Analysts and ideologues will actively and inconclusively long debate the actual reasons and possible consequences of the Saudi-led war in Yemen, until the passage of a meaningful period of time – usually a few generations or so – allows us to note in retrospect the actual consequences of state actions.
The important discussion now strikes me as being about what the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen tells us about the broad shifts and adjustments occurring in the regional power balance across the Middle East. The fundamental dynamics released will determine regional conditions for many decades. Such changes occur slowly, but when they happen they tend to have an impact for decades, or generations.
We are now living through a gradual series of simultaneous adjustments at national, regional and global levels that have been taking place across the region since the end of the Cold War in 1990 or so. The Saudi-Yemeni situation is important because it captures developments at all three levels at the same time, and possibly marks a historic turning point in which regional powers mature in their self-confidence and capabilities and take greater charge of political dynamics across the region.
I suspect the Saudi-led military action – whatever its actual motivations, aims and consequences, all of which will remain controversial and debatable – is an important sign of a very significant development: the emergence of a series of regional powers that actually take charge of their situations and initiate political and military actions to protect what they see as their legitimate national interests, instead of repeating past habits of complaining to the United Nations, convening chronically meaningless Arab League emergency summits, or pleading for the United States to send in the Marines and Air Force to save them (as happened most recently with the fight against ISIS).
After the end of the Cold War in 1990 the Soviet- and American-led camps loosened their engagements in many parts of the Middle East. We then witnessed the 9/11 attacks and the Anglo-American war on Iraq. Three principal dynamics ensued from all this: Some Arab governments that relied heavily on superpower support became weaker and experienced a decline in their domestic control of land, people and authority; numerous indigenous nonstate groups (tribal, military, ethnic, national, ideological) developed quickly to fill the vacuum created by the retreat of their state and its foreign patrons; and, the regional powers (Turkey, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Iraq then) reacted either with heightened aggression or political dynamism (Israel, Iraq, Turkey, Iran) or were caught flat-footed and simply perpetuated their previous behavior.
This era may be ending now, and Yemen is its exclamation point. The situation there is not occurring in a vacuum or without warning. One of the most dramatic developments during the Arab uprisings and consequent civil wars (Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen) of the past four years has been the steady increase in military actions across the region by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council states.
These conservative states historically worked discreetly and indirectly to achieve their diplomatic goals, which focused mainly on preserving a status quo across the region that did not disrupt prevailing patterns of energy flows, conservative governance, and American-Western dominance, or at least prevalence.
The war in Yemen signals the end – at least for now – of GCC discretion. It also probably marks the start of what should be an exciting, complex and protracted process by which the surviving regional Arab and Islamic powers (mainly Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran, with Egypt aspiring to regain a role on Saudi coattails) negotiate new relationships that could shape a historic security architecture for the region for years to come.
This reconfiguration of the roles of indigenous regional powers will help to address the two other dimensions of violence, turbulence and uncertainty we have endured in many parts of the Middle East, since 1990. First, the fragmentation and incoherence of domestic identity and authority; and second, the inconsistent roles of global powers, mainly the U.S. and Russia, but also comprising aspects of European and Chinese policies.
How Yemen evolves in the coming months will determine if the Saudi foray into self-assertion across the Middle East will provoke a continued restructuring and a mutual understanding of the roles among the existing regional powers, ideally leading toward a new era of locally engineered security and stability.
If Yemen goes bad, we are likely to suffer the alternative scenario of an expansion of the destructive trends of the past 25 years, until the regional and global powers grasp the folly of their ways and figure out how to adopt more rational uses of power and authority. That change must ideally reflect the rights, wishes and well-being of citizens of this region. This has always been the only real guarantor of long-term stability and security.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed @RamiKhouri.