Saudi Arabia has, by far, the largest economy in the MENA region. It consistently ranks in the top global quartile in terms of annual GDP, well above its regional rival, Iran. Yemen, by contrast, is among the poorest in the region. Yet, since 2015, Saudi Arabia has been heavily invested in Yemen’s civil war.
Consequently, Yemen is now facing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world: 80% of the population, around half of them children, are in need of lifesaving aid. 58% are living in extreme poverty, and with more than 1,500 confirmed Coronavirus cases, the situation is likely to become much worse.
A nationwide famine has ravaged the country as a result of the Saudi-led blockade and Houthi restrictions on humanitarian support have obstructed access to food and medical supplies, in turn damaging the Yemeni economy and starving civilians to death.
This includes millions of children at risk of acute malnutrition, compounded by an outbreak of cholera and insufficient access to clean water and sanitation. In 2018, British charity Save the Children reported that almost 85,000 under-fives had already died of starvation.
However, the Saudi intervention in Yemen has cost the country at least $50 billion a year. Domestic economic projects have stalled and foreign investment has dropped, while the stalemate that has withstood for the last five years shows no signs of shifting. So what has it stood to gain?
Although the precise extent remains unclear, it is believed that the Houthi movement – the vanguard of Yemen’s opposition – receive some degree of support from Iran. In March 2015, the Houthis and their allies took swathes of western Yemen, including the capital, Sana’a, in a series of sweeping victories which forced President Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi leadership and its coalition partners recognised that an external military intervention was quickly becoming their only option to prevent a potentially pro-Iranian Shiite foothold in the Arabian Peninsula.
This would be disastrous for Saudi national security – with a Shia-dominated Iraq on its northern border, a Shia-dominated Yemen to the south would provide Iran with two possible springboards for attacks inside the kingdom, as well as access to the Red Sea.
Although sectarianism is rarely a sole source of conflict in much of the Middle East, its exploitation has proven politically expedient to some. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – the emir (‘commander’) of Al-Qaeda in Iraq – made this the fulcrum of their movement to devastating effect in war-torn Iraq.
Iran also maintains a significant degree of influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, all of which are countries with a substantial Shia population.
Powerful Iranian-backed militia groups occupy important positions in the military and political establishment of these countries, attracting disaffected Shiites to join their ranks. There is a concern that Iranian influence could also extend into Saudi Arabia, where Shiites have been subjected to systematic repression and persecution.
While significant numbers of Shiites live in the Jizan and Najran provinces along the Yemeni border, the majority are located in the Eastern Province. Unfortunately for Saudi Arabia, most of its oil resources – some 20% of the world’s proven reserves – are also concentrated in this province.
The kingdom is extremely vulnerable to attacks on its oil infrastructure. Its economy is heavily dependent on the oil and gas sector, which according to the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), accounts for 70% of all export earnings and provides 50% of its GDP. This vulnerability was demonstrated in September 2019, when facilities of the state-owned Saudi Aramco were damaged and global production was temporarily cut by 5%.
Internationally, the attacks no doubt evoked fearful memories of the 1973 oil crisis, in which the price per barrel quadrupled during an embargo enforced by several Arab OPEC members. Coming at a time when countries like the United States were increasingly dependent on foreign oil imports, the crisis presented a serious challenge to the stability of national economies.
Ultimately, the impact of the Aramco attacks proved to have been overestimated; prices soon stabilised and output returned to sustainable levels. However, the incident reinforced the notion that a sustained disruption to the flow of gulf oil would be calamitous not only for the kingdom itself, but also for other world economies.
Thus, Saudi Arabia remains relatively free to act with impunity in places like Yemen, where human lives seem to be considered less valuable under the spectre of Iranian influence.
Despite unrelenting condemnation and humanitarian appeals from NGOs and the UN, the responses from world governments have been less than enthusiastic. Many of the fishing vessels, hospitals, schools and markets allegedly targeted by Saudi airstrikes have been destroyed using munitions supplied by Britain and the United States.
British arms shipments were briefly suspended in 2019 before their resumption after a government report found no pattern of human rights violations by the Saudi-led coalition. Contrast this with Syria, where Russian airstrikes have been criticised incessantly for precisely the same reasons. In the same year, a bipartisan bill to end American support for the Saudi-led coalition was vetoed by President Trump.
Although they have publically championed democracy and human rights across the world, the United States has a long record of doing just the opposite. During the Cold War, the US government openly endorsed figures such as the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos and El Salvador’s ‘Blowtorch Bob’, aptly named for easily deducible reasons, because it was in their interest to do so.
As an important regional partner and major oil exporter, Saudi Arabia has evaded America’s ‘humanitarian’ crosshairs – for now. That being said, the US Has been providing over $2.4 billion in humanitarian aid to Yemen since 2015. Interestingly, in April 2020, the Saudis pledged $500 million after announcing a unilateral ceasefire in response to the Coronavirus pandemic.
This reflects a much wider, long overdue change in Saudi policy, both domestically and internationally. With the world becoming ever less dependent on Middle Eastern energy imports, Saudi Arabia will undoubtedly lose its ‘get out of jail free’ card as its usefulness expires.
How well it can adapt to a rapidly changing world will determine its future for the remainder of the century.