Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen: The moral questions

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

On Saturday, at the opening of the 26th Arab League Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia’s new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, vowed that the Saudi-led military campaign against Houthi militias in Yemen would continue until the country is “stable and safe.” Given Yemen’s various challenges, this means that “Operation Decisive Storm” will need to go on for a long, long time before its declared objective is achieved. 

A stable and safe Yemen is the sort of objective that Saudi Arabia could have pursued six months ago after the Houthis seized control of Sanaa. Now, however, Yemen sits on the brink of civil war, and the Saudi-led intervention does nothing to avert it. The real question is why Saudi Arabia waited so long to act—and why it has intervened in this particular fashion.

Depending on where they stand, analysts give a number of potential explanations for Saudi procrastination. The first is one of administrative transition. With the death of King Abdullah, the Kingdom has been more concerned with putting its own house into order than Yemen’s descent into chaos. A second, related argument suggests that the Yemen “file” was centralized in the hands of the late Crown Prince Sultan until 2011, only to be divided between the Ministry of the Interior under Muhammad bin Naif and the intelligence services under a succession of princes. The third argument suggests that the Saudi leadership, led astray by the UAE and Egypt, was distracted by a needless witch hunt of the Muslim Brotherhood and, along with the war against the Islamic State group, this has occupied their full attention. None of these explanations provides a full answer. If the Al Saud, with their immense resources and established antagonism toward Iran, could not see the Houthi threat looming, then all should worry about the future stability of the region.

It is high time for Saudi Arabia to take a more holistic view of what is going on in Yemen, and for the GCC to recognize the strategic importance of addressing the country as a development problem, not just a security problem. Were only a fraction of the billions spent containing Yemen—through walls, weapons, surveillance, soldiers, and now a bombing campaign—instead used to create employment opportunities and improve the country’s decrepit infrastructure, Riyadh and the rest of the GCC would have far less to worry about.

In justifying its intervention, Saudi is quick to point out that its actions are in response to the appeal of internationally-recognized Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and that its air campaign has received the unequivocal support of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Nevertheless, the nature of such a campaign means that as the Saudis and their allies run out of obvious military targets, it is inevitable that mistakes will be made—as was the case on Monday morning with the killing of 21 in an air strike that struck a IDP camp in the northern Yemeni region of Haradh—and the number of civilian causalities will rise, causing people, both in Yemen and elsewhere, to start questioning the morality of the war.

King Salman and his son Mohammad may have secured the required legal cover, but they will certainly find it much more difficult to justify the war morally. The following are some of the moral questions that the Saudis need to face up to if the intervention is not to lead to a protracted war that bleeds the two countries physically, socially, and economically.

1. “Acting against the weakest to teach others a lesson.”

The air campaign is being carried out in one of the poorest countries in the region, if not the world, whose development gains over the years have been extremely limited.  The evidence of extensive Iranian support to the Houthis is very weak and their ability to rally allies is almost negligible. It is true that the Houthis have gone too far in expanding their areas of control, but they have done so with minimum military resistance and certainly without committing anything near the immoral acts witnessed in Iraq, Syria, or even Gaza over the last year. This makes it very difficult to morally justify the Saudi intervention on the basis of a responsibility to protect the Yemeni people. It makes it look as if the Saudis decided to bully the weakest kid on the block in order to teach Iran a lesson.

2. “Creating and shoring up a monster.”

Clearly the Houthis have gone too far in flexing their muscles and have demonstrated a great deal of political naivety.  There is no doubt, however, that the deposed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has led them astray. Without the support of Saleh, his General People’s Congress, and the Republican Guards, the Houthis could not have advanced outside Saada. But who created and shored up Saleh for more than thirty years and right to the very end campaigned for his controversial amnesty? Surely Saudi Arabia has a moral responsibility here in that it has created a monster that has by now perfected the art of survival and manipulation. It is imperative that the Saudis make clear that they have no intention in having Saleh or anyone else act as their client in Yemen.

3. “Denying legitimate grievances.”

The Houthis are an important, nationally-rooted actor that cannot be defeated by outside intervention, particularly given the popular support they enjoy in many parts of Yemen. Aside from them being “politically immature,” their grievances against the internationally-recognized government are largely legitimate and center around three main points: the effective protection of communities in Baida and Mareb from the expansion of al-Qaida and its allies, achieving a proportionate level of political participation, and addressing corruption effectively. The latter is the crux of the moral dilemma facing Saudi Arabia and the international community. By standing in support of Hadi, they are supporting one of the longest serving official of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s Government. Considering Hadi served as vice president for almost 18 years, it is no wonder that Houthis and others blame him for the status of Yemen.

4. “Indirectly aligning with a terrorist organization.”

Another moral question concerns the Saudi position vis-à-vis al-Qaida. The Houthis announced al-Qaida (and ISIS) as their number one enemy in the country following the horrific bombings at Houthi-controlled mosques in Sanaa during Friday prayers on March 20. With the Saudi air bombardment, it seems that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, at war with Saudi Arabia and the United States for more than a decade, has been given a badly needed break to recuperate and regroup. This offers it an opportunity to further undermine any sense of state authority and spread its own influence in a wide swath of the country.

5. “Advancing sectarian divisions among Arabs.”

The last and most important moral dilemma is that in their action to counter Iranian influence in the region, the Saudis have just thrown the more than 10 million Zaydis into the lap of the political Shiite stream of Iran and Hizballah. Although Al Zaydiyyah is considered a Shiite school of thought, in that they believe in the Imamate or the limiting of leadership to the descendants of the house of Ali, it is by far the closest to Sunni tradition.  In fact, in its rejection of the doctrine of the hidden Imam and the return of Mehdi and in its beliefs that the Imam is neither infallible nor capable of performing miracles, as well as its acceptance of Abu Baker and Omar as rightful caliphs, Al Zaydiyyah may well be closer to Sunni Islam than to Shiite Islam as practiced in Iran, Iraq, and south Lebanon. The labeling of Houthis as Shiites and associating them with Iran was a myth first created by Ali Abdullah Saleh (who himself is a Zaydi) back in 2009 in a desperate attempt to gain the support of the Saudis in his six wars against the Houthi uprising. It is very shortsighted of Saudi Arabia to employ the same rhetoric now as it sends the wrong message to Shiites across the Arab World, including those who have fought hard to keep Najaf and Karbala as their reference and to distance themselves from the Iranians.

Unless the Saudis have reached the conclusion that “creative chaos” in Yemen is a good thing, none of these dilemmas reflects well on a Kingdom that is supposedly the richest in the Arab world, has the greatest stake in defending Sunni Islam and regional stability, and shares a long, unsecured border with Yemen.

Ultimately, an unstable Yemen will always be a bleeding wound in the side of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf.