Middle East

Saudi Arabia's new muscular foreign policy

Saudi army fires towards Yemen (15/04/15) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Saudi Arabia sees threats around the region and has taken the lead against rebels in Yemen

The border with Yemen is a 10-hour drive from the Saudi capital, or a two-hour flight, but Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen is on everyone's mind in Riyadh.

Officially it is a Saudi-led military operation with coalition partners including the UAE, Egypt, Morocco, and other Sunni countries.

But most Saudis see it very much as their war, with the fighting right across their border, in Yemen. Over 70% of the sorties by jets pounding rebel targets in Yemen are Saudi.

Officially, the war is also limited in its scope and goals: restore the internationally recognised President Mansour Abdrabbuh Hadi to power and undo the territorial gains of Yemen's Zaidi Shia rebels, known as Houthis, who allied themselves with remnants of the former ruler, Ali Abdallah Saleh.

But almost every conversation with Saudis about the Yemen military operation leads to a wider discussion about the region, the kingdom's new role as the leader of a military coalition and in many cases, people's desire to see this translate into action elsewhere.

At a bowling alley in Riyadh one evening, I met a young couple enjoying an evening out. The man was in the military so he would only give his name as Hamed. His eyes lit up when I asked him whether he supported the war.

"We support the king's decision to go to war 100%, it's long overdue. Hopefully, we will move to help Syria next, and bring down President Assad who has been causing so much death and destruction for his people," he said.

Wave of patriotism

Saudi Arabia has accused regional rival Iran of arming the Houthis - a charge both the Houthis and Iran have denied.

Saudis and Sunnis in general feel they have been taking a beating by Shia Iran across the Middle East as Tehran tries to solidify its influence from Baghdad to Beirut.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Billboards in Riyadh shows patriotic pictures in support of the Saudi-led operation

The victim narrative is an odd one considering the power of countries like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) in general and the fact that an overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world are Sunni.

So there is an interesting wave of patriotism on display in the kingdom these days and a sense of pride that Saudi Arabia, under new King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, is asserting itself in a way it has not in the past.

"Saudi Arabia is a reference and a leader for the Arab and Muslim world and we are proud of that," said Hamed.

Some Saudis do quietly express concern about the country entering into a war with no apparent end game. But no-one wants to be openly critical as they ponder the possibility it could all wrong and the kingdom could find itself in a long protracted war.

Already reports of civilian casualties in Yemen and warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe are on weighing on people's minds, anxious about a backlash against the kingdom.

So far there have been only a handful of Saudi casualties and the state is promising compensation for the families of the ''martyrs'' including 1m Saudi riyals ($266,000; £178,800) as well as other benefits.

US-style briefings

Every evening at seven o' clock, Saudis can tune into national television to watch the live transmission of a news conference detailing the progress of the military campaign.

It starts with a short music video of a patriotic song about the nation, as tanks, marching soldiers and jets in action are projected on the screen.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Gen Assiri gives daily news conferences on the progress of the campaign

Gen Ahmad Assiri, the coalition spokesperson, conducts his briefing US-style, with slides and black-and-white footage of air strikes, and takes questions from the media. There is no pre-screening of the questioners or the questions. The briefing usually starts with an assurance that all is going according to plan.

After a briefing, I had a more candid exchange with Gen Assiri when I asked him whether he was proud of his country's leadership role in this war.

"It is always a very difficult decision to get a country in war or in a military operation; it is never an enjoyment for any country," he said. "We never had any ambition in Yemen but the situation had to be addressed to avoid Yemen becoming a failed state and ungoverned space."

Sending a message

But the war is also Saudi Arabia's way of pushing back against what it sees as Washington's cosying up to Tehran during the nuclear negotiations and a feeling that the US is stepping away from the region and leaving a void, a feeling shared by Sunni allies in the coalition.

"The majority of people feel that King Salman has taken the right decision, primarily because it is sending a message to Iran: 'We are not weak, we are not reluctant and our national security will exceed our border, south and north if needed'", said Abdel Aziz el Sager, chairman of the Jeddah-based Gulf Research Center.

If the Yemen operation is successful, this new, more muscular foreign policy will have a positive impact on other parts of the region where Iran also wields influence, like Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain, Mr Sager added.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Iran has accused Saudi Arabia of aggression in its campaign in Yemen

Everything is seen through the prism of the rivalry with Iran and it boils down to sheer power - the sectarian angle is a useful tool to whip up sentiments on all sides but it puts Saudi Arabia's Shia population, a large minority, in a difficult position.

"Whenever there is war in the Middle East it impacts badly on Shias in Saudi Arabia, because if any war happens in Iraq or Syria they interpret it as a sectarian war, and [a war] against Iran," said Nassima el Sada, a prominent Saudi human rights activist in the town of Qatif in the mostly Shia Eastern Province.

She complained that if Saudi Shias declared their support for the war, they were dismissed as deceitful, and if they dared criticise it they were branded traitors.

"We love our country, we are Arab and we belong in this land, and we have nothing to do with Iran but no one is listening to us, we keep facing this sectarian war against us in social media and in the national media," she added.

With Saudi Shias made to feel like a fifth column, with Sunni allies like Pakistan and Turkey reluctant to fully join the coalition, and with no end in sight for Operation Decisive Storm as the war has been dubbed, Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen will be a tough test of its ability to take on this more assertive role without dragging the region deeper into sectarian chaos.

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