Implications of the Saudi-Yemen war

From Daily Times.

A longer version of this article can be read below this page..

The Houthi rebels want an end to the Saudi monarchy and death to its western ‘patron’, the US. They seem to miss the fact that the Saudi-US relationship has ceased to be that of a patron-client since 2014. Riyadh and Washington are engaged in an adversarial relationship in the energy sector. Washington’s efforts at making itself energy independent through the shale gas revolution are frustrated by Riyadh’s decision to glut the market with cheap conventional oil. The Saudi move has ended what used to be frenzied investment in shale gas in the US, with a negative multiplier effect on the US economy.
Saudi Arabia felt more threatened by shale then it did by the 1979 revolution in Iran, Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the 2012 Arab uprising combined. The spread of shale will radically alter the international market for Arab energy-producing giants. Shale is easier to extract and shale LNG is cheaper to transport than conventional fuel. Shale’s environmental blow back is far greater than that of conventional fuel though and herein lies the success of Gulf producers’ efforts at driving shale out.

Hitherto, Saudi overproduction helped the US to hurt Iraq during sanctions against Saddam and, subsequently, Iran and Russia. During the aforesaid sanctions, an increase in Saudi production made up for the loss of oil from the sanctioned suppliers, keeping the energy markets stable and making sanctions succeed. The last two years are the only time in history when Saudi swing production has harmed the US. Saudi refusal to lower supply to raise the price is harming the US economy across the board where sudden withdrawal of shale investment has had a multiplier effect.
However, the US has still been exporting shale since January 2016 just to lower the price of oil further at a time Saudi Arabia needs revenue to fund the Yemen war and its own domestic reform. The timing of the removal of Iran sanctions is also a double-edged sword against Gulf oil producers. Additional supply from Iran will lower price further and scuttle Tehran’s ability to generate the required level of revenue. When threatening to dislodge the Sauds, the Houthis also seem to miss that it was the Saudi monarchy that made the overture in 2014 to unite the Arabian Peninsula as one economic and, possibly, political unit. Oman was the only country sceptical of the Saudi proposal.

Had Saudi Arabia succeeded in uniting the Peninsula Arabs, power sharing would have meant the dissolution of the Saud monarchy or the periodic circulation of power between different royal families. Hence, the Saudi monarchy was abdicating in favour of Peninsula unity. Such a move would have united the largest oil and gas resources in the world into one administrative unit, enhancing the political and financial power of the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen would be a likely beneficiary of such a development.
Saudi efforts at uniting the Peninsula Arabs may have triggered the allegation (without evidence) in the US press that Shah Salman suffers from dementia. Simultaneously, the Houthi rebels gained significantly more power than ever before and drove a Saudi allied ruler out of Yemen with hostile posturing towards Riyadh itself. The Saudis had to do something about the situation. Unfortunately, they chose what their detractors wanted: declaration of war against Yemen. The Saudis have lost the war on the moral front, where a rich country fighting a poor one always loses. Militarily, victory seems elusive. Instead of uniting the Arabian Peninsula, the house of Saud is now grappling with severe disagreements within itself and a tarnished image internationally.

Saudi Arabia’s best bet at surviving war on terror-produced instability around itself was to function as the Islamic equivalent of the Vatican and promote a policy dedicated to peace and unity among Muslims, denouncing strife as contrary to the message of Islam. Such a position, coupled with custodianship of the holiest sites in the Muslim world, would have equipped the Saudi monarchy with endless soft power against any regime change attempt.

The Saudi-Yemen war is creating the narrative of sectarian divide at a time when the Islamic civilisation is reaching unprecedented consensus on several issues. An acceptance of the Islamic banking system, establishment of a Middle Eastern version of Interpol to combat the common scourge of terrorism, collaboration in medicine to produce halal vaccines, enhancement in trade ties and increased cooperation in disaster management are all evolving future systems in the Islamic world.
The war in Yemen has given the western corporate press an opportunity to create the divide hype while dumping the blame on Saudi Arabia for starting it. Polemics on either side notwithstanding, Iran is not at war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is at war in Yemen with an incredibly young, rebellious force and numerous independent committees ruling over neighbourhoods in a fragmenting country. The war does not carry the support of the public in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
Pakistan must fathom the far-reaching implications of the Saudi-Yemen war for the Islamic world in particular and Asian economies in general. The blowback from Yemen is threatening the Saudi status quo. The overthrow of the status quo in the Middle East replaces unpopular order with violent chaos due to the international strategic environment. Were Iran’s revolution of 1979 to take place within the current environment, it would not succeed. It was the balance of terror between the super powers that made the 1979 Iranian revolution escape foreign intervention.

Saudi Arabian stability has dual implications for international relations. One is due to the Saudi power of swing energy production. Whoever controls Saudi oil can influence international energy markets and shape international energy relations. The second implication is regional and accrues from Saudi service of the holiest of shrines in the Islamic world. If the House of Saud falls due to blow back from the Yemen war, it would only be amidst terrible instability inside Saudi Arabia. Should such a scenario evolve, the west would get an opportunity to police Saudi oil fields to save them from falling into the hands of Islamic State (IS). The US is the only power that is entrenched enough in the region with intelligence and military apparatus to play such a role.
Pakistan too will suffer the fallout of such a situation. Imagine a future with multilateral western sanctions against China with the US in control of Arab oil. Pakistan should consider the implications of such an outcome for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Islamabad has yet to show a plan that takes into account the full implications of the crisis. A tripartite Pakistani role is not likely to yield results. Pakistan can increase its stature by steering in the only direction that will resolve the issue with no further damage to either side in this unfortunate war.
Pakistan should call for an emergency summit meeting of all Islamic heads of states with one focus agenda: the end to the Saudi-Yemen war. Otherwise, this crisis is likely to end up in the UNSC where non-regional powers will seek — and get — authorisation to intervene.
The writer can be reached at zeenia.satti@post.harvard.edu

Longer Version of Implications of the Saudi Yemen War

The Houthi rebels who want an end to Saudi monarchy and death to its western “patron” the US seem to miss the fact that the Saudi US relationship has ceased to be that of patron-client since 2014.  Saudi Arabia and United States are engaged in an adversarial relationship in the energy sector. Washington’s effort at making itself energy independent through shale gas revolution is frustrated by the House of Saud’s decision to glut the market with cheap conventional oil. The Saudi move has ended what used to be frenzied investment in shale gas industry in the US, with negative multiplier effect on US economy.

Saudi Arabia felt more threatened by shale gas then it did by the 1979 revolution in Iran, Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and the 2012 Arab uprising combined. The success of Shale gas would not only make the US energy independent, it would also make it a major exporter of energy. Spread of shale gas technology would radically alter the international market for the Arab energy producing giants. Furthermore, at a time the US is perceived as a threat to the status quo in the Arab world, shale gas export could give the sagging US economy a shot in the arm, which in turn would support American long war in the Middle East. The Gulf kingdoms no longer rely on Washington for their security, though such divergence has not been pronounced openly.

Hitherto, Saudi swing production has been used to the advantage of the US to bring common enemies down such as Iraq during sanctions against Saddam after he annexed Kuwait, sanctions against Iran post latter’s nuclear bid, and sanctions against Russia after the Crimean annexation in 2014. (Moscow and Riyadh stand on opposite sides in Syria).  During all these crises, an increase in Saudi production made up for the loss of oil from the sanctioned suppliers, enabling the energy markets to remain stable and sanctions to stick.

The last two years have been the only time in history that Saudi swing production has harmed the US. Initially, the Americans welcomed it because the falling oil prices were hurting Russia’s Putin. Riyadh’s visit to Moscow in 2015 and a formal apology for the role Saudi Arabia played in US’ rivalry with Russia crystallized the parting of ways between the US and  Saudi Arabia.

Saudi refusal to lower  supply to  raise the price of oil is harming the US economy across board, not just in the shale sector. In the US, plant after plant is shutting down in the shale sector due to decline in investment. Despite that,  the US started the export of shale in January 2016 just to lower the price of oil further at a time Saudi Arabia needs to increase its revenue to fund the Yemen war. The timing of removal of Iran sanctions is also targeted against Saudi Arabia in particular and the Gulf kingdoms in general. Addition of supply from Iran at time like this will further lower the price of oil. Iran is not likely to make much revenue either with the price of oil being so low.

The US is simultaneously deepening the ditch for the Saudi monarchy in Yemen  in the hope the war would bring Shah Salman down by creating rifts within the ruling family on the one hand and deepening domestic opposition to Al Saud  on the other.  Western media is working 24/7 on isolating Shah Salman’s government internationally through increasing accusation of war crimes committed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

US’ support to Saudi Arabia over Yemen is only the face of US policy. In reality, the US has created a Catch 22 for the House of Saud in Yemen by manipulating the domestic rifts within Yemen to empower the Houthis. The most likely origin of arms into Yemen is not Iran but Israel. The Saudis have traditionally bank rolled anti  Israel diplomatic and military activity. Hence Tel Aviv has an interest in seeing Saudi Arabian power fragmented.

Saudi rationale for fighting in Yemen is similar to West’s rationale for entering Afghanistan. In October 2001, a very poor country was attacked by a coalition of rich countries because the former threatened domestic peace in the latter.  There are two crucial differences that lie at the heart of rising international criticism of  Saudi action in Yemen. One, the Saudi led war in Yemen is not sanctioned by the Security Council; Two, Gulf countries have no influence over the global corporate media. Ownership of international media lies with Western corporations sympathetic to  Israel. Hence the Saudi  perspective is missing from international coverage of  the Saudi Yemen war.

Yemen has been at war with itself for fifty years. Why should Saudi Arabia involve itself militarily in Yemen now? The answer to this question lies in the jittery nerves the Peninsula Kingdoms have acquired after the Arab uprising of 2012 and during the rapidly spreading instability due to West’s WOT in the region. The sudden empowerment of the Houthis and their threatening speeches against Saudi Arabia created a security dilemma for the latter.  If the Saudi king let things be, he would have instability on his southern border. Oman does not see eye to eye with Riyadh on many issues; Iraq is fragmenting and a radical regime in Iran is filling the strategic void created in the region by US’ destruction of Iraq. Yemen falling to forces hostile to Riyadh would add to instability in Saudi Arabia’s near abroad.

Yet another fact the Houthis of Yemen  seem to be overlooking when threatening to dislodge the Al Saud is that it was the Saudi monarchy that initiated the diplomatic overture in 2014 to unite the Arabian Peninsula as one economic or possibly political unit.  Oman was the only country with reservations about Shah Salman’s proposal.  Had Saudi Arabia succeeded in uniting the Peninsula Arabs as one, the power sharing  would have meant the dissolution of the Al Saud monarchy or the periodic circulation of power between different royal families. Therefore, the Saudi monarchy was volunteering to abdicate in favour of Arab political and/or economic unity. Such a move would have united the largest oil and gas resources in the world into one administrative unit, enhancing the political and financial power of the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen would be a likely beneficiary of such a development. The timing of Houthi opposition to Saudi monarchy is therefore counterproductive.

Saudi effort at uniting the Peninsula Arabs may have triggered the allegation in the US corporate press that Shah Salman suffers from dementia. The claim against a significant monarch is without any evidence. Earlier, during the last days of King Abdullah’s reign, Western voices  started vilifying the decision making apparatus in Riyadh as aged and worn out. When Shah Salman appointed his thirty five year old son as defense Minister and deputy Crown Prince, (his age reflects the the age of majority Saudis) the latter’s age was reported as twenty nine in the Western press and he was censured for lacking experience.  Simultaneously, the Houthi rebels got significantly more power than ever before and drove a Saudi allied ruler out of Yemen with negative posturing towards Riyadh itself.

The Saudis had to do something about the situation.  Unfortunately, they chose what their detractors wanted – declaration of war against Yemen.

The Saudis are losing the war on the moral front, where a rich country fighting a poor one always loses. Instead of uniting the Arabian Peninsula, the house of Saud is now grappling with severe disagreements within itself and a tarnished image internationally.

Saudi Arabia’s best bet at surviving the War on Terror produced instability around itself  was to function as the Islamic equivalent of the “Vatican,” and  promote a policy dedicated to peace and unity among  Muslims everywhere, denouncing strife between Muslims as contrary to the message of Islam. Such a position, coupled with custodianship of Islam’s holiest shrines, would equip the Saudi  monarchy with moral armor against  external and internal threats.

THE SECTARIAN DIVIDE ASPECT OF THE YEMEN SAUDI WAR

The Saudi led expedition in Yemen is being used in the western media to push the Islamic world towards sectarian divide. Ironically, the “divide hype” has come at a time the Islamic civilization is edging towards consensus on major issues.  An acceptance of the Islamic banking system as an alternative to the western financial system is an example. The need for establishing a Middle Eastern version of Interpol to combat the common scourge of terrorism is being considered. Collaboration in science, technology, (for example producing halal immunization vaccines) education, enhancement in trade ties and increased cooperation in disaster management are evolving future systems within the Islamic world.

The media has now created the narrative of Shia Sunni divide due to the heating up of Saudi Arabian/ Irani rivalry in Yemen.

Though Iran and Saudi Arabia fall on different sides of the divide such as Shia/Sunni, Arab/Persian, and traditionally, pro US/anti US,  the Gulf Arabs  have lately taken a more assertive role in dealing with the US. Their refusal to be part of the anti Iran coalition George W Bush tried to build in 2006 is a case in point. After months of activity on this front, Washington managed to bring together the members of GCC plus Egypt and Jordon (read Sunni states) in a meeting whose declaration was described by the Washington Post as” a vague piece of paper that did not name Iran (or Syria, Hizbollah, or Hamas) but proclaimed the participants’ common commitment to “regional security and peace.”  In other words, the divide diplomacy failed because the Gulf Arabs wanted no part of it.

The war in Yemen is giving the West an opportunity to propagate the divide narrative while dumping the blame on Saudi Arabia for initiating it.

The Saudi Yemen war must be ended as soon as possible. Pakistan has taken up the mediator role and has asked  both Iran and Saudi Arabia to appoint a focal person for further tripartite diplomatic engagement. Polemics on either side notwithstanding, Iran is not at war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen.  Saudi Arabia is at war in Yemen with an incredibly young rebellious force and numerous independent committees ruling over neighbourhoods in a fragmenting country. The war does not carry the support of public in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

IS PAKISTAN TAKING STEPS IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION AS MEDIATOR IN SAUDI YEMEN WAR?

The decline in US’s hegemony in international affairs has created a greater strategic space for regional actors to play a role in regional crises. The activity we see is without a region wide plan though many problems are of common nature. The role that Pakistan has been trying to play in the Saudi Yemen war falls in the category of such activity.

Pakistan’s leadership has not been able to fathom the depth of the problem of Saudi Yemen war and its far reaching implications for the Islamic world in particular and the Asian economies in general.

The blow back from Yemen is threatening Saudi status quo. Where ever the status quo has fallen in the Middle East during WOT, it is replaced by chaos and instability. The lesson from recent history is that political progress is best achieved as a gradual effort in a peaceful environment through support at the top.

Hence over throw of the status quo in the Middle East through uprisings, civil wars or other engineered or real crises is likely to replace unacceptable order with violent chaos. The latter is likely to lead to the reestablishment of “mandates” through which the Middle East was governed by the powers that be during the interwar period because the  Middle Eastern energy product  has vital significance for industrial  economies.

Saudi Arabian stability has dual implications for stability in international relations. One is due to Saudi power of swing energy production. Whoever controls Saudi oil can influence international energy markets and shape international energy relations. The second implication is regional. Saudi  Arabia administers the holiest of shrines in the Islamic world.  Muslims in all Islamic countries and Muslim minorities in non Islamic countries venerate the shrines of Mecca and Medina with deep spiritual devotion.  The shrines are the structural embodiment of the heart of Islam. The annual ritual of Haj at Mecca is one of the core practices in Islam.

Non Muslims can not set foot in the holy land.

The House of Saud has serviced the shrines and administered the annual Haj which draws Muslims from all over the world into Saudi Arabia, creating the largest recurrent mass gathering in the world. Should Saudi Arabia deteriorate into a civil war akin to Libya or Syria, leading to international intervention, the existence of the holiest of sites in Islam makes non Muslim incursion into Saudi territory a no brainer unless Harmain Sharif is separated from Saudi Arabia and handed over to another Islamic entity for service.

Why do I think such a scenario could evolve if the Yemen war continues to destabilize Saudi Arabia. Well, USA and Western Europe will welcome an opportunity to destabilize the Gulf monarchies so they can police the area themselves to take the power of swing energy production under their control.

The  War on Terror is a renewable resource for the West and deployed in pursuit of containment of regionalism in trade. ( Daesh has  now replaced Al Qaeda). BRICs and the rise of the South has created new trade routes and regional trade ties bypassing the US and Western Europe. One look at the new economic map of the world, the emergence of new economic powerhouses and the significance of new trade routes makes this point amply clear.

If the US, suffering as it is from a decline in competitive industry,  allows the newly shaping economic relations to bypass itself,  within half a century the US would be left with not even tourism to market to the rest of the world. Centuries old historical structures that international tourists love to explore do not exist in sufficient quantity in the US for the latter to be a popular tourist destination.  The landscape, though beautiful, lacks cultural uniqueness of the kind Bhutan has for instance, making the US less competitive even in Eco tourism.The old American civilizations of the Mayas and Incas and their structural and cultural memories were erased  by the European conquistador. Instead, an entirely new civilization was structured by a people whose history lies in Europe.

The US thus has compelling reasons to do everything within its power to control the bloodline to newly emergent economies. i.e., Energy supply from the Middle East.

Shale energy is unsustainable. Its environmental blow back is greater than that of conventional fuels. The West’s reliance on Shale as an interim to renewable is counterproductive because investment in shale has led to neglect of R&D in renewables.

Then why is the West promoting Shale?

The Peninsula Arabs realize the implications of state sponsored Shale promotion during WOT, which has created terror groups all over the region who are a menace to their respective states. The fires ignited by WOT surround the oil producing Arabian monarchies who are as yet stable icons of prosperity, law and order.  Their ability to survive in a volatile environment depends on the enhancement of domestic services to pacify their population should it get restive. The greater the revenue, the better their ability to manage domestic grievances.

Shale energy creates a new competitor in market that decreases the revenue generating power of the Arab product. Shale LNG is far cheaper to transport than conventional fossil fuels. Shale is cheaper to extract also. (Interestingly, Russia and Norway have a common interest with the Arabs in making Shale fail. Intra West schism over the issue is writing on the wall). For now, the Arabs are doing what they can to keep promoting world’s reliance on their product while simultaneously emaciating the economy of a superpower whose activities they now perceive as a threat to their survival.

Against this background, if the House of Saud falls due to blow back from the Yemen war, it would only be amidst terrible instability inside Saudi Arabia. Should such a scenario evolve, the West would get an opportunity to police the oil fields to save them from falling into the hands of Daaesh. The US is the only power that is entrenched in the region with intelligence and military apparatus to play such a role.

(Incidentally, if the control over swing production moves into the hands of the west, it could have devastating implications for Asian economies such as that of India, China and to lesser extent Pakistan, not to mention Russia.  It would be interesting to see how the US maneuvers itself in such a scenario vis-à-vis the aforesaid big powers).

Like stated before, western incursion would be possible only if the territory occupying the holiest of shrines in Islam is separated from Saudi Arabia and given to some other Muslim entity for upkeep.If so, the management of Haj and Umra could fall into inexperienced hands.

I watched with great apprehension the narrative of the terror attack in California by the couple called Farook who met during Haj in Saudi Arabia. The connotation that Haj is an event where Middle Eastern terrorists can meet up with West’s Muslim citizens and instigate them to commit acts of terrorism in Western countries has ominous implications.

It would be more than an assault on the religious pride of the Muslims if their holiest of rituals is subjected to (nausbillah) political derogation. If the administration of Khaana Kaaba moves into inexperienced hands with episodes of recurrent mismanagement or violence, it would have negative cognitive impact on Muslims everywhere, demoralizing them as a civilization at best and militarizing them against each other or the West at worst.

For Pakistan, the implications of a break down in Saudi Arabian status quo are enormous. Pakistan will suffer the above mentioned political, economic, and cultural fall out of such a situation in no small measure.

Pakistan is acting way too slow. Islamabad has yet to show a plan that takes into account the full implications of the crisis.

Cognizant of the interplay of international forces in this war, Pakistan is understandably reluctant to play a kinetic role. Pakistan is, however, uniquely suited to play a diplomatic role, though it should not be a tripartite kind. Feeble and facetious diplomatic effort will only decrease Pakistan’s regional standing. On the other hand, Pakistan can increase its stature by carrying out diplomatic activity in the only direction that will resolve the issue with no further damage to either side in this unfortunate war.

Pakistan should call for an emergency summit meeting of all Islamic heads of states with one focus agenda – The end to Saudi Yemen war.

The upcoming OIC conference, scheduled to take place in Turkey in April, would not serve the purpose. Erdogan has made Istanbul partisan by taking a pro Saudi and anti Iran stance on the issue at the outset.  Pakistan has remained candid despite some brow beating attempt by UAE and Pakistan’s ruling family Nawaz Sharif’s indebtedness to Riyadh due to the security the latter provided Sharif during his exile from Pakistan. Islamabad’s sagacity in the matter affords it the opportunity to repeat history when Pakistan hosted the Summit of Islamic heads of states in 1973 in the historic city of Lahore, Pakistan.

Granted, Pakistan’s security environment is not the same as it was in 1973. A safer venue can be chosen for an emergency summit meeting dedicated to providing the Gulf Arabs with face saving exit from the war and the Yemeni rebels with an arrangement that pacifies Yemen.

Tens of thousands of dead bodies later, as the wounds of the war of 1971 were yet fresh, the 1973 Islamic summit succeeded in show casing Pakistani premier Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the head of the newly created Bangladesh, Mujib ur Rehman, together in an embrace, followed by Pakistan’s recognition of Bangladesh . There is dire need to  push for similar rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Yemeni rebels. Only and only the collective force of an emergency summit meeting of all Islamic heads of states can put a swift and enduring end to this badly timed war in the Middle East.

The alternative has negative implications not just for the Peninsula Arabs but also for Afro-Asian states, both big and small.

Imagine multilateral western sanctions against China with the US in control of Arab oil? Pakistan should consider the implications of such an outcome for the China-Pak economic corridor Pakistan is building with enormous hopes!

The Muslims better act before the Security Council does. This crisis is deteriorating fast and likely to end up in the UNSC where non regional powers will seek – and get – authorization to intervene.

The writer can be reached at zeenia.satti@post.harvard.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

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Author: zeenia satti

Zeenia Satti is a political analyst and columnist based in Islamabad, Pakistan. She has studied Middle Eastern Affairs at Harvard University, USA. She works as Executive Director at PPLDM, Pakistan's People Led Disaster Management. (ppldm.net). Follow her on twitter@zssatti.

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