It can be difficult to keep track of all the turmoil in the Middle East, and the latest blowup — a bloody battle between Saudi Arabia and Yemen — has generated fewer international headlines than conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
But the war between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shiite-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen threatens to drag the wider region into even greater turmoil. A Saudi-led coalition wants to restore the ousted Yemeni government, stop the Houthis’ advances and, in the process, stanch Iran’s influence in the fractured country.
A tangled network of tribal and political loyalties undergirds much of the fighting in Yemen. But Riyadh’s bombing campaign threatens to turn what many experts say is a homegrown conflict into a sectarian proxy war between Shiite-majority Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, which are gunning for dominance in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the United States is keen to make sure Yemen doesn’t become another haven for extremists, but as it helps the Saudi aerial campaign on the one hand, it’s negotiating a nuclear accord with rival Iran on the other — and tacitly backing Shiite militias in their fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. Caught in the middle of this geostrategic maneuvering are the long-suffering people of Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, who face a looming humanitarian crisis.
Few people understand this convoluted dynamic better than Edward “Skip” Gnehm Jr.
The 36-year career ambassador, now retired from the Foreign Service, was U.S. ambassador to Kuwait shortly after former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein’s invasion of the country in 1990. Gnehm also served as U.S. ambassador to Jordan from 2001 until 2004 and was deputy chief of mission at America’s embassy in Yemen during the early 1980s. More recent postings include director general of the Foreign Service and U.S. ambassador to Australia.
Today, Gnehm serves as the George Washington University’s Kuwait professor of Gulf and Arabian Peninsula affairs, a position he has held since 2006. An amiable and engaging southerner from Georgia, Gnehm maintains an extensive network of contacts in the Middle East and serves as director of the Middle East Policy Forum at GWU.
In a Diplomat interview at his office, Gnehm said the United States has been supportive of a combined Gulf state effort to restore the Yemeni government and turn back the Houthi rebels, and has engaged militarily by providing refueling capacity for fighter planes. But as the Saudis have stepped up the bombings in Yemen, Washington has become concerned about the widespread collateral damage.
Since mid-March, the fighting in Yemen has killed over 1,800 people and injured another 7,300, about half of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Another 550,000 have been displaced and well over half the country’s 26 million people need food assistance. Saudi Arabia has come under increasing pressure for an indiscriminate aerial assault and blockade that has kept desperately needed food, medicine and fuel out of the country.
“We’ve since become more critical about the bombings in Yemen because of the collateral damage, not only the human losses but destruction of infrastructure,” Gnehm said. “We’ve certainly counseled them to back off, stop and try to get this back into a political process.”
A five-day ceasefire last month allowed some aid deliveries to trickle in, although negotiations quickly fizzled out, with the Houthis rejecting demands to withdraw from territory they have seized and reinstate President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Amid ongoing clashes and Hadi’s preconditions, the United Nations has had to postpone restarting peace talks.
Meanwhile, the Saudi air strikes have failed to claw back the Houthis’ territorial gains. Plans by Hadi’s ousted government, which is now based in Riyadh, to arm local militia groups could further splinter the country into warring fiefdoms and make restoring central authority that much harder.
Gnehm says there is only so much outsiders can do to get the parties to come together — and he contends that fighting between the Houthis and the internationally recognized Yemeni government would be happening regardless of Saudi Arabia’s intervention.
“This is an ingrown Yemen problem,” he explained. “The Houthis are part of Yemen society and there have long been internal troubles between tribes and the central governments. If you took out Iran [which is widely believed to be agitating for the rebels within Yemen], and everybody who had anything to do with Iran went home, and the Saudis stopped bombing and went home, and the U.S. didn’t do anything except hit al-Qaeda, they’d still be fighting.
“It’s a problem inside their country,” Gnehm said. “Is there anything we can do there? Not a lot.”
However, the retired, plainspoken diplomat said Washington might have managed the conflict better in its early stages last year.
“I think we could have taken more initiative with the Houthis by reaching out to them,” he told us. “I know their propaganda is ‘down with America’ and whatever else. But the Houthis really have no reason to be anti-American except if that gives them some payback from Iran.”
Iran has provided some support to the Houthis, although many experts say Saudi claims that Iran is propping up the rebels are inflated. Allegiances in Yemen — a destitute country riven by northern and southern factions that only united in 1990 — are convenient and fickle. Saudi Arabia has a long history of meddling in its southern neighbor, which controls the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a key chokepoint for the global transit of oil.
The northern-based Houthis, who follow the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam and make up about a third of Yemen’s population, have long complained of marginalization from the central government. Angered by a proposed constitution that they said would divert resources from the north to the south, they seized the capital of Sanaa and forced the Saudi-backed government to flee earlier this year.
They also appear to have teamed up with Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s former president who was ousted in an Arab Spring uprising in 2012 but retains strong support among the armed forces. It’s an unlikely alliance given that Saleh waged several wars to tamp down a Houthi insurgency while he was in power. Today, however, the former strongman appears bent on taking down the Western-backed government that replaced him — and exacting revenge on his former Saudi patrons who helped install that government.
In the meantime, both the exiled government and Houthi leadership oppose al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which along with the Islamic State have taken advantage of the power vacuum to stage deadly attacks and stir sectarian unrest. Amid the chaos, the United States has pulled its diplomatic and security personnel out of the country, limiting its ability to conduct drone strikes on AQAP and reportedly resulting in the loss of $500 million in American-supplied weapons.
As he spoke about the war-torn nation, Gnehm smiled and recounted an adage he’s heard repeatedly in his dealings with Yemenis over the years.
“There’s an old saying: You can rent Yemenis but you can’t buy them, and that is perfectly correct,” he said. “They will take money from anybody and they will do for anybody some of what those anybodies want them to do, but not everything. And if someone else comes along with a little more money or enticement, whoops, the alliances are shifting again.
“You can’t pick a tribe, give them money and build waterworks, electrics etc., and count on them to be your ally forever,” he added. “It doesn’t happen because inside Yemen the rivalries among the tribes and the geographic areas are far more important than the outside.
“In fact, Yeminis will fight, squabble and go to war with each other because it’s their pastime,” Gnehm continued. “But throw in someone else — Iran or Western countries or someone else — in the mix and they all turn on the foreigner.”
Asked what the U.S. wants from Saudi Arabia and Gulf states with respect to Yemen, Gnehm said America wants “public affirmation that we need to bring the parties together peaceably for negotiations.”
“I don’t think we’ll have a problem getting that, but the details — putting meat on the bones — are harder,” he said.
The Diplomat interview took place less than a week before President Obama was scheduled to meet with the Gulf Cooperation Council in Washington. Obama was surely expecting a good turnout for his GCC meetings at the White House and Camp David in mid-May, but only two heads of state decided to attend this summit. Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent only deputies to join the emirs of Kuwait and Qatar.
Gnehm said the snub was a sign of deteriorating relations between the administration and Gulf allies that feel threatened by Washington’s nuclear talks with their regional adversary Iran; Obama’s remarks that Gulf states need to focus on internal problems like youth unemployment and political reform didn’t help matters.
“I think, unquestionably, their decision not to attend the summit was a signal of displeasure with the administration. There are multiple factors worth mentioning. Certainly one has to be their calculation that the outcome of the summit would not sufficiently meet their concerns, i.e. Iran’s nuclear program or a treaty commitment to their security. I also think that President Obama’s public comments a week before the summit that regional states needed to address their internal problems was a factor. Leaders in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain would interpret those remarks as unfriendly or, in a worst case, undermining of their authority. Even if valid, the president’s timing was ill advised.”
Gnehm said Persian Gulf states came to Washington with a wish list that included major new weapons systems and concrete security commitments in return for supporting any potential deal with Iran. While Gulf leaders didn’t walk away with a blanket NATO-style defense treaty (which would’ve upset American guarantees to give Israel a qualitative military edge in the region), the summit ended on a relative high note, with an “unequivocal” pledge that America would “deter and confront” any aggression from Iran and tentative Gulf backing for Obama’s negotiations with Iran.
“The United States has been a security partner for these countries for a long time, but they want reassurances, and that hasn’t changed,” Gnehm said. “They have concerns from a number of different angles. One could argue they are valid or not valid, but I think for the point of view of the United States you have to accept it and deal with it.
“They really do have significant concerns about Iran and its desire to be hegemonic and dominate the region,” Gnehm added. “They also fear the Iranian ability to create disturbances through their own Shia minorities. Saudi Arabia has its Shia groups and it’s afraid about Iran’s influence … Kuwait does, the UAE does.”
More than that, Gulf leaders worry that a breakthrough on the nuclear front could herald a larger rapprochement between Tehran and the West, which in turn might threaten the balance of power in the centuries-old Persian-Arab rivalry. Iran has a sizeable population and economy that could, in theory, challenge the Saudis’ monopoly as the region’s heavyweight if sanctions on Tehran were lifted and the mullahs ever got their economic act together.
But some experts say the Gulf states’ insecurities are largely unfounded — and that throwing in more arms sales to assuage their fears will only further stoke tensions. Washington is hardly likely to lift the security umbrella it provides to Gulf allies, which has helped keep oil markets stable, and Iran’s conventional army is weak compared to its better-armed adversaries.
Administration officials insist that a major realignment away from traditional allies to an archenemy that has been hostile to U.S. interests for over 35 years is simply not in the cards. Furthermore, they argue that constructive engagement with Iran is the best way to ensure that the country doesn’t acquire a nuclear bomb and that it becomes a responsible member of the “community of nations,” as Obama puts it.
Gnehm agrees that the Saudis’ concerns are unwarranted.
“It is paranoid,” he said. “I’ve gone over it with them many times and it’s like a rubber band. The more I talk, I can convince them and then when I finish, the rubber band goes right back where it was.”
Gnehm pointed out that the Gulf states’ unparalleled oil reserves would always prevent us from abandoning the region.
“Look at the oil-producing capacity,” he said. “We’re not going to just turn in. We’ve been there since 1946 with our navy. We’re not going home, although, of course, Iran would like us to.”
Still, perceptions matter and Gnehm said his former colleagues in the Gulf states are telling him they worry the U.S. is losing interest in its old alliances.
“They fear the U.S. believes the relationship with Iran is more important than the one we have with them,” Gnehm said. “I’ve argued against that — it’s outrageous; it’s not true — but we have to deal with it.”
What precipitates this belief?
“We had a great relationship with Iran before the fall of the Shah” in 1979, Gnehm pointed out. “In fact, we used Iran as one of our pillars [in the region]. We armed it and we used it in whatever way we wanted. They are worried that we would be willing to compromise or concede points to get that relationship back, all of which would be at their cost.”
Gnehm said he reminds his friends in the Saudi government that when the United States was “using” the Shah and Iran for its own geostrategic purposes in the 1970s, the Shah declared that Bahrain was part of Iran in a preemptive move to annex the country.
“We said, ‘No, it isn’t,’ and moved our fleet out into the Persian Gulf between Iran and Bahrain,” Gnehm recalled. “And he finally backed down.”
As much as the White House vows it is not sacrificing old friendships for new ones, Gnehm said the Gulf states simply don’t trust Iranians to keep their end of any bargain and believe they will play the Americans for fools in the nuclear negotiations.
“Their opposition isn’t that different from the Republicans in Congress or the Israelis,” he said. “They think the Iranians are playing around with us, that it’s all deception and no matter what they agree to, they know how to get around it so they’re going to still do it.”
He also said the Saudis suspect the U.S. may be striking “sub-agreements” as part of the nuclear deal that are not being made public, although Gnehm does not anticipate such sideline agreements to be part of any final package.
“I cannot see the relationship with the U.S. and Iran reaching a point where there would be any of those sub-agreements that would be significant,” he said. “We would not concede anything that would raise security concerns for the Arab Gulf states because of the interests we’ve got.”
Other disputes have also eroded trust between Washington and its Gulf partners. Saudi perceptions that Obama abandoned a longtime ally in Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak are still a sore point. The Saudis also worry that U.S. inaction in Syria, where more than 220,000 people have died in the civil war, signals that perhaps Washington’s loyalty to the Gulf states could be fleeting.
“If we don’t do it in Syria, maybe we won’t do it for them,” Gnehm said, relaying concerns he hears from Saudi colleagues.
Gnehm said Obama’s now-infamous declaration that the United States would punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if he crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons — but then never did — has hurt U.S. credibility.
“We announced we would do something but then we didn’t — which is worse,” Gnehm said, adding that U.S. diplomats were in private conversations with the Saudis prior to Obama’s declaration.
“We were talking with the Saudis about what would happen in Syria among the opposition when we did in fact hit Assad’s forces,” Gnehm recalled. “The Saudis were working, as were the other Gulf states, to be ready to take advantage of our military action.”
And then Obama announced that the U.S. wouldn’t take military action in Syria, but no one in the government bothered to inform the Saudis.
“We didn’t have the courtesy to talk to them privately before it came out, and that was very embarrassing,” Gnehm said. “They were asking, ‘Does the United States really understand the consequences of what they do?’ And the answer, right now, is I don’t think so.
“It’s a matter of confidence and trust.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.