This article explores one of the most understudied conflicts in the Middle East currently, the Saudi Arabian-led campaign against Yemen. With the conflagrations in Iraq and Syria occupying news headlines, the few pieces of analysis looking at Operation Restore Hope explains the campaign as simply the extension of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, a deeper explanation is much more complex and points to changes in Saudi Arabia, the region, and the international system. This paper specifically seeks to explain how Saudi Arabia’s long-standing, conservatively-oriented foreign policy towards Yemen transformed into an aggressive and militarized policy. Following this goal, I first provide a theoretical understanding of foreign policy making, while highlighting the historical development of Saudi foreign policy in Yemen. Secondly, I elucidate changes at the domestic, regional, and international level that led Saudi policy makers to alter their foreign policy approach. Third, I look at the potential effects the failed Yemen campaign may have on Muhammad bin Salman tenure and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the changes ushered in with the Trump administration. Finally, I conclude by highlighting the importance of leaders’ perceptions in highly centralized states, and the limits of the sectarian narrative. By doing so, I provide insights for viewing the New Arab Cold War in the Middle East in a more thorough and analytically rigorous manner.
Over the course of Operation Decisive Storm and the subsequently-named Restore Hope, informed journalists and academics alike explained the war in Yemen as an outgrowth of a proxy battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. On the surface, this explanation seems both logical and useful for the Saudi coalition. The explicit sectarianism that has dominated the Middle East since the 2003 Iraq war, and accelerated with the Arab Uprisings, is a helpful tool to employ as the wealthiest state in the region bombs the poorest state, while enforcing a devastating naval and air blockade of the country. The humanitarian costs of the war are staggering: the UN categorized Yemen as the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, which sees more than two-thirds of the population in need of assistance, while a third (7 million people) face the specter of famine. However, if the war is able to prevent the spread of Shi’ism in the region, the largely Sunni Arab states of the Middle East could turn a blind eye to the conflict. This explanation, however, is analytically insufficient.
Every aspect of the war has been under-reported (not least of which is the humanitarian catastrophe), primarily being overshadowed by the Syria conflagration. Perhaps this is why the popular narrative has stood for well over a year. However, this narrative explains only a very small part of the conflict. More interesting is, how did a conservatively oriented Saudi foreign policy morph into an aggressive, militarized foreign policy in Yemen? This aggressiveness is marked by the direct employment of Saudi armed forces on the ground in Yemen. Such actions are unique in the long history of Saudi policy, which was built on the use of proxies, money, and at most, the sporadic use of Saudi’s Air Force. The following seeks to explain this puzzle. The first section provides a theoretical understanding of foreign policy and decision-making, highlighting the historical development of Saudi foreign policy in Yemen. The second section details changes at the domestic, regional, and international level that led Saudi decision-makers to alter their foreign policy approach. This section suggests the domestic changes after the ascension of King Salman played a prominent role in this shift. The third section looks at the potential effects the failed Yemen campaign may have on Muhammad bin Salman and the Kingdom, while also detailing the effects of the Trump administration on the war. Finally, the conclusion highlights the importance of leaders’ perceptions in highly centralized states. Importantly, this section also emphasizes the limits of the sectarian narrative by suggesting a move from the view of sectarianism as a determinate, to sectarianism as an instrument. In short, a rhetorical device overlaying deeper material and power considerations.