The diffusion of protests against authoritarian regimes across the Arab world in 2011 reinvigorated Yemen’s marginalized social movements and united different geographical and political factions in Yemen, such as the northern Houthi movement and the southern secessionist movement Hiraak.1 The Saudi Kingdom, along with other Gulf monarchies, swiftly designed a transitional plan for the country to ensure that President Ali Abdullah Saleh wass replaced with a friendly government led by President Abd Rabo Hadi. Disillusioned by the transition, the Houthis took military control of the capital Sana’a in September 2014, and Yemen descended into a civil war. On 26 March 2015, Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes on Yemen with the aim to restore the Saudi-backed Hadi government and destroy the Houthi movement. What was initially planned as a limited operation degenerated into a war of attrition without a conclusion insight. Scholars and policy analysts moved quickly to examine the Yemen war as a by-product of Saudi-Iranian rivalry and another manifestation of a region-wide war between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. Yet, the crisis in Yemen is more complex; it is neither an international proxy war nor a sectarian confrontation.
During the early years of the Obama administration, conventional wisdom in Washington held that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict trumped everything else in the Middle East, that no problem could be resolved until that one was out of the way. “Without doubt,” former president Jimmy Carter said, “the path to peace in the Middle East goes through Jerusalem.” The reason, said his former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, now a professor of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University, is because, “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the single most combustible and galvanizing issue in the Arab world”.
Similar views were expressed across the political spectrum, from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Defense Secretary Chuck Hegel and General David Petraeus.
Earlier this week, a damning report from advocacy group The Syria Campaign accused the United Nations of breaching its humanitarian principles by prioritizing cooperation with the Assad government “at all costs.” This is not the first time that such charges have been leveled. An internal inquiry into the UN’s response to the final days of the decades-long Sri Lankan civil war found that officials privileged maintaining good relations with the Colombo regime over their responsibilities to protect human rights.
What is more, the UN has recently been at the receiving end of an avalanche of revelations that it has succumbed to pressure from it member states over its reporting and language:
- Australia lobbied hard to ensure that UNESCO removed the Great Barrier Reef from a list of endangered world heritage sites, despite near universal consensus among scientists studying the reef that it is, indeed, deeply at risk as a result of climate change and runoffs from coastal farms and industrial plants.
- Saudi Arabia threatened to defund UN programs, and to encourage other Islamic countries to do the same, if the UN did not remove a report’s references to patterns of violations against children in Yemen committed by the Saudi-led coalition.
- Morocco threatened to withdraw support for UN operations in retaliation for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon referring to Western Sahara as “occupied,” despite the fact that this is precisely the legal situation in that part of the world until a referendum on its future can be held.
- Myanmar insisted that UN officials refrain from using the term “Rohingya” to refer to an ethnic minority in that country and has threatened to withdraw cooperation with any that do. Some, such as the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy Satish Nambiar, have complied with the regime’s demand, overlooking the right of groups to self-identify. Others, such as Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Yanghee Lee continue to use the label and have faced vilification because of it.
For Middle East watchers, all eyes are on Saudi Arabia these days, particularly on the transformative Saudi Vision 2030 plan recently introduced by the young Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The plan envisions a Saudi Arabia with reinvigorated development, a diversified economy, and peace and security. It is a plan decidedly aimed at young Saudis, upon whom the future of the state rests. To assess its chances of success, however, observers would do well to watch the reaction of the ulama, the religious clerics who have an enormous impact on daily life in Saudi Arabia and whose alliance with the House of Saud is the bedrock upon which the modern Saudi state is built. Despite the Kingdom’s progressive plan, the clerics seem to be backsliding, and the internal dynamics between its leading members are shifting considerably.
In the 2000s, under the late King Abdullah, the clerical universe consisted of four broad categories: the Sahwa (or Islamic Awakening, a group of former oppositionist clerics that have come to fall in line behind the Saudi monarchy), the Islamic Liberals (including Shiite clerics), the Salafi-jihadists, and the establishment clerics. The bulk of these clerical classes were co-opted by the Saudi leadership to contribute to the fight against al-Qaida and as a means of diminishing Iran’s influence over the Saudi Shiite population. By 2009, a new group arose within the ulama; younger and more liberal than their contemporaries, these “Young Turks” had not yet been co-opted by the regime in the fight against extremism. A key figure in the rise of this group was Prince Khalid al-Faisal, currently the Saudi Minister of Education, who was formerly the governor of Mecca and, before that, Asir province.