Yemen Crisis Points Up Danger of Our Close Ties To An Increasingly Irrational Middle East

03/31/2015 02:46 pm ET | Updated Mar 31, 2015

So we have yet another crisis in a little-known place to worry about. The difference is that, with this one, it's not hard at all to see how it could trigger a regional conflagration.

Yemen isn't obscure. It's the back of beyond. Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world. Like all but a few Americans, I've never been there. I never considered going there on my grad student tour of the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, South Asia, and the Soviet and Chinese peripheries. More recently, it would have been nuts.

But it is now the place where, at the instigation of Saudi Arabia, which is next door to Yemen, Sunni Muslim Arab nations have decided to draw a literal line in the sand in what has been a long mostly cold war against Shiite Muslims, especially those aligned with Iran.

What this means is that dynamics within the Middle East are now dominated by four principal actors, governments and post-governmental tendencies largely dominated now by religious fundamentalists of one stripe or another. Which is to say, the Khomeini successor mullahs of Iran. The petrodollar-drenched Wahhabi medievalists of Saudi Arabia. The radical jihadists of Isis and Al Qaeda. And the Jewish fundamentalists and neoconservatives of Israel, who, lest we forget, urged on the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq and stand against a Palestinian state.

In this, the Middle East is much like the Middle Ages, when religious-based conflict was the order of an exceedingly long and dark day.

In the midst of a welter of supra-rational claims for legitimacy of action, it's easy for the U.S. and its real world secular interests to be swamped by irreconcilable demands.

The irony is that Yemen was, not long ago, a "stable partner." Which in the parlance means an Arab or Islamic nation publicly or privately aligned with the U.S. and/or Israel. Which in translation means a nation somewhere on the spectrum from autocratic to out-and-out dictatorship.

Longtime Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh was a reliable ally in the GWOT (Global War on Terror), allowing his country to be used for a host of operations, including now ubiquitous drone strikes, against jihadists, especially the offshoot of the original Al Qaeda which had taken root in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But the Arab Spring demonstrations, of incipient democratic forces, ultimately forced Saleh from power. Saleh, incidentally, is Shia, which didn't both the Saudis much then.

Now Saleh and his allies are trying to return to power, or at least a share of power, working with the Iranian-backed Houthis who have seized the capital Sana'a along with reportedly valuable U.S. global anti-terrorism files, clearly a major a U.S. counter-intelligence failure, sending American special forces operators fleeing from Yemen in the process. The remnant official Yemeni government has been pushed to the Red Sea port of Aden.

If Saudi Arabia didn't care much about a a Shiite Muslim running Yemen before, why care so much now?

Because Iran is involved, of course.

Like Israel under Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, the Saudis under King Abdullah and now King Salman have reportedly pushed the U.S. to attack Iran in order to destroy its nuclear program. (Iran's stubborn behavior in the face of massive sanctions of course makes the most sense only if it intends to create its own nuclear weapons at some point, as I believe it does.)

A Yemen openly aligned with Iran doesn't so much create problems for Saudi Arabia as it could add greatly to them.

The potential to control access to the Red Sea and beyond via the chokepoint of Bab-el-Mandeb is a not insignificant factor. That's why, for example, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, at the beginning of the Six-Day War in 1967, rated the capture of the port of Sharm el-Sheikh as a higher priority than securing Jerusalem.

But it's not nearly as important for the oil trade and other aspects of maritime commerce as the Strait of Hormuz, which can provide access to alternate routes.

The deeper problems for Saudi Arabia concern its own internal contradictions. A pro-Iranian regime next door in Yemen might make it easier to foment discord among Shiite workers in and around the Saudi oil fields. And a pro-Iranian Yemeni regime could end the longstanding American pressure on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, enabling it to use Yemen as a safe haven to refocus efforts on Saudi Arabia itself.

The Saudis rely in part on Shiite oil workers -- Shiites actually predominate in the portion of the Kingdom containing most of the oil production -- who sometimes complain of exploitation and discrimination. Indeed, it was restiveness in another neighboring Gulf kingdom which led the Saudis to send troops across the causeway to put down Arab Spring demonstrations among Shiite workers complaining of exploitation in Bahrain, home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

Worrisome as that prospect has to be for the Saudis, the thing that could lead to the oft prophesied fall of the House of Saud is Saudi jihadists turning their attention back to their home.

Although much of the 9/11 investigative report concerning Saudi Arabia remains classified, despite the efforts of former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham and other critics, it's well-known that 15 of the 19 Al Qaeda attackers on 9/11 were citizens of Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden of course was a prominent member of one of Saudi Arabia's richest and most powerful families. Funding from Saudis did much to establish Al Qaeda and point it in our direction.

The fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam taught in Saudi Arabia has produced many candidates for jihad, coming of age in a society in which super-rich elites can easily appear hypocritical.

I got to know the late chief U.S. attorney for Saudi Arabia, Fred Dutton (dubbed "Fred of Arabia"), as he wrapped up his Pat Brown-appointed 12-year term on the University of California Board of Regents in the late 1970s. This was while he formed the Saudi lobby in the U.S. and forged what has proved to be a tight Saudi/American alliance.

Dutton, a former chief Pat Brown aide and Robert Kennedy for President campaign manager, predicted that that the alliance would last. He also predicted that the greatest danger to it would come from within the Kingdom.

American troops on Saudi territory could be very problematic. And the massive wealth transfer from the West to Saudi Arabia as a result of our continued oil addiction was bound to lead to elite lifestyles out of sync with religious doctrine. Today I keep running into Saudi tourists in California who -- even when they are not drunkenly brawling outside nightspots -- do not appear to be following the austere dictates of Wahhabi doctrine that are the order of the day back home.

A time-honored way to distract from domestic discord is to pursue conflict with a well-defined enemy. And so, even as the Saudis have assembled a coalition of Sunni Arab states to follow their lead in air strikes inside Yemen, they led the charge over the weekend at an Arab League meeting in Cairo to form a pan-Arab army which would be headquartered either in the Egyptian capital or in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

The express goal, naturally, is to resist Iran, which is a Persian and not Arab nation. But plenty of the folks in those Arab nations are Shiites, too, like the Iranians. And the Houthis who now have the upper hand in Yemen.

So the notion of a pan-Arab/pan-Sunni military force can run up against some very big obstacles, perhaps even fomenting more internal discord across the Arab world in the process. Just as a fellow named T.E. Lawrence learned when he first dreamed up the idea a hundred years ago.

Yet more headaches for President Barack Obama.

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