Saudi-led airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Syrian Civil War showcase the impotency of the International Community as a quorum of international governance and the United States as a superpower trying to prevent the spread of anarchy. Where the Syrian Civil War demonstrates the inability of the US and the rest of International Community to curtail the destructive defiance of world power Russia, or even that of the Assad regime for that matter, Saudi Arabia’s violent response to the Iranian-supported Houthi rebellion, including potential human rights violations, also leave the US with few options.
In Yemen, the US must either spurn its ally, thereby imperiling Saudi help in stabilizing the region and dealing with Islamic State, or risk aiding Saudi human rights violations in an attempt to limit civilian causalities with greater precision. Regrettably, neither option fulfills the broader interests of the US or the International Community; therefore, another way forward must be found. Because Yemen borders Saudi Arabia and Al Qaeda has long used the country as a safe haven, efforts by Houthi rebels to seize control of Yemen affect the national security of Saudi Arabia and the region. Changes in the Yemeni government would not, however, necessarily be a problem for the Saudis as long as an Iran-free Yemen maintains some degree of stability.
It is necessary to recognize that there are very real reasons why groups like the Houthi rebels have declared war on their own government. In many respects, Yemen is a textbook example of how social welfare can be used to suppress people and what happens when that system fails. For decades, the country’s leadership has gone so far as to encourage the use of the drug Qat in order to pacify growing anger over the failure of government to provide for the needs of the People, i.e. build a sustainable, broad base economy. The Houthi have been group particularly neglected by the Yemenis government. With that in mind, the situation in Yemen also demonstrates why the largely forgotten, yet ongoing, Arab Spring Revolutions happened.
Despite the focus on regional security, the motivations behind the Arab Spring Revolutions have not been satisfied. The Peoples of the Middle East still want freedom from oppression and they still want better lives, but their need for stability and security is a higher priority, at the moment, while their needs happen to align with the national security interests of their leaders. Although the Arab Spring Revolution in Yemen had left Mr. Hadi in power, he has clearly not done enough to secure the support of his own People, even if the current threat stems from the Houthis. Accordingly, the only way to ensure a constructive end to the power struggle in Yemen is to rebuild a strong, responsive Yemeni government.
Unfortunately, the Arab Spring Revolutions have left the Saudis gun-shy when it comes to civil unrest. In a state of insecurity, the Saudis are responding to Yemen in the same way they responded to the uprisings Bahrain and the same way the Assad Regime responded to civil unrest in Syria, i.e. with violent oppression. It is, after all, the nature of autocratic rulers to assert their will by any means necessary whenever their authority is questioned. Due their nature, dictators and monarchs, even when backed by pseudo-democracies, lack experience and the political aptitude to deal with mass protests in a civil, effective manner, thus they tend to make the situation worse. Like Syria, the Saudis have discovered they cannot always use violence to suppress rebellion.
Meanwhile, their affinity for individual leaders prevents monarchs and dictators from adopting necessarily leadership changes. An ineffective leader might be removed in a democracy to avoid revolt, but authoritarian regimes perceive leaders like President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi of Yemen as vital national resources. Where almost no elected official, especially a President, would quit at the first sign of public disapproval, all democratically elected leaders respond to overwhelming popular criticism and would likely resign if faced with the outrage seen in the Muslim world. As such, a failure to grasp this simple notion has only made the situation in places like Yemen and Syria far worse.
For its part, the US needs to recognize that it can no longer engage the Middle East in ways that support unresponsive governance and neglect the interests of the Peoples of the Middle East. Considering the number of deeply entrenched issues the populations of the Middle East face, along with the constant influx of new crises emerging throughout the region, the traditional diplomatic “architecture” used to guide how we engage the region can no longer be effective. Consequently, Western leaders must engage and support the governments of the Middle East in ways that also support the interests of their Peoples. This means helping the Saudis overcome their insecurities, so they can respond to dissent in a more civil manner.
In many respects, the Assad regime and the Saudis are seeking to prevent the Middle East from dissenting into chaos by protecting themselves from insurgents. The problem is that both are generating more chaos in an attempt to ensure the survival of their governments, which makes them a far greater threat to the peoples of Yemen and Syria. The difference between the Saudis and the Assad regime is that the Assad regime has made itself the enemy of the Syrian People, which means he cannot lead them; whereas, the Saudis are not trying to be the leaders of Yemen. As such, the objective of the Saudis in Yemen must not be to save the current Yemeni leadership. It must be to transform the Yemeni government into a more responsive government, especially when it comes to disenfranchised minorities like the Houthi.
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