The Sunnis strike back

Opinion Articles

WHEN citizens in Arab Gulf countries woke up to a Saudi military operation in Yemen on Thursday, many had the same thought: it’s about time.

 

For months, the Sunni-dominated states of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) had watched with consternation asIranian-allied Shiite groups in Syria, Iraq and then Yemen had been gaining ground.

“From a Gulf citizen’s perspective, you’re just seeing Iran taking everything in the region,” says Omar Mahmoud Mohamed, a research analyst at Bahrain Centre for Strategic International and Energy Studies (Derasat). “Now, finally, we are doing something to try and shape events in our favour.”

“Storm of Resolve”, as the Saudi-led operation is called, has promised to use the military backing of over a dozen countries to push back the Tehran-allied Houthi rebels. Nearly every Sunni-majority country in the neighbourhood is participating, including Sudan and Turkey, both usually allies of Iran.

It may be no coincidence that the airstrikes started just days before the deadline for a framework deal in the American-led talks with Iran over its nuclear programme. Saudi Arabia has complained to Washington for months that an unsanctioned Iran could be more emboldened to meddle in the region. 

Now it is clear that Riyadh, which gave less than an hour’s notice to US Central Command before starting air operations, will use its American-made weaponry to make sure that does not happen.  The campaign includes around 185 aircraft.

“There’s a lot of messages in this,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political scientist. “It shows the kind of confidence that the GCC and Saudis feel. Is it a message to Iran? Of course it is.”

If the operation has laid bare the sectarian and regional rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it has been strangely unifying within the GCC. The council’s usually tense relationship between Qatar on the one side, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the other, has been papered over. The region’s Muslim Brotherhood branches, considered terrorist organisations by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, have come out in favour of military action. Kuwait’s Islamic Constitutional Movement, the brotherhood’s political wing there, said it backed the Gulf’s efforts to stop “armed Houthi coup gangs” in Yemen and urged supporters back home not to panic. 

Some fear that Iran could use its regional allies to retaliate. A response “could come from the Quds force or its proxies” in Kuwait, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, each home to larger Shiite populations, says Ali Khedery, who served for nearly a decade as an advisor to American ambassadors and generals in Iraq. Perhaps worried about such a scenario, Bahrain’s Interior Ministry on Thursday warned against any “attempt to exploit the current situation to divide the national unity… [or] spread discord between the citizens”. Shiite Gulf citizens, particularly in Bahrain, have been worried that they could face sectarian blowback.

It is in Iraq “where things get terrifying,” according to Mr Khedery. There, US airstrikes are supporting the Iraqi army and Shiite militias trying to take back Tikrit from the Islamic State, a Sunni extremist group. Diplomats in Baghdad worry that the Shiite militias could turn on their American or Sunni counterparts. In one worrying sign, Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is allied to several Iraqi Shiite militias, told worshipers on Friday that Yemenis had the right to “resist” the Saudi military.  

Indeed, if the Yemen operation proves costly or prolonged, GCC public enthusiasm may wane. A number of Gulf countries, such as Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait, have recently instituted mandatory military service, raising the stakes for any future ground operation.

But for now, the Saudis are emboldened. As Adel Al-Jubeir, the Saudi Ambassador to Washington, said in an interview with CNN this week: "There are two things over which we do not negotiate: Our faith and our security."

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