Saudis’ internal fears loom large in Yemen attacks
Monday 15th June 2015
The Houthi takeover in Yemen poses a challenge to the legitimacy of the Saudi state, argues Richard Steinhardt
WHAT WE are witnessing when we see Saudi Arabia and its allies bomb Yemen and blockade its ports is part of the government of Saudi Arabia’s response to questions made about the legitimacy of the Saudi state itself, questions which intensified during and after the Arab Spring.
The fractious attempt at Houthi nation-building on the Saudi border is anathema to the way Saudi Arabia itself was constructed. Saudi Arabia’s state control and legitimacy comes from the unifying force of Islam and the breaking down of tribal systems of governance.
Saudi attitudes towards the Houthi attempts at gaining autonomy are more clearly understood when you understand that national boundaries between the countries seem more permeable to the Saudis and Yemenis themselves than they do to outsiders.
The question of Shia versus Sunni is not relevant here and nor is the participation of Iran an important factor. Zaidi Shia has little in common with the Iranian strand of Ithna Ashariyyah. Zaidi Shia jurisprudence even institutes elements of Sunni jurisprudence.
The story of Iranian involvement in Yemen is a red herring. It is being spun, post facto, to provide additional justification for the attacks. The al-Yami tribe is Shia too. It is the dominant tribe along the Saudi border with Yemen to the west. And yet the al-Yamis are firmly within Saudi Arabia.
In all of this, al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula, with its 50 to 300 estimated members, is just a ruthless bystander. They are mere guns for hire to the warring tribes in Yemen — loose cannons.
The main criticisms of secular and religious alike is that the Saudi state is incompetent, corrupt, anachronistic and incapable of either governing effectively internally or playing the role of a regional power and defending the two holy mosques (Mecca and Medina) from potential aggressors.
King Abdullah tried to address this problem of legitimacy incrementally by boosting measures to combat corruption, and through the Saudi intervention in Bahrain marking the beginning of a shift from the Saudi use of “soft power” — money and influence — to the projection of hard — military — power.
But the best chance to show that the problems were being addressed came with the arrival of new King Salman in January.
Saudi Arabia has reportedly sent 100 warplanes and 150,000 soldiers to support the operation in Yemen. The threatening and unstable condition of Iraq to the north, a hostile Iran in the east and the shifting sands of Egypt to the west meant that Saudi Arabia needed to show its military strength.
The Saudis are using so-called precision munitions, but their show of force has come at a high price for the civilians of Sanaa and North Yemen and for its infrastructure and historic monuments.
The other challenge to Saudi legitimacy is corruption. Saudis are aware of endemic graft that it stands in the way of a more modern, smoothly functioning nation.
But Saudi Arabia has some characteristics of a populist welfare state. While Saudis pay no taxes they receive government services, in some respects, providing training and education, free healthcare and many other services in addition to subsidised electricity and fuel.
But corruption has undermined even this loose arrangement. This leads citizens to question where the oil money has been spent. A few years ago a Saudi official cracked a private joke: “Why are there so many skyscrapers and magnificent buildings and facilities in Dubai and so few in Saudi Arabia?” he asked. “Because they build above ground while we build below.”
Accusations of corruption make the Saudi state vulnerable to extreme jihadist rhetoric, which might resonate with disenfranchised Saudis.
Currently the show of strength of the Saudi government — the anti-corruption measures it has taken and its military actions — have the support of most Saudis and, despite their qualms or anger about civilian casualties, Saudis are reassured. Unfortunately for the Saudi government, neither action is sufficient to restore legitimacy.
Anti-corruption measures need to bite much deeper and, having made their costly, deadly gesture in Yemen, the Saudis need to step back quickly and negotiate a solution with the Yemeni tribes — a solution that acknowledges the close ties between the countries and North Yemen’s economic dependence of Saudi Arabia.