From Yemen to Lebanon, Saudi Arabia’s Dubious Offensives

From now on, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Ben Salman became the strong man of the kingdom and the bearer of an interventionist foreign policy. But the results are not there, neither in Yemen nor in Lebanon.

Riyadh, 19 April 2016. Muhammad Ben Salman receives US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.
Sgt. Adrian Cadiz/U.S. Secretary of Defense

On the eve of Saudi Arabian crown Prince Muhammad Ibn Salman’s official visit to Britain in March 2018, Foreign Secretary Adil Al-Jubayr, well accomplished in the production of political epistemics1 explained in an interview with the BBC that “The war in Yemen was a war that was imposed on us. It was not a war that we chose. It was a war to support a legitimate government and it was a war that was fought in support of UN Security Council Resolutions. We did not ask for this war.”2

Western analysts have often averred that since King Salman was enthroned in 2015, Saudi Arabia has pursued a more assertive and strategically oriented foreign policy than under the king’s predecessors. Its recent initiatives to alter the status quo in several countries of the region may indeed be the most audacious ones the Saudi state has witnessed since World War II. In alliance with several other states, more recently Saudi Arabia embarked on a military campaign in Yemen (since 2015), besieged Qatar (since 2017) and forced the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri to resign from office (2017).

Analysing his resignation, the New York Times took the view that this episode “was just one chapter in the story of Prince Mohammed, the ambitious young heir apparent determined to shake up the power structure not just of his own country but of the entire region.” It specifically commented on the links between the crises in Yemen and Lebanon with respect to Saudi Arabia’s rhetorical focus on Iran and Hizbullah.

While these regional rivalries are important, Saudi Arabia’s handling of Yemen and Lebanon present certain parallels. The leaders of the two countries were treated by Saudi officials as if lieges of the king. In the below I shall examine, albeit constrained by the scant data available particularly for Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s deployment of disciplinary techniques in the two sovereign states. I shall begin by looking at Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, then move on to the question of Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi’s legitimacy and the ways specific kinds of textual authority are being used by Saudi officials as foreign policy instruments.

The 2009-2010 War Experience

On 25 March 2015 Saudi Arabia began a military campaign in Yemen which it justified on two grounds: that President Hadi requested it and that UN Security Council Resolution 2216, issued after the bombing had begun, backed his restoration to power. The intervention was framed as a rescue mission. Hence, ethical and legal questions around sovereignty and the new precedent for intervention by Arab states in neighbouring countries have not been raised. Hostile to the charismatic leadership exercised by some Zaydi imams until 1962 and the Huthis between 2003 and 2015, Muhammad Ibn Salman decided to embark on an ambitious project aimed at reconfiguring Yemen’s political landscape ‒ undoing the revolution of 2011, reversing the Huthis’ territorial gains, (re-)instating a friendly regime and possibly restoring Salafi institutions.

Having suffered considerable casualties during its brief incursion into Yemen in 2009/2010 when fighting the Huthis, in its current crusade Saudi Arabia decided to commit neither its own ground troops nor to go it alone. The Gulf War coalition of 1990/91 served as a model for the one cobbled together by Saudi Arabia in 2015 from Arab, Latin American and African forces. Such coordination in the attack of another Arab country is unprecedented. With respect to the Obama Doctrine of counterinsurgency [the use of airstrikes against guerrilla forces], Juan Cole has cogently argued that “what might otherwise remain local conflicts and insurgencies are now attracting large-scale interventions from the air by regional powers.”

Arguably Obama’s most serious foreign policy misstep was his decision to enable and participate in the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen in the hope that so doing would mitigate his ally’s opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran. His promise to support Saudi Arabia’s military operations in Yemen is reminiscent of that made by the British Prime Minister Tony Blair to his American counterpart George Bush in 2003 prior to the invasion of Iraq. It took the Chilcot inquiry five years to deliver a damning report on Britain’s decision to play a leading role in the invasion, concluding that Blair had deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, although it stopped short of accusing him of invading Iraq on a pretext.

History will tell whether Saudi Arabia’s claim that the Huthis posed a security threat to the kingdom against which it had to defend itself was exaggerated and whether its stated goal to restore Hadi to the presidency was a ploy to justify intervening in a domestic conflict. According to Strategic Analyst James Spencer, Saudi Ambassador Al-Jubayr invoked “the principle of self-defence, enshrined in Article 51 of the UN Charter as a justification for kinetic operations. [However], no foreign forces had directly attacked Yemen prior to the aerial attack by the Saudi-led coalition. [The invocation] … of the UN Charter-authorised right to self-defence seems legally questionable at least.”

Reshaping the Region

How much constitutional legitimacy did Hadi still enjoy in March 2015? If indeed Hadi had petitioned the Saudis to intervene in a local conflict on his behalf, his request would have been made after his mandate to continue for another year had expired (on 21 February 2015). That extension, moreover, took place within the framework of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a non-legislative body, and without ratification by parliament. Hadi would not have been authorised to call on a foreign power to reinstate his government by force without consultation of the Yemeni parliament, as required by the constitution. It would seem that within the framework of UNSCR 2216, issued on 14 April 2015 after Saudi Arabia had already begun to attack Yemen on 25 March, the International Community was prepared to recognise Hadi’s presidency for as long as required to install a new government.3 In order to legitimise its intervention in Yemen, Saudi Arabia required Hadi’s endorsement; this subsequently enabled it to petition the UN Security Council to invoke Article 51 of the UN Charter (the right to collective self-defence).

Obtaining Hadi’s signature and petitioning the UN Security Council were exercises in Weberian-style bureaucratic authority. Studying the documentation of Saudi Arabian genealogies in the process of state consolidation, Nadav Samin (2015:56, see references) argues that “the text [has become] the authoritative pivot around which a previously oral cultural life turned.” What Samin says about objectified genealogical signification is equally true for the fetishisation of signatures and prewritten scripts that form the basis of self-declarations. “Acting like a state” in terms of James Scott’s analysis of modern states (2002), Saudi Arabia now utilises documents not only to make its citizen-subjects legible, but also in order to reshape the political order in the region.

Saad Hariri’s Resignation

It is revealing to compare Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy interventions in Yemen and Lebanon of 2015 and 2017: Hadi’s fateful provision of his signature in March 2015 appears an in-house exercise later to be deployed far more publicly in Hariri’s resignation and call for opposition to Iran. It would appear that Hadi and Hariri, both heads of states, were requested to endorse (in written or oral form) prewritten documents designed to change the course of events in Saudi Arabia’s favour.

As is well-known, after the Huthis and units of the army still loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Salih had taken Aden, Hadi fled eastwards towards the border with Oman. A high-ranking member of Hadi’s government has stated that neither he nor his boss knew in advance about the military campaign.4 Hadi himself admitted as much in an interview with Abu Dhabi television in January 2016 where he explained that he only learnt about the beginning of the bombardment from other Yemenis when making his escape from Aden towards al-Mahra governorate.

In accordance with an agreement between Omani and Saudi intelligence services, Hadi was picked up by a Saudi plane from an Omani border town and taken to Saudi Arabia, where he was asked to sign a pre-formulated affidavit stating that he had requested Saudi military support. By that time, Saudi Arabia had already begun its bombardment of targets in Yemen.5 Hadi’s signature was thus weaponised and used to mobilise an international audience centred in the United Nations; the Security Council then passed SR 2216 which until now has provided a stumbling block to meaningful peace negotiations.

Hadi’s signature was what mattered most; his name is often rhetorically deployed by both the Coalition and government politicians exiled in Riyadh, yet Hadi is unlikely to have a political future. If the course of events described above can be sufficiently verified, Saudi Arabia’s claim that the war in Yemen was imposed upon it can no longer be substantiated, and the assault may come to be seen as a reckless act of political expediency. Moreover, questions should be raised concerning the legality of UN Security Council resolution 2216.

Many Blunders

Another case in point is the double-tap airstrike which hit a large reception hall in Sanaa where mourners gathered in October 2016, killing over 100 people and wounding 550. On receiving information about the blast, Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri, then spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, hinted that there may have been other causes for it. The official Saudi Al-Arabiya satellite network later reported that the coalition forces had not carried out any strikes near the hall, a report confirmed by General al-Asiri. However, after Jamie McGoldrick, then United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, blamed airstrikes for the destruction, the official story changed. The Coalition’s Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT) concluded that senior military personnel affiliated to the Yemeni Presidency had passed the wrong information. It was said that the air force had intended to strike a gathering of armed Huthi leaders, yet a Saudi official revealed later that Ali Abdullah Salih had been the target.6 The Air Operations Centre in Yemen had directed a close air support mission to target the location without obtaining approval from the Coalition command and without following the Coalition command’s precautionary measures to ensure that the location was not a civilian one. In other words, the blame was shifted onto senior Yemeni military personnel. According to a well-placed Yemeni pundit, they were later asked to sign a document stating that they had requested the bombing of the hall. Obviously Saudi Arabia wishes to make sure that it would not be held responsible for the attack at a future tribunal focusing on breaches of the rules of war, should it ever take place.

As for Hariri’s resignation speech, the New York Times (ibid.) has described some of the circumstances in which it was delivered. Just as Hadi was asked to sign a document stating that he had made a request for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, so while in Riyadh Hariri was pressed to read an abdication statement on Al-Arabiya television written for him without regard to Lebanon’s constitution. While in the case of Yemen, the International Community backed the text-based authority—materialised in a signed quasi-coerced declaration ‒ it did not do so in the case of Lebanon. Such textual inscription of disciplinary control has become prominent in Saudi Arabia’s foreign and domestic policies. It provides clues as to how Saudi Arabia seeks to impose its political will on neighbouring states.

Hence, should a government inquiry, akin to the Chilcot commission, into the justification for Saudi Arabia’s “inescapable” war in Yemen ever be conducted, it might conclude that, first, the decision to go to war was made before all peaceful options had been exhausted and second, the threat posed by the Huthis and Iran to its security was overstated in order to maintain and further Saudi control over that country. It should be remembered that Iran advised the Huthis not to take over government institutions in September 2014.7 Instead of pursuing the futile endeavour of gaining a “foothold” in Yemen, as is often alleged, Iran is likely to be most concerned to prevent Saudi Arabia from establishing indirect rule over that country.

➞ Bruck, Gabriele vom. 2017. “How the past casts its shadows: Struggles for ascendancy in northern Yemen in the Post-Salih era.” In C. Tripp and G. vom Bruck (eds.), Precarious belongings: Being Shi’i in non-Shi’i worlds. London: CASS.
➞ Glaeser, Andreas. 2011. Political epistemics: The secret police, the opposition, and the end of East German socialism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
➞ Samin, Nadav. 2015. Of Sand and Soil: Genealogy & Tribal Belonging in Saudi Arabia. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
➞ Scott, James et al., “The production of legal identities proper to states: The case of the permanent family surname”. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 2002, 44(1): 4-44.

1I adopt a term developed by Andreas Glaeser (2011, see references) in the context of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), centring on “historically specific politics-oriented knowledge-making practices” (xxvi).

2BBC World Service, Newshour, 6 March 2018.

3Vom Bruck (2017: 344-45), see references.

4Personal communication via former Yemeni foreign office official, February 2016.

5Anonymous source close to President Hadi, February 2018.

6Anonymous communication, January 2017.

7Seyed Hossein Mousavian, Middle East Security and Nuclear Policy Specialist at Princeton University, personal communication, March 2018.