George W. Bush administration in its effort to remake the regional system in the wake of September 11, 2001. In both cases, unilateral force that violated regional and international norms was used to coerce states and societies to conform to an imposed regional plan.
Obama’s policies encouraged Saudi policy as Washington pursued a nuclear deal with Iran in the face of Saudi and Israeli opposition, and it did so without working to establish new norms for the regional system via diplomatic solutions or any kind of grand bargain. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with little deference to the United States, asserted their interests by backing President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s authoritarian regime in Egypt, supporting extremist armed opposition groups in Syria and launching the destructive and ineffective military campaign in Yemen.
The UAE, in fact, provided an early model for this aggressive new approach. Since the late 1990s, it developed its own military capabilities and become a more active player in regional geopolitics, emerging “as one of the region’s most interventionist foreign policy players.” Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and a strong supporter of Mohammed bin Salman, has encouraged hardline policies toward Iraq and Qatar as well as military intervention in Yemen. The UAE has gone further in Yemen by deploying its own ground troops as well as “recruiting, funding and training a variety of local proxy forces in southern Yemen.”
While Saudi Arabia and the UAE portray their regional strategy as a reaction to Iran’s expanding regional influence, they have failed to leverage this threat into effective regional balancing against Iran. The rival interests of the Arab states, their failure to cooperate and the eroding norms for regional politics explain this under-balancing. As a result, Qatar’s short-lived attempt in 2011 to revive the GCC as a forum for collective security was debilitated. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have opposed any accommodation with Iran and prevented regional discussions that might stabilize the regional order. Having long been sheltered under the US security umbrella—which they helped finance—the UAE and Saudi Arabia now commit their resources toward “the creation of military-centered national strategies.”
The Tragedy of American Policy in Yemen
In 1962, when Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser intervened in North Yemen to support the nationalist forces against Saudi-backed royals, President John F. Kennedy encouraged restraint but later mobilized US aircraft over Saudi skies to deter Egypt and reassure Saudi Arabia. In contrast, the Obama administration played a critical role in backing the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, even as many US officials believed the United States had no interest in the conflict other than showing support for Saudi Arabia in the wake of differences over the Iran nuclear deal. Even as Obama attempted to articulate a shift in US regional policy to contain rather than confront Iran, the combination of continuing targeted drone assassinations in Yemen and backing the Saudi-led coalition amounts to direct US responsibility in the tragedy of Yemen.
The scale of this tragedy is enhanced by the fact that US policy makers were skeptical about the war in Yemen even as the United States offered massive arms packages to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, much of the Washington think-tank community and policy-oriented media outlets, together with the arms industry, continued to advocate for Saudi and Emirati interests. American facilitation of the Saudi-Emirati war in Yemen is akin to when the United States gave a green light to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. In both cases, a US ally dragged the United States into a situation that failed to serve US regional interests while resulting in clearly foreseeable humanitarian disasters.
Trump’s election only accelerated Saudi Arabia’s attempts to expand its regional influence and develop closer strategic cooperation with Israel. But these moves have been counterproductive for Riaydh: Forcing the 2018 resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (later rescinded) and prosecuting the war in Yemen have given Iran increased regional leverage in the face of Saudi policy failures. Rather than embracing Qatar’s post-2013 efforts to rebuild GCC consensus policymaking, Saudi Arabia and the UAE instead sought to coerce Qatar into accepting a subservient role. The result was the fragmentation of the GCC as a regional organization and a further split in what was once a powerful Saudi-led Arab coalition.
Together, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel seem to offer the Trump administration an (illusory) vision for regional order that includes the fruitless notion of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by coercing the weakened Palestinian Authority into accepting the Israeli-dominated territorial status quo. But even agreement amongst these parties—which is uncertain—would not make such plans viable. Regional and societal opposition to such plans exemplify the failure of Saudi Arabia to develop the popular and social basis to forge a new regional order.
At the same time, the growing regional influence of Iran and the military assertiveness of Hizballah have led to more aggressive Israeli actions, including attacks on Hizballah assets in Syria and drone activity over Lebanon. These actions risk the escalation of conflict. Meanwhile, rather than seeking negotiations with rival regional powers to address both pressing security threats and long-term strategic challenges, the United States has instead pulled out of the Iran deal. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is leading an effort to coerce Iran through economic sanctions and the dangerous escalation of regime-change rhetoric. In this way, US-backing of the Saudi-led counter-revolution has only intensified Saudi-Iranian rivalry. It has also facilitated the intensification of regional conflicts, increasing regional instability while risking the further escalation of conflict.
No Way Out?
Within the current geopolitical landscape, the Middle East is in dire need of efforts to promote conflict management and de-escalation based on a realistic appraisal of the needs and interests of different states and the broader political, economic and social needs of a region suffering from decades of war and social collapse. Having once proclaimed support for the reformist, proto-democratic forces of the Arab uprisings, the United States has aligned itself with the reactionary forces of the Gulf-led counter-revolution. In its effort to take on ISIS, it has also returned to the War on Terror paradigm that dominated the post-September 11 period.
Despite the Iran nuclear deal, Obama failed to offer the leadership needed to open discussions on regional security issues, and this failure allowed Trump to reverse the Iran deal. More generally, the United States has refused to meaningfully support the resolution of violent conflicts in Palestine, Yemen, Libya, Syria and elsewhere. Worse, the United States and other external powers have used domestic and regional divisions to assert some influence and leverage in the region, with tools including economic sanctions (against Iran), direct military intervention (in Libya, Syria and Iraq), military support for regional interventions (in Yemen and Bahrain) and massive weapon sales throughout the region.
The continuing production of insecurity and regional rivalry shows few signs of exhaustion while the possibilities for escalation remain abundant. A different order, however, might be possible if social forces in the region are able to mobilize and again challenge political elites who seek to suppress the popular will and discount the humanitarian concerns of the region’s populations. Unfortunately, the reactionary repression of 2013 counter-revolution, the concentration of power by regime elites and the shifting priorities of external powers have decimated and demoralized many social movements. Moreover, diverse political forces and militias struggling for survival often accept support from any willing party—support extended with ulterior agendas.
Until societies across the region, in the United States and elsewhere are able to mobilize opposition to reckless government policies, humanitarian organizations, peace activists and willing political officials—regardless of their motivation—will need to press for limits to US weapons sales and tactical support for the destructive Saudi-Emirati war in Yemen. In the United States, the anti-war left may find common cause with the libertarian right and centrist critics of so-called liberal hegemony, in advocating for a regional US strategy of restraint. Meanwhile, the United Nations and other actors should work toward rebuilding norms of constraint, promoting conflict resolution and fostering inclusive regional negotiations. The priority must be immediate humanitarian needs while crafting the foundation for building—in the absence of US hegemony—a pluralist regional order.
 Sana‘a Center for Strategic Studies, Starvation, Diplomacy and Ruthless Friends: The Yemen Annual Review 2018, January 22, 2019.
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