David Fuller's view -
Saudi Arabia’s escalating intervention in Yemen is a high-stakes gamble that risks back-firing in a series of complex ways, ultimately endangering Saudi oil infrastructure and the security of global Energy supply.
Military analysts say there is little chance that air strikes by a Saudi-led coalition of Sunni countries will subjugate the Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen. It may require a full-blown invasion by land forces to secure control. Large concentrations of Saudi armour and artillery are already massing near the border, though this may simply be a negotiating ploy.
The longer the conflict goes on, the greater the risks that it will stir up internal hatred in a country that has traditionally been relatively free of sectarian violence. Adam Baron, from the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the inflammatory comments about the Sunni-Shia struggle by politicians across the region are becoming “self-fulfilling prophecies”.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP) – thought to be the most lethal of the jihadi franchises, and a redoubt for Saudi jihadis – already controls a swathe of central Yemen and is the chief beneficiary of the power vacuum.
AQAP can plan terrorist strikes against Saudi targets from a deepening strategic hinterland with increasing impunity. All US military advisers have been withdrawn from Yemen, and much of the country’s counter-terror apparatus is disintegrating. It is becoming harder to harry al-Qaeda cells or carry out drone strikes with precision.
The great unknown is whether a protracted Saudi war against Shia forces in Yemen – and possibly a “Vietnam-style” quagmire – might tug at the delicate political fabric within Saudi Arabia itself. The kingdom’s giant Ghawar oil field lies in the Eastern Province, home to an aggrieved Shia minority.
“If the Saudis continue this war – and if they keep killing civilians – this is going to create internal instability in Saudi Arabia itself,” said Ali al-Ahmed, from the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington.
Large numbers of Saudi youth are disaffected. An estimated 6,000 have been recruited by al-Qaeda and a further 3,000 have fought for ISIS in Syria and Iraq. While the Saudis have a formidable security apparatus, with a 30,000-strong force guarding the oil infrastructure, the risk of infiltration is high even among clans linked to the royal family.
Two al-Qaeda suicide bombers in a pipeline attack in 2006 were scions of the ruling elite, one a close relation of a leading Wahhabi cleric and the chief of the religious police.
The perpetually troubled Middle East is rapidly sliding into the world’s most dangerous power struggle, with potentially international implications. For once the epicentre of tensions in the region is not Israel’s perennial struggle with the Palestinians. Moreover, this crisis cannot logically be blamed on American intervention in the region, although a few commentators will inevitably persist with this theme for political reasons.
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