Analysis & Opinions - The Telegraph

Saudi Arabia is emerging as the new Arab superpower

May 5, 2015

Faced with Iranian meddling in Yemen and elsewhere, the kingdom has no choice but to deploy unprecedented force in the name of stability

In the past month Saudi Arabia has put together a coalition of 12 countries and launched a massive military campaign, dubbed Decisive Storm, to counter the advances of the Houthi rebels in Yemen and roll back their attempted takeover of the country.

The implications of the Yemeni crisis on Saudi national security, as well as the entire Gulf region, are tremendous. The prospects of an Iranian-backed and allied Shia militia taking over Yemen at the tip of the Arabian peninsula was a clear red line for the Kingdom. With army brigades loyal to former Yemeni Ali Abdullah Saleh joining the Houthis in removing the legitimately elected President Abed Rabbo Hadi from power, and attempting to seize major Sunni urban centres such as Aden and Taiz, the Saudi leadership had no alternative other than to act, and act decisively.

With so many new threats emerging in the Arab world, from the takeover of large areas of Syria and Iraq by Islamic State (Isil) to Iran’s attempt to establish a client state in Yemen, it has been vital that Saudi Arabia establish a new defence policy, one that secures the Kingdom’s borders while providing the nation’s Armed Forces with the ability to prosecute two military campaigns at the same time.

In this context, Operation Decisive Storm is an illustration of the powerful firepower the Saudis now have at their disposal to defend their interests. For the Yemen operation, King Salman ordered the deployment 100 advanced fighter planes (including Britain’s Typhoon Eurofighter and upgraded Tornado), 150,000 troops and numerous ground and sea assets, making it without question the most powerful combined military force assembled by any Arab country for decades.

The Saudi-led coalition, moreover, enjoys the support of the additional fighter planes and ships provided by other allied states, which has so far enabled it to conduct more than 2,200 combat sorties, destroying the vast majority of the Yemeni air force, as well as air defence and ballistic missile systems that had fallen under the control of the rebels. As a result, the Houthis and Saleh-affiliated army brigades have had their sustained fighting capabilities drastically degraded.

Saudi Arabia had no alternative other than to intervene in the Yemeni conflict in order to send a warning signal to Iran not to meddle in the affairs of Arab countries, such as Yemen, that have significant Shia communities. For if Iran continues on this course, then the current Yemeni, Syrian and Iraqi civil wars could easily evolve into something even more destabilizing and dramatic – numerous sectarian civil wars that will result in a major regional war.

Indeed, the possibility of further bloodshed has increased with the apparent willingness of the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, to once again turn to Iran for support against Isil. But in his efforts to bolster his own Shia-led government, al-Abadi has stoked broader tensions in the Arab and Muslim worlds between the overwhelming majority Sunnis and minority Shias, especially the ones affiliated with Iran.

And the new Saudi leadership cannot and will not sit idly by as all this unfolds.

Saudi Arabia’s economic, financial and energy strengths, together with its role as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest mosques, mean that it is in a natural position to provide decisive leadership in a Muslim world afflicted by many crises.

To strengthen its leadership role, the Kingdom intends to invest $150 billion in developing and expanding its military strength which will allow it to fulfil the various objectives as laid out by the country’s new defence policy. Indeed, in 2014, Saudi Arabia passed France and the United Kingdom to become the world’s fourth-largest defence and national security spender at $80 billion.

All this is happening at a time when the Arab world is going through historical upheavals and changes. Arabs have been starting to move on from their colonial past, one that burdened them with arbitrary national borders that are proving so complicated to maintain. And, as the US and European powers continu their retreat from the region, Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia are increasingly taking responsibility for managing their own affairs.

In this context the kingdom is now emerging as the Arab world’s most powerful state, with the result that the new government in Riyadh is giving serious consideration as to how it should respond to the many new challenges that have arisen in the region.

A key element of this new Saudi defence doctrine is to bolster Riyadh’s relationships with key strategic partners in the Arab world. For example, when Iran-supported insurgents sought to overthrow the government of Bahrain in 2011, the Saudis were quick to spearhead a Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) contingent that moved in to secure critical state infrastructure and preserve the sovereignty of the Bahraini state.

Such moves are likely to increase in number beyond the current war in Yemen, especially as the number of weak, failing or failed Arab states facing insurgencies continues to rise.

This new assertive defence posture on the part of Saudi Arabia will need to be flexible, as well as being able to adapt to the constantly changing realities of the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. But if there is ever to be peace in the Arab world, then it is vital that the Kingdom remains both a strong and secure nation state – and the anchor of stability for a region facing epic upheavals.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Obaid, Nawaf.“Saudi Arabia is emerging as the new Arab superpower.” The Telegraph, May 5, 2015.