The 2011-2015 “Arab spring” events have considerably weakened the acknowledged leaders of the Arab world: Egypt, Libya, thrown Syria and Iraq into civil wars, and created an atmosphere of general chaos and violence in the Middle East. Widely-known charismatic leaders, such as Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Kaddafi, Hafez Assad, and Saddam Hussein quit the political stage. The Arab socialism and pan-Arabism ideology has decayed and faded into insignificance. Riyadh was not slow to take advantage of it and tried not only to become a new leader of the Arab and Muslim world, but also to play the role of a religious center and regional gendarme. Gambling on the title of the Saudi king as the warden of two Muslim holy sanctuaries, Riyadh tries to consolidate around itself not only Arabs, but also all Muslims of the Sunni Islam faith. Naturally, a common enemy represented by Shiite Muslims led by the Islamic Republic of Iran has also been found.
In its military and special operations in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia to a large extent blindly follows the infamous international experience of its senior partner – the US Administration. Riyadh, just like Washington, by ignoring the opinion of the UN Security Council and the world community in general, takes the liberty to encroach upon sovereign states, deliver missile and bomb strikes on their territory, furnish material, financial and other assistance to radical Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State through the channels of its security service and Wahabiite funds. In order to put a varnish of collective actions on “restoring the order” in the region, Riyadh has knocked together the so-called “mini-NATO” on the basis of mini states – monarchies in the Persian Gulf.
The execution of a punitive military operation using the resources of the Saudi military contingent in Bahrain in March 2011 was one of the first examples of the Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. At that time, several hundreds UAE policemen maintained a semblance of coalition. Using firearms, the Saudis suppressed protest meetings and broke up demonstrations of the local Shiite community which demanded equal rights with the governing Sunni minority, and also suppressed the simmering popular revolt with savagery. In approximately the same manner the KSA force structures acted to put down the Shiite community’s protest actions in its Eastern Province.
The Riyadh’s interference in internal affairs of Syria and Iraq is common knowledge and it hasn’t come to the overt invasion by the Saudi army, though the KSA Air Force participate in bombing the IS positions, and at the same time Riyadh conveys financial and other aid to the armed opposition groups through the channels of the security service and nongovernmental organizations.
As for Syria, the Royal family members outspokenly advocate for the speedy violent overthrow of the legitimate President Bashar al-Assad and render all types of assistance, including military, to the armed Syrian opposition group represented by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). In the Saudis’ opinion, the preponderance in the Damask government of Arab-Alawi (Shiite) minority and its allied relations with Iran constitute a danger to KSA national interests.
Riyadh’s activities towards Iraq look a bit more complicated. Formally, Riyadh has joined the Western coalition and even participates in delivering missile and bomb strikes on the Islamic State positions, but it does not prevent it from continuing granting support to Sunni opposition groups from among former Baathists and Saddam Hussein’s soldiers who are currently acting in close alliance with the IS militants. The Saudis are apparently not comfortable with the dominance of the Arab-Shiite majority in Baghdad and its close ties with Tehran.
Still, the main reason of the Saudi ruling dynasty’s interference in the internal affairs of neighboring Arab states is an alarmist fear to lose its individual rule in the country which rests on several thousands Royal family members and the Arab-Sunni elite. The country’s Eastern Province, one of the most rich in oil, is densely inhabited by the Arabs-Shiites who are apparently dissatisfied with their position of ‘second-class’ citizens. Their leaders fight for equal rights with Arabs-Sunnites, equal representation in government and participation in the budget funds allocation. From time to time, the Saudi Shiites’ rallies against central authorities explode into spontaneous protests and acts of mass defiance.
Currently the world community’s attention is drawn to the events in Yemen, where the controversy between the federalists – Houthis (Shiites) – and the Sunni Government has further deteriorated. On March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia, with the involvement of its regional satellite states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE) launched a military operation against the Houthis in the country. So far, the coalition’s actions have been limited to bomb and missile strikes by the Air Force on Sana, Aden and other cities and settlements, as a result of which infrastructure is destroyed, and apart from the rebelled Houthis, local civilians and foreigners are being killed. The situation in Yemen becomes even more serious due to the fact that fighters from Al Qaeda and Islamic State terrorist groups form the third party to the conflict.
It is unlikely that the Saudi Arabia’s military involvement in Yemen’s internal affairs on the side of one of the parties to the conflict leads to the end of the bloodshed. Russia stands for the organization of so-called “humanitarian pauses” in order to continue evacuation of foreigners and give an opportunity to the parties to the conflict to enter into negotiations. The coalition’s bomb and missile strikes or even a ground operation in heavily populated areas will inevitably lead to yet more victims among civilians and will only trigger a new wave of violence.
Stanislav Ivanov, senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.