Saudi Arabia looks for anchor as it inches toward defeat in Yemen

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman’s recent visit to Egypt, although aimed at cultivating Turkey and Egypt into a strategic alliance, has taken place at a time when things look really bad for it in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman (L) with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo during his recent five-day visit

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman (L) with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo during his recent five-day visit

Never has the need for actualizing the paper-army, the coalition of 39 countries, been felt as badly as today. On the one hand, the U.S. has decided to pull out of Yemen “leaving the Saudis in lurch”, and on the other, the Houthis and the Yemeni army’s factions still loyal to former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, have joined hands, making it extremely difficult for the Arab Coalition to retain and hold onto what it has achieved in the last year or so.

It was not long ago when the U.S. President Barak Obama had hailed their operations in Yemen as one of the most successful stories of the CIA. However, the sudden pull-out strongly indicates that the U.S. is no more willing to shoulder the burden of the mess Saudi Arabia and its allies have created.

While this development indicates some friction between the erstwhile allies (read: Saudi Arabia and the U.S. pulling each other for 9/11 attacks), it also presents a rare opportunity for the House of Saud to channel the ‘Sunni’ states’ resources into Yemen and project itself as a leader of the Sunni world. Hence, King Salman’s visits to Egypt and Turkey — countries that certainly have powerful armies. However, it is a moot question if, and to what extent, they will actually commit their fighting force to a distant land.

The U.S departure constitutes a problem for the House of Saud but it is only the tip of the iceberg. According to a report, the Houthis and the Yemeni army’s factions loyal to Saleh have joined hands in the war against the Arab Coalition. Not only this, they are also reported to have captured U.S. supplied weapons and equipments worth $500 million.

Such a situation warrants strong military response from the House of Saud and, therefore, makes it extremely necessary for it to re-build the coalition. This was in King Salman’s mind when he addressed the Egyptian parliament during his visit.

During his speech, he highlighted Riyadh’s new Egyptian investment funds of $16 billion and argued that such generosity would “herald a new era of cooperation” between the two powers.

King Salman insisted on using the word “allies” even though by all accounts, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have stood somewhat at odds with each other since 2011. In between Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sissi’s refusal to send troops to Yemen, and Cairo’s insistence to keep Russia close to its military heart, Riyadh has increasingly looked upon Egypt as a challenger to its rule, and not so much an obedient vassal.

“The close Saudi-Egyptian cooperation that we are witnessing today is a blessed start for our Arab and Islamic world to strike an equilibrium after years of imbalance,” the king said in the speech, broadcast on state television.

The equilibrium has a lot with the House of Saud’s position in the Middle East.

Former Egyptian ambassador to Washington Abdel Raouf al-Ridi described Egypt and Saudi Arabia as the two major powers in the Arab region, which renders their cooperation vital.

“In fact, the region’s stability is contingent upon the alliance between Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” he said. “This is especially the case now with the Syria and Yemen crises needing the input of both countries.”

Former Deputy Foreign Minister Maasoum Marzouk agreed that the situation in Yemen and Syria constituted a significant aspect of King Salman’s visit.

Member of the Saudi Consultative Council Sadqa bin Yehia Fadel argued that in addition to Syria and Yemen, the “Saudi-Egyptian summit” as he dubbed it, also had on top of its agenda the situation in Iraq and Libya.

“The two countries are aware of the necessity of their adoption of a unified stance vis-à-vis the conflicts in these countries and which will not only serve the interests of both countries, but also the entire region,” Fadel said.

While King Salman was clearly looking for an alliance with Egypt, another important aspect of his visit was to normalize relations between Turkey and Egypt — an aspect of the overall Saudi strategy for the region and the one that holds the key to Arab Coalition’s position in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

While this was one critical objective that King Salman had to achieve, or give some shape, during his visit, the outcome of his efforts would depend on how far Turkey goes to accommodate Egypt in the grand alliance and how far Riyadh goes into helping the Turks in their war on Kurds.

While Erdogan, so far, seems to be maintaining an unchanged position vis-à-vis Egyptian government, the position might undergo some change or Turkey may become willing enough to leave this matter for now once the so-called Saudi-led “Islamic Army” starts showing some credibility. If it does, it may well play a major part in the Middle Eastern politics — and perhaps shoulder some burden which the US no longer wants to carry there — and further allow Turkey to use this army to settle the score with Kurds.

The working of the coalition, therefore, depends crucially on the success of the bargaining among Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, notwithstanding the conflict of interests among the three with regard to resolution of the conflict in Syria and Yemen.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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