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De-escalating tensions in the Arabian Peninsula

By Luigi Narbone
EU-EEAS Fellow
Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies

13 April 2015


The recent deterioration of the Yemen crisis is the latest worrying development in a conflict-thorn Middle Eastern region. On 25 March the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries - with the exception of Oman - launched a military intervention against Houthi and former president Saleh’s forces to prevent them from taking Yemen’s Southern port city of Aden. In September last year the Houthi, a Zaidi movement originating in the Northern Saada governorate, had taken control of the country’s capital Sana’a and had subsequently staged a coup d’etat, forcing president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi to escape to Aden. These events had brought to a halt the democratic transition process initiated in 2012 under the internationally-backed GCC Initiative, triggering months of strife.

The Saudi-led air campaign has obtained the support of the Arab League at its 26th Summit and the participation of Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan and Pakistan, as well as logistical and intelligence support from the US. To date the air strikes have not managed to stop the Houthi advance and have resulted in a further deterioration of the situation. Aden has descended into chaos. The air strikes and fighting between regional militias on the ground are causing growing civilian casualties and aggravating an already dire humanitarian situation.

The stated objective of the ten countries coalition is to protect the legitimate government of president Hadi and restore security in the country. Containing possible spillover of the Yemen conflict beyond its borders and countering the threat to the strategic Gulf of Aden are also mentioned as reasons for the intervention.

As experience in the region shows, however, military intervention by outside powers will probably complicate things further, while it is unlikely to stop Yemen’s drift towards civil war. Instability and insecurity have long been key problems in Yemen. Yemen is home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is said to be taking advantage of the current chaos to regroup. Divergences between the different regions of the country have been growing to a dangerous point while years of proxy confrontation by regional powers have increased the level of militarisation of local militias.

As EU High Representative Federica Mogherini stated “military action is not a solution. At this critical juncture all regional actors should act responsibly and constructively, to create as a matter of urgency the conditions for a return to negotiations”. Yemen, the poorest country in the region, is plagued with growing population and poverty, diminishing hydrocarbons income, water shortage and chronic unemployment. These problems have been compounded by corruption and poor development records and have contributed to make the country’s socio-economic situation explosive.

Under these conditions there is no quick fix. Yemen needs to rapidly re-activate an inclusive peace and political transition process as a pre-condition for deep socio-economic reforms. The GCC could play a major role in the stabilization of Yemen, for instance, through prospects of a gradual integration with the regional grouping similar to what has taken place between the EU and Western Balkans countries.

The Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen is also the result of important geopolitical changes in the region. Deepening sectarian divide and growing confrontation between the GCC countries and Iran are key to understand recent developments. Iran’s growing influence in the region (especially in Syria and Iraq), its alleged support to the Houthi, combined with the recent agreement on its nuclear programme have all but reinforced the Gulf countries’ long-standing fear of the Iranian threat. 

While the role of outside players and that of the US as a security provider is diminishing, the GCC countries have emerged as important regional actors in the intricate post-Arab Spring context. They show determination to play a more assertive role in shaping a new regional order and the air campaign in Yemen is a clear indication of this new pattern.

But in the explosive Middle Eastern situation the overarching objective for all regional actors and the international community should be to promote de-escalation. To this end, the EU and other Western powers may exploit the political opportunities offered by the nuclear agreement and engage in a political dialogue with the GCC countries with a view to diffusing tensions and supporting conflict resolution.    


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