x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 December 2017

Strategy shift begins to yield results for Saudi Arabia and its allies

New dynamics in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the UAE could make hoped for changes in the Middle East more possible and consequential than before, writes Hassan Hassan

Houthi rebel fighters inspect the damage after a reported air strike. AFP
Houthi rebel fighters inspect the damage after a reported air strike. AFP

For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, this year appears to be wrapping up in favour of their regional perspective. Any gains are particularly significant considering that they come amid deep changes in the way these two key regional countries seek to shape their neighbourhood.

The policy direction in question has been clear for months. It involves a new drive in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to shape the future through unprecedented levels of coordination, combined with new and long-term strategies.

In Yemen, for example, the latest developments present a notable breakthrough for the Saudi-led coalition and its allies on the ground. Specifically, the formal breakdown of the partnership between the Houthis and allies of the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was killed days after he had turned against his erstwhile allies over the weekend. The implications of this move, despite his killing, are far-reaching.

First, the breakup serves key objectives of the Riyadh-led coalition. It vindicates the narrative that the war in Yemen was focused on the Iranian-backed Houthis. Since the campaign began more than two years ago, a counter-argument has been raised that the war targeted a broader spectrum of Yemenis, who include supporters of the former president, rather than just the Houthi rebels. The involvement of other Yemenis played into the hands of the Houthis, not just in military terms, with some observers even distancing themselves from talk of the group being Iranian proxies, since it was presumably a broader popular resistance.

This "demarbling" effect offers another benefit to the coalition — an objective that the United States often seeks in conflicts in which it is engaged. This objective involves an effort to peel off the reconcilable segments within opponents, to both weaken and delegitimise the enemy. Coalition officials often indicated the war had specific and limited goals, mostly to restore the political process and reverse the Houthi takeover; and stated that the war was not designed to eradicate the group, whom they asserted were part of the Yemeni society. The same applied to supporters of Saleh.

So, the split between the two factions offers the coalition fighting to restore the internationally recognised Yemeni government clarity to outsiders. The coalition could more easily pin its government-backed campaign as directed at the Houthis. Yemeni officials have already sent goodwill gestures to supporters of the former president to mend ties and reach an agreement. The Yemeni president, Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, even called Saleh a "martyr" and offered condolences to his family and base.

The Houthis, meanwhile, seem to have fortified the split with the killing of Saleh and have thus ensured a point of no return. As Majid al-Madhaji, from the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, told the Associated Press, the Houthis are now ”stripped of any cover and shown purely as a religious sectarian movement ruling with force and repression”.

It will be up to the coalition to seize the moment, but this is already a major breakthrough that is barely highlighted as such. It will also likely take time for the Saleh supporters to recover from the shock of his death and organise themselves, and for the two anti-Houthi blocs in Yemen to potentially agree and team up efforts against a common and clear enemy.

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Elsewhere in the region, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are seeing openings in countries like Libya and Iraq. The political situation in Libya is poised to develop in favour of anti-Islamist forces they support. New developments behind the scene, as well as the recent military breakthrough against Islamists in Benghazi in the summer, suggest that the winds are blowing in favour of the policies that the UAE and Saudi Arabia have envisioned over the past few years. The nascent rapprochement with leaders in Iraq has also been a milestone in the way Saudi Arabia conducts its regional policies.

Critically, these breakthroughs come amid an understanding that big changes cannot happen quickly.

These changes are further bolstered by the actions of the quartet of nations - Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - against Qatar six months ago. As Doha faces continuing isolation from its neighbouring countries, it is less capable of challenging their policies. This dynamic is at the heart of the Qatar crisis, enabling Saudi Arabia and the UAE to make progress on both the home and regional fronts, mainly by slowly undoing or eroding policies advanced by Doha, despite the persistence of a stalemate.

New dynamics in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the UAE could make hoped for changes in the Middle East more possible and consequential than before. Such dynamics include near uniformity in the way they pursue change, contrary to before when Saudi Arabia, for example, tended to be more cautious and less agile.

The Gulf countries still have some way to go before they could begin to turn over nefarious policies by their rivals, and any gains remain reversible without a consistent effort. But any progress made in recent weeks should be viewed in the context of a new partnership, codified on Tuesday in a new bilateral agreement beyond the existing the umbrella of the Gulf Cooperation Council, that will involve new rules of engagement in the Middle East.

Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy