The latest war in the Middle East, the Saudi Arabian-led assault onYemen to prevent the Houthi movement from taking full control of the country, has triggered a fascinating legal and ideological debate about the legitimacy and efficacy of the venture. The significance of this war in Yemen is not really about the legally authorized use of force to ensure a calm Arab future. It is, rather, mainly a testament to the marginalization of the rule of law in many Arab countries in our recent past.
The 10 Arab and Asian countries participating in the fighting have justified it on the basis of assorted legal mechanisms through the Arab League, the United Nations Charter and the Gulf Cooperation Council, which allow countries to come to the life-saving aid of governments threatened by domestic or foreign aggression. The more meaningful and lasting dimension of the Yemen conflict is its expansion of active warfare in collapsing states adjacent to the energy-rich region of the Arabian Peninsula.
I am sickened but mesmerized by the nightly routine of flipping through assorted pan-Arab satellite television channels and following the four active wars that now define many aspects of the Arab world – in Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq – with lower intensity fighting and destruction in countries such as Somalia, Egypt, Sudan and Lebanon. In all these fractured lands, violent extremists such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS have put down anchorage and are operating across borders.
The capacity for warfare and other forms of political violence across the region seems unending, just as the mass suffering of civilians seems unlimited. The telltale signs of what these wars are about and why they happen so regularly is evident on the television screens in the human and physical landscapes that are slowly crumbling here and there.
The two most striking images that stay in my mind as I follow the day’s fighting in our four active wars is the primitive condition of our cities and villages, and the equally ravaged condition of our human capital. Streets and sidewalks are caricatures of what they should be, buildings are often simple, unpainted cement block structures with usually informal associations with such amenities as water and electricity. Individuals are often shabbily dressed and drive dilapidated pickup trucks and beat-up old sedans, because they do not have the money to buy anything better. This is not a consequence of the wars; it is the cause of the wars. Most Arab countries outside the wealthy oil-producing states were in these conditions in the years preceding their violent collapse.
Yemen today, with its combination of domestic and overt regional participation in the fighting, has widely been explained as the apex of a regional cold war between Iranian and Saudi Arabia, who are said to be competing for regional dominance, or at least influence. I find this analysis too simplistic, mainly because the roots of the violence and country fragmentations we are witnessing across the region go well back into the past century, before any Saudi-Iranian tensions emerged in recent years. The fundamental weakness that explains all the recent cases of Arab countries collapsing into violent warfare is that none of these countries ever achieved the genuine stability and legitimacy that emanates from the consent and participation of their own citizens.
Yemen is one of many examples of Arab countries that have been plagued – and ultimately destroyed – by the long-term rule of individuals who stay in power through the support of their armed forces and security agencies. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh ran Yemen for 33 years and is typical of this breed. Not surprisingly, he continues to work behind the scenes, reportedly coordinating with the Houthi movement, to return to power himself or through his son Ahmad.
This modern Arab governance curse, with its marginalization of citizens’ rights, has been in place since the 1950s, and took root firmly across the region in the 1970s. It predates any Iranian-Saudi tensions by half a century or more. Widespread pauperization and vulnerability of millions of families across the Arab world took hold in the mid-1980s. A generation later, the region exploded in uprisings and revolutions.
So Arab, Iranian, Western and other leaders may speak openly about their respective fears of any single ideology, nationalism, sect or ethnicity dominating the Middle East. However, this is a self-serving oversimplification that should not be allowed to camouflage the deeper, older and stronger causes of internal stresses and regional warfare across our region.
The Yemen situation captures this reality well. It is fascinating and perhaps historically pivotal because it comprises a combination of Arab and Asian countries waging direct warfare inside an Arab state with the active support of major international powers, including the United States. We have four such wars taking place now in the Arab world, and others may erupt elsewhere.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.