JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, let me just say how special it is to have so many of our members and guests joining us for this Public Affairs program, including those of you who may be seated up in our boardroom. This sold-out breakfast can only serve as an indication of the interest in the deteriorating security situation in the Middle East and a world on fire.
Our speaker is Bernard Haykel. He is professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University and director of the Institute for Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, as well as the director of the Oil, Energy, and the Middle East project of the Princeton Environmental Institute.
When Professor Haykel last stood at this podium, he helped us to understand the importance of Islam in Saudi Arabian politics. Today this universally respected Middle Eastern scholar will continue this educational journey as he guides us through the spiraling crisis in Yemen and the role Saudi Arabia is playing in the heightening tensions on the Arabian Peninsula.
While U.S. foreign policy was focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, in our neglect the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula was in the process of unraveling. While problems in Yemen have been incubating for some time, it is now facing its biggest crisis to date. In addition to tribal disputes with no resolution in sight, secessionist movements in both the north and the south, Yemen is also in the unfortunate position of serving as home base for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
What happens in this poorest of Arab countries is strategically crucial for the United States, not least on account of its links to al-Qaeda. However, from Saudi Arabia's point of view, what happens on their southern border is a matter of grave national security. Since late March, Saudi Arabia, in an attempt to stop the Iranians from gaining a foothold on its southern border, has been bombing Yemen extensively. Their purpose: to push back the Iranian-backed Houthis, an insurgency group, and restore the Saudi-supported President Hadi.
But so far the only definitive outcome of this conflict is civilian devastation. Thousands of Yemenis have died, thousands more have been injured, and hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee their homes. Battle lines are now being drawn in Yemen, with the possibility of a new proxy war between Saudi Arabia as leader of the Sunni Muslim world and Iran as leader of the Shia Muslim world. From a geopolitical standpoint, this situation has potentially far-reaching regional repercussions that could alter the balance of power in the Middle East for years to come.
For a more in-depth analysis, please join me in welcoming our guest, who will explain what is at stake, who the key players are, and what has unfolded on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Professor Haykel, we are delighted to have you here. Thank you for joining us.
BERNARD HAYKEL: Thank you. It's a real pleasure to be here again.
Let me begin by giving you a few statistics on Yemen, basically to make you realize that it is a failed state. It is one of the most populous nations in Arabia, with over 26 million people, a huge demographic bubble. Sixty percent of all children have stunted growth because they are undernourished. So you have in Arabia a country that in many respects looks like one of the poorest sub-Saharan African countries. And this is not by accident. In other words, the dire situation of Yemen is due to individuals on the ground having taken real policy decisions. I'm going to focus on some of them now.
In order for you to understand Yemen, you need to understand a bit about its history. This is the cradle of civilization in Arabia. It is the one area in Arabia that historically has received the most rainfall because of the monsoons. So you actually had important states historically there, with a very flourishing culture, a long tradition of scholarship, of trade between the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and into the Mediterranean. It's a place that basically imploded for the first time in the 20th century during the civil war that started in 1962 and did not end until 1969.
Interestingly, the civil war in Yemen was fought between two sides. At the time the Cold War in the Arab world was between monarchical regimes led by countries like Saudi Arabia, and Arab progressive nationalist regimes led by Egypt, with President Nasser. You had a coup in Yemen in 1962 against the monarchical regime that was ruling in Yemen. The Saudis backed the monarchists, and Nasser and Egypt backed the republican officers. In fact, Nasser sent troops to Yemen and ended up losing militarily, because Yemen was to Saudi Arabia what Vietnam was to the United States in terms of military defeat.
Nonetheless, by the time the civil war ended in 1969-70, the Saudis had come to an agreement with the republicans, essentially backing a religiously conservative set of republican officers and elites. From 1970 onward, Saudi Arabia abandoned the royalists that it had backed and started a new alliance with, as I said, republican conservative elites and funded to a great degree the spread of its version of Islam in Yemen. This is a version that is often referred to as Wahhabism or Salafism. You essentially had a parallel educational system in Yemen that was backed by the Saudis, promoted also by the Yemeni government, and which pursued a policy of persecuting particular elites of the old monarchical regime. These older elites of the older regime were people who claimed descent from the Prophet Mohammad. They are referred to as sayyids in Arabic. They are by religious affiliation a group that is called Zaidi.
Yemen is a very, very complicated place. It's complicated because of its religious diversity. You have at least two types of Muslims in the country. You have the Zaidis in the north and the Sunni Shafi'is in the south. You also have Sufis. It is also a tribal society, so it is highly fragmented, with a history of a weak central state, with very strong local and regional identities. So it's a complicated place, particularly complicated, more so than most places, because also of its geography, and it is a mountainous country. It is very much like Afghanistan.
At any rate, the Saudis pursued, along with the Yemeni republican government, a policy of promoting Salafism in the country and of persecuting the old Zaidi elites. From 1970 until really very, very recently, Zaidis felt themselves to be under attack, especially their elites, religiously, culturally. Their history was being wiped out of the record of Yemen. You have to remember also that these Zaidi elites that were being persecuted by the republic and by the Saudis behind the republic had a history of 1,000 years of having ruled in Yemen. The first Zaidi imam who arrived in Yemen arrived in late ninth, early tenth century of the Common Era, and this tradition of state rule by Zaidis lasted until 1962. This is a long tradition, much longer than most states in the West.
At any rate, this promotion of Salafism had its effects, socially on the ground, and politically. But the key character in the republican period—again, the republican period was from 1970 until today—was a man called Ali Abdullah Saleh. Ali Abdullah Saleh was the president of Yemen from 1978 until 2012. He can only be described as a thug. He is an uneducated person, extremely thuggish, uninterested in the development or building of any state institutions. In fact, his method of rule, which he described as "dancing on the heads of snakes," was to deliberately destroy civic forms of association, any kind of institution that had existed in Yemen, whether from the Zaidi monarchical period or from the few presidents who ruled before him in the republic. He went about it and systematically destroyed it. It was a classic game of a thug playing the role of divide and rule, in order to remain in power.
Extremely corrupt—the amount of money that he is supposed to have is certainly in the tens of billions of dollars. And this is, again, the poorest country in the Arab world and certainly one of the poorest in the world.
He was able to rule in this way also by building certain alliances with other elites that pursued similar policies to his—in other words, the policies of divide and rule, and deliberate destruction of institutions. For a while, Yemen looked like it was a stable place, because you had these few elites at the top who were in alliance with Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, and, while corrupt, they were able to garner the support of a number of countries, in succession.
For a while, Yemen under Ali Abdullah Saleh was very close to Saddam Hussein of Iraq and was receiving money and support from Saddam Hussein, which explains why Yemen sided with Iraq and not with Saudi Arabia when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait in 1990. After Saddam's regime was put under sanctions and was not able to provide support, he switched to a new kind of tactic, which is that of creating a pseudo-democracy, with elections that were always rigged. From 1990, when there were two Yemens that united, you had pseudo-elections. Under that kind of policy, he was able to get considerable Western support.
That lasted for a while; the pseudo-democratic game lasted for a while, until about the late 1990s. Then he switched and was able to reconcile with the Saudis and was able to come back to getting money and support from the Saudis, if not directly himself, through some of the proxies in this elite system of governing.
To now move forward—because the story is quite complicated—this alliance of elites around President Ali Abdullah Saleh, which included some tribal leaders, like the Ahmar sheikhs, many members of his own family—that alliance broke apart as a result of the Arab Spring uprisings that started, as you all know, in Tunisia and that moved on to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and then ultimately to Yemen. This uprising in Yemen, which was peaceful, led to Ali Abdullah Saleh feeling very threatened. He used his military power and forces against demonstrators.
Ultimately, the faction that was in control broke apart, not because of ideological reasons, but largely because Ali Abdullah Saleh, in keeping with a tradition of Arab republicanism, wanted to bequeath rule to his son, a man called Ahmed, who was head of the Republican Guard. Because he wanted his son to succeed him and because other members in that ruling alliance were not interested in Ali Saleh's son succeeding, that coalition broke apart.
Eventually one faction tried to kill Ali Abdullah Saleh. He was very badly injured in a bomb that was placed in a mosque in 2011. He was airlifted out of Yemen to Saudi Arabia, where he was given medical treatment, most unfortunately survived the medical treatment, and was somehow able to leave Saudi Arabia, under very mysterious circumstances, and come back to Yemen, where he now, as a result of an agreement that was brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, was to give up power, hand over power to his vice president, a man called Hadi, who is now president of Yemen officially, and have legal cover from any kind of prosecution, legal prosecution, for any of the misdeeds during his 32 years of rule, or misrule.
But when he got back to Yemen, he again started his old tricks of playing different factions against one another. He clearly had lost the backing of the Saudis, so he now turned to new allies.
Let's bracket Ali Abdullah Saleh for a minute and turn to two other factors in Yemeni politics. The first is a group called the Houthis and then the second that I will get to is the United States and what the United States has been up to. Let's talk about the Houthis for a while.
They are named Houthis because there is a family in Yemen called the Houthi family. They are a family of sayyids, descendants of the prophet. The father figure, who is now dead, a man called Badreddin Houthi, was a great Islamic scholar, a very significant man. One of his sons, a man called Hussein Houthi, under the influence of persistent persecution by the government in Sana'a and the spread of Salifism and serious discrimination against Zaidi sayyids, led a group of young men to start organizing around Zaidi principles. Ultimately this form of organization, which was happening in the very north of the country in a governorate called Saada, on the Saudi border, led to a series of wars against the central government in Yemen, between this group called the Houthis, led by the Houthi family, and the central government. The war started in 2004. It was a series of about six wars, I think, that did not end until about 2010.
These wars were extremely devastating for the north. There were lots of casualties, depopulation of entire villages and districts. The Yemeni troops, under Saleh and his cousins' leadership, did not do well. The Houthis bested them in virtually every military engagement.
The Houthis—you can think of them as tribesmen from the north, people kind of in flip-flops and AK-47s—having bested the Yemeni government and their forces in several encounters, were looking desperately, because they were under serious pressure despite their victories, for anyone who could back them and who could ally with them. The only helping hand that reached out to them was that of Hezbollah in Lebanon. This is a proxy group that is a proxy of Iran in Lebanon that is extremely well organized. It's both a political party and a paramilitary organization that has, as probably most of you know, institutions and ideology that is based on Iran's ideology—extremely well-organized, disciplined, highly professional fighting force—and that has given Israel a run for its money in every military engagement.
This group, Hezbollah, around 2009, 2010, started offering help, initially through a series of intermediaries, people from Yemen coming up to Beirut and establishing personal links with Hezbollah. There is clearly some financial and military support that has flowed to the Houthis through Hezbollah, from Iran ultimately.
But more importantly than the financial and military support, which is still very nebulous as to the quantity and type of help represented—more important than this was that Hezbollah offered a model for organization and discipline, an ideological strength and discipline, that the Houthis did not have and that they acquired by emulating Hezbollah. They took on some of the slogans of the Iranian Revolution and of Hezbollah, but also they started organizing in ways that were truly impressive. You can see this from Houthi videos, where you see the discipline and organization of very large numbers of individuals at these rallies—something that one could only see in the Arab world by looking at Hezbollah in Beirut and the rallies that Hezbollah organized there.
So there is this influence, but it is not a very clear or direct or strong influence. It is ideological more than it seems to be military and financial. In any case, the Saudis, who are to the north of Yemen, saw this and were convinced, and still are convinced, that the Houthis, because of their relationship with Hezbollah and indirectly with Iran, are a proxy of Iran. They don't see that, in fact, they are a group that has its own kind of rootedness in the country, that has its own dynamics that predate the relationship with Hezbollah and Iran, and that is really deeply anchored in the society of Yemen and its politics and its history. By seeing them purely as a kind of Iranian proxy or transplant, the Saudis are making a very serious miscalculation in their reading of Yemeni politics. The war is not going well for them. I'll get back to the Saudis in a bit.
So these are the Houthis. The Houthis basically took advantage of the upheaval of 2011, the breakup of the ruling coalition between Saleh, his family, and a few other tribal leaders. Essentially, because they were sort of the "one-eyed in the land of the blind," they were able to take advantage of the chaos that the Arab Spring uprising sowed in Yemen and were able to take territory and conquer more and more territory, I think much to their own surprise and to the surprise of their backers outside of Yemen, and ultimately took over Sana'a last year.
I will come back to that most recent set of events in a bit. Let me talk about the United States.
U.S. policy in Yemen can only be described as catastrophic. The United States has essentially seen Yemen through one sort of lens, and the lens is that of al-Qaeda and of terrorism. Al-Qaeda has a presence in Yemen, but it was really boosted in its capabilities and its abilities by the fact that the Saudis were able to defeat the local al-Qaeda branch in Saudi Arabia in 2006. The remnants of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia ended up going to Yemen and forming something called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP]. This is a group that exists in parts of Yemen, the more remote areas where the state is not powerful. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was able to build alliances with various tribes through marriages and personal connections in these more remote areas of Yemen. The United States has been obsessed with destroying this group.
By the way, this group, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, hates the Houthis, and the Houthis are really the only group in Yemen, the only other force, that can ultimately destroy and defeat al-Qaeda militarily.
But the United States has decided to use drones against this group. The drone attacks, as many of you know, have killed a number of leaders in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but these drones have also killed a lot of Yemenis, a lot of innocent Yemenis—the usual kind of thing that we hear about—wedding parties, convoys that are mistaken.
There is one very interesting case, and this tells you something about the nature of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the thug president, who ruled from 1978 to 2012. Ali Abdullah Saleh once wanted one of his enemies gotten rid of, so he gave the coordinates of the convoy of his enemies to the United States, and the United States blew up the convoy with a drone attack. He had nothing to do with al-Qaeda.
This is the kind of thing that happens and has happened in Yemen. The United States has, in fact, through the use of drones, created a much bigger problem for itself, because al-Qaeda is stronger today than it ever has been. President Obama has used drones even more than President Bush before him.
Also, the U.S. policy has been to build up the military capacity of certain units in the Yemeni army, especially those units that were led by Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, the son of the president who was supposed to take over after him, and the Republican Guard. These units that were trained and armed by the United States, and who were supposed to fight al-Qaeda, ended up fighting the enemies of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Now, most recently, because there has been an alliance of convenience between the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh and his son, many of the weaponry and the troops that were ostensibly there to fight al-Qaeda are, in fact, fighting the other factions that are pro-Saudi in Yemen.
So it's a real mess. It's a complete mess. The United States has wasted a tremendous amount of goodwill, abused its power through the killing of lots of civilians, and has increased the presence of al-Qaeda in Yemen.
Now let me turn to Saudi Arabia. I have already alluded to the fact that the Saudis are very convinced that Yemen has this Houthi group, that the Houthis are a proxy of the Iranians, and that this proxy group has to be defeated at all costs because it is a way of making it very clear to Iran that Yemen is a red line and Iran is not to meddle in Yemen. Saudi Arabia thinks of Yemen as its backyard, not too differently from the way, let's say, we think of either Canada or Mexico. So it does not want another power meddling in the politics of Yemen.
This is understandable. But the problems with Saudi views on Yemen are multiple. Saudi is a very opaque place. It is very difficult to know how the Saudis make decisions, how they think about Yemen. But what we do know is that Yemen file—this is how the Saudis talk about certain policies and countries that they have policies in—the Yemen file was held under the late Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz. He used to be defense minister of the country. He died a few years ago. That file was with him. Under that file you had a committee. It was called the Special Committee for Yemen. This Special Committee for Yemen had a number of individuals running it who had links with Yemen that dated back to the civil war of the 1960s. These are people who really knew Yemen well, especially from the 1960s and 1970s, but many of whom, by the 1990s and 2000s, had either retired or died.
One of the features of the Saudi bureaucracy, at least in this one particular case, was that they did not transmit the knowledge that they had to the next generation of Saudi policymakers who would be running this file and running the country's policy. So there has been a loss of institutional memory and knowledge about Yemen within the Saudi bureaucracy.
Also, because late Crown Prince Sultan was very sick and for a while did not keep up with what was happening in Yemen, the Yemen file was lost bureaucratically. The memory and knowledge about Yemen was lost as well. So, whereas the Saudis have always dealt with Yemen through individuals, through tribal leaders, through persons that had a long history of a relationship with Saudi Arabia, by this decade, all of that history, all of those relationships were no longer there, were no longer live and maintained and sustained. So that's one issue that you need to know.
The other about Saudi Arabia is that in January of this year you had the death of King Abdullah and the assumption of power of a new king, King Salman. With King Salman, who is about 80 years old, a new generation of princes—in particular, one prince—has become the most powerful individual in the kingdom. This is a gentleman called Mohammed bin Salman. He is not the oldest son of the king. He is actually a son from a second wife. He is about 29 years old. He was educated in Saudi Arabia. He does not speak English. We don't know very much about him at all.
What we do know is that the king loves him. He's the darling of his eye, if you like. Because this is an absolute monarchy with absolutist power, the king decides who has power in the system, and he has delegated all power to this younger gentleman, who has now become defense minister, head of the royal court, head of Saudi Aramco, the oil company—head of everything but internal security in the country, led by this young gentleman, who was just recently here in the United States meeting with President Obama at Camp David. As we speak, he is having a second or third honeymoon in Paris.
The second individual in power in Saudi Arabia is the minister of the interior, a man called Muhammad bin Nayef, who is about 55 years old. He is an important individual because he is the keeper of the internal security of the state. He is responsible for that. He has been in that position for quite some time. He is the person who defeated al-Qaeda in 2006 in Saudi Arabia. He personally took great risks. He almost died in a suicide attack. He is a person with considerable charisma, considerable heft. He is also someone who shies away from the limelight. We don't see him very often in public. He has been educated in the United States, and he is the favorite of the United States in the kingdom. He has a very, very close relationship with the head of the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency], who was station chief in Riyadh for a while, before becoming head of the CIA.
At any rate, this is a man with considerable heft. He would be someone that, for instance, the United States would look forward to as the next leader in Saudi Arabia, and he has, in fact, been made the crown prince. Mohammed bin Salman, the 29-year-old, has been made deputy crown prince.
Let me just quickly turn to Mohammed bin Salman, the 29-year-old, and Yemen. This is a young prince who is in power. He has been now under his father's rule a little over 100 days. In these 100 days, he has spent $50 billion of the $750 billion in Saudi reserves. The $50 billion was mostly spent on basically payouts to all the public civil servants of the kingdom. In one decision, he spent $32.5 billion in two months of extra salary for every public civil servant in the country, which is basically 90 percent of the Saudi working population. He is clearly someone who is on the make. He is someone who wants desperately to pad his CV, as we say. And there's nothing like padding one's CV than a quick military victory.
So it seems that he is the person who has convinced the king that a quick and swift war in Yemen that would defeat the Houthis, who by early this year had not only taken over Sana'a, but in their alliance with Ali Abdullah Saleh's forces—who, as I remind you, are trained by the United States and armed by the United States—were advancing on the rest of Yemen, engaging in battles with al-Qaeda, but also taking over the state and the control of the country. So Mohammed bin Salman used this opportunity, I think, to say, "Look, we have to bolster the existing president of Yemen." There is this very complicated set of political issues where the president of Yemen was sidelined by the Houthis. "We have to save him, and in order to do so, we need to wage a military campaign."
The military campaign that the Saudis have waged in Yemen is an interesting one. It is not in keeping with their tradition of foreign policymaking. The Saudis have never actually gone on the offensive in this way. They often prefer to pay and buy and co-opt rather than engage in violence, domestically or regionally. So it's a real break with the tradition of Saudi foreign policymaking, and I think it very much has to with this young prince and the way he sees things.
Officially, the war in Yemen for the Saudis is to bring back the president, who is now in exile in Saudi Arabia, to bring back President Hadi to power, to restore the legitimate government of Yemen. But it is also intended to send a signal to the Iranians that they should not meddle in Yemen. It's not clear, as I said to you, to what extent the Iranians are meddling, in fact, in Yemen. The Houthis are an indigenous group that has a history of violence and warfare against the enemy state that predates anything Iran has done or Hezbollah, its proxy, has done.
The war is being prosecuted in the way that the United States likes to prosecute wars, which is basically through airpower rather than through ground forces. Yemen is not a country where you can win a war through airpower. We have had an air campaign now in Yemen for over a month. It has created a very considerable humanitarian crisis in the country. The Saudis don't seem to be able to reverse the tide of war, because the Houthis, with their allies, are still advancing on most of the fronts, including attacking cities and towns on the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
So the quick victory, the padding-of-the-CV way of thinking about things and the policy that Mohammed bin Salman has pursued, has not worked. Very recently a four- or five-day ceasefire was announced by the Saudis, but now that has lapsed and the Saudis have resumed their air campaign.
The Yemenis are basically taunting the Saudis by saying, "If you're men, send your troops here and let's see whether you can fight."
The Saudis, knowing that they won't do well if they were to send ground forces, have been desperately trying to get the Egyptians, the Pakistanis, and, most recently, the Senegalese to send troops to fight in Yemen. None of these countries—although some have sent troops; I think the Senegalese sent 2,000 men—none of these countries are willing to go into Yemen, because they know that it would be a military catastrophe and a quagmire.
That is where we are today. Yemen is even more of a failed state than it has ever been. I just go back to some of the earlier statistics that I started out with. Yemen is the first country probably in the world, certainly the first capital city in the world, to not have any groundwater left. Sana'a is a city with about 5 million people. By 2020, there will be no water in Sana'a. This is not a country that has the resources that the Saudis have in order to desalinate through the burning off of seawater.
Yemen, if anything, is headed in the direction of a country like Somalia—a failed state that will not only continue imploding internally, but also exporting its problems to the region, mostly to Saudi Arabia, I think, and to the other Gulf countries. And I need not remind you that it is a country that lies on a very important maritime passage, which is the Bab el-Mandeb passage, which brings the Indian Ocean into the Red Sea and on to the Mediterranean.
So it will be a very exciting ride going forward. Thank you.
QUESTION: Craig Charney, of Charney Research. Great to see you again. And thank you for a great conversation.
I would like to ask you a bit about the policy side and implications of what you were saying. It did seem to me that you missed out on an important piece of U.S. policy, and that is the work that was invested in the National Dialogue by USAID [United States Agency for International Development], which was the only way, it seemed to me, to try to square the circle by actually bringing together the Houthis, Saleh's followers, others in the formation of a new national consensus. USAID and the U.S. government actually provided much of the infrastructure, technical assistance, and political support for that process, which went reasonably far before the recent upsurge of war, which may indeed, in part, have been intended to make sure it didn't get any further.
I guess the question I would ask is, given where we are now, where do we go in terms of policy? Back the Houthis, try to revive the dialogue, accept partition, or what?
BERNARD HAYKEL: The National Dialogue process in Yemen—the United States may have played a role, but it was largely a UN- and GCC-backed initiative—
QUESTIONER: With U.S. support.
BERNARD HAYKEL: Yes, with U.S. support, admittedly. But the United States is really not interested in most of the Middle East today. At least the Obama administration is not terribly interested or serious about anything going on in Yemen. It would much rather delegate the problem to local and regional powers.
That National Dialogue process was one where I think the Houthis felt that they were constantly being shortchanged by the GCC. The United States was not really present in any strength. What the United States should have done, and what I think the United States should continue to do, is the following: First, tell Saudi Arabia that this is not a problem that can be solved militarily. One has to accept that the Houthis are here. They are on the ground. They represent a significant constituency that cannot be eliminated. It's not like the Muslim Brotherhood policy in Egypt, where you just decide to outlaw them and criminalize them. Even in Egypt, that is not going to work, and it's bound to backfire. You can't outlaw or criminalize 20, 30 percent of the population and their political representatives.
The Saudis should be encouraged, in fact, to open lines of communication with the Houthis to find ways to engage with them. The Houthis and their territories are right on the Saudi border. You cannot make permanent enemies of these people or eliminate them physically.
So the Saudi approach to Yemen should actually revert, in some respect, to the older policy of basically dealing with everyone on the ground and trying to come to an accommodation with all the different factions on the ground.
I suspect what the Saudis actually will do instead, though, will be to play on cleavages in Yemen—namely, the Sunni-Shia cleavage—and try to get the country to divide up again along a line that is more or less where North and South Yemen used to be, which would mean a southern, almost exclusively Sunni state and a north where you have large populations of Sunnis, but also large populations of Shias—kind of playing the game of divide and rule, but here actually geographically breaking up the country.
Again, I'm not sure that is a policy that will stabilize the country.
QUESTION: Rita Hauser.
This is a follow-up, really, on this question. Will there be a profound change in Saudi foreign policy? They were obviously shocked when Pakistan and Egypt, which receives largesse enormous from them, turned down the request to send in ground troops. Will this signal a failure of Saudi policy, which has always been using others, third parties, never engaging themselves? How do you see it going forward beyond the Yemeni issue?
BERNARD HAYKEL: The Saudis are basically pursuing a policy now which, on the surface, looks like they will actually become a kind of regional military power. In fact, many of Saudi Arabia's propagandists are saying we have a new power on the scene, a military power, in the form of Saudi Arabia, which will try to galvanize also the forces of the other GCC countries.
I think that is kind of a pipe dream, really. Let's just take, for example, Iran. Iran is a country that has always used—and by the way, I'm against the agreement that Obama is trying to negotiate now with the Iranians. Iran has historically used proxies or non-state actors in the pursuit of its foreign policy. That has been the signature of the Islamic republic from the time of the revolution. Hezbollah is the classic example of this kind of proxy. But the Iranians now also have a million-man militia army in southern Iraq. This is a Shiite militia force that seems to be largely under Iranian control and direction. They are the ones who are now being sent to Ramadi to fight the Islamic State.
That force, were it ever to be turned south by the Iranians—in other words, a non-state-actor force like that million-man militia—to move south to occupy countries of the Gulf, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or Qatar, and if the Iranians were to start mobilizing the Shiite populations of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, as well as Bahrain, that could really represent a very significant threat, not just to the Saudis, but to global security and global stability. And I don't think the Saudis could do anything about it militarily, against that kind of force. The Saudi army is not capable of fighting that kind of war, especially against non-state actors.
QUESTIONER: So they would turn to the United States?
BERNARD HAYKEL: Yes. There is another myth in the United States and in all these discussions that have been happening now, which is that because of the discovery of large amounts of gas and oil in the United States through shale, we can somehow be economically, in terms of energy, independent of the Middle East. That is a pipe dream. The physics just doesn't add up at all. I can explain why if you like.
But if the Arab Gulf countries were to be threatened militarily by a force like the militias of southern Iraq or if the Iranians themselves were to take over or if there was to be internal domestic instability in Saudi Arabia—and Saudi Arabia is now pumping, as of March, 10.3 million barrels of oil a day. The world consumes about 95 million barrels a day. So that is well over 10 percent of global production—the United States would go militarily, with troops on the ground, to protect that supply of oil, because the global economy and our very way of life depend on the stable, reliable, and non-volatile pricing of that commodity to world markets. Anything any American president tells you otherwise is simply not true. We would go to war to protect those energy reserves.
So that's one thing. There are two lies. One is this energy independence. Two is that we would not go to war for those energy supplies. We would.
QUESTION: Thank you, Professor Haykel. I'm Stephanie Baric and I work for a women's rights organization here in New York, the AHA Foundation.
I spent three years in Yemen working on USAID projects and recently wrote an op-ed about Yemen where I argued a lot of the things that you discussed today—that we were so narrowly focused on fighting AQAP that we lost sight of the democratic aspirations of the Yemeni people, based on the uprising. While I also call Yemen a failed state because it really does meet a lot of the criteria, at the same time I'm not entirely pessimistic, because I feel like the genie—which may be an appropriate metaphor for the region—has been let out of the bottle.
When you look at the National Dialogue, I felt like there were some really positive recommendations that were made. When you look at the participation, it was quite participatory. So I feel like, if we can give a lot of the people, the right people, the kind of support that is needed, we could actually get Yemen back on track in its democratic transition. But I guess it's also figuring out—the Houthis were part of the National Dialogue.
I guess what I'm asking you is, at the end of the day, given the positive developments that did happen during the democratic transition, is there hope for getting the country back on track?
BERNARD HAYKEL: Anyone who studies the Middle East is almost always going to be right if that person adopts a cynical and pessimistic attitude. It's unfortunate. If you say things are going to get worse, you are more than likely to be right. And then people think you are really smart.
But the problem in Yemen, as it is in many other Arab countries—it's not that the people are not democratic or they don't have a democratic impulse. All the Arab Spring uprisings were basically calling for a basic set of rights—better governance, transparency in governance, accountability in governance, greater individual freedoms and rights. Those are things that we can all identify with and we would want to support and promote.
The problem is not in that sentiment and that desire. The problem is, how do you institutionalize those desires and demands in ways that are not dependent on the whims of thugs like Ali Abdullah Saleh or the views of a large state like Saudi Arabia that is determined to see a proxy war waged in Yemen between itself and Iran through Yemeni proxies? That's the trick. How do you move from a great National Dialogue, where it is truly representative and everything that is being said is good and the people are actually good, to institutions? I'm not sure how to do that, myself. I certainly think the United States doesn't know how to do it.
QUESTION: Thank you, Professor. My name is Munish Puri. I'm a geopolitical risk consultant.
I have two questions, one quick one. Were you surprised by the scale or speed at which the Houthis moved into Sana'a and otherwise?
The second is, you brought up interesting parallels with Iraq—tribal issues, geographic challenges, federalism. A lot of mistakes to be avoided. Any lessons to be learned from Iraq?
BERNARD HAYKEL: I was surprised about the speed of the Houthi advance, just like I was surprised by the speed of the Islamic State's advance. But I think one should expect that when the other side, as it were, that is fighting either the Islamic State in Iraq or, in the case of Yemen, the Yemeni coalition that dominated the state, had fallen apart. I think I used the expression "in the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king." The Houthis were simply just more organized, more disciplined than anything else out there. Not to say that they were some fantastic military force in their own right. They were just better, because the others had fallen apart.
As far as lessons from Iraq, the one lesson from Iraq is that if you structurally build the politics of the country on the basis of sectarian affiliation and you make that politics a zero-sum game—in other words, if the Shiites are going to rule, they are going to control all the resources, everything is going to go to them, everyone else is going to be excluded, which is basically the system that we instituted in Iraq after the 2003 invasion—then instability, violence is bound to be also structurally built into the system. If you build a Yemeni politics that excludes the Houthis or the Zaidis, you are bound to fail.
The other thing that I should have mentioned also—it's to do with the United States—the United States is backing the Saudi attack on Yemen now. It is actually backing it. Most of the coordinates for targeting are coming from the United States to the Saudi Air Force. I'm not sure how happy the United States is in this alliance.
In any event, the problem with defeating the Houthis or trying to crush them, as the Saudis are trying to do, is that the Houthis are really the one force that can take on al-Qaeda. So it's absurd, if you are really trying to fight al-Qaeda, to try to defeat the Houthis.
QUESTION: Thank you. Ron Berenbeim.
You just dropped off parenthetically a remark that I can't resist following up on, when you said, "By the way, I'm against the Iran-U.S. nuclear accord." My simple question is, why?
BERNARD HAYKEL: There are several reasons. Firstly, when your two principal allies in the region are against the accord—and here I mean Saudi Arabia and Israel—you really have to think about whether that is the right policy to pursue. The Saudis, by the way, were against the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and I wish we had listened to them then.
That's one reason, but that is a very superficial reason.
The real reason is this: When you think about Iran, it's not just the nuclear project that they have that is at issue. In fact, it is, to my mind, not really the central issue. The central issue—and here I adopt a kind of Saudi perspective—is the persistent use by the Iranian state of non-state actors to dominate societies in the Arab world. Here I mean the domination of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and for a while, even the Palestinians, where Hamas was their proxy. That is, I think, the core of the problem with Iran, and not so much the nuclear issue.
I think what the nuclear negotiations will end up being, in effect—and they are really largely being pushed because President Obama wants this kind of legacy that is comparable to Nixon opening up China, which I think is kind of an absurd thing to want. It's not an analogy to China or even to Cuba, which the president has made—Cuba is not Iran and Iran is not Cuba. Cuba does not threaten any regional kind of order, whereas Iran does. Iran's basic ideology is not only the destruction of Israel, but also they call the United States "Great Satan."
We have real issues with Iran. They are constantly saying, "Death to America," and so on. So there are some real fundamental ideological issues, as well as regional policies that Iran pursues.
In any case, Obama wants to have this deal because of his legacy and so on. I think, whatever happens with this deal, the Iranians will have the threshold capacity to build a bomb within months, regardless of the deal. So it's not like you are stopping them from building a bomb. They probably will never build a bomb. They will always be just about to build a bomb, and this deal will basically ratify that ability, and not address the other issue, which is what Iran does besides the bomb, which is all the stuff they do in the region, which I don't see being addressed at all in this agreement.
I also don't believe that once the sanctions are removed, they can actually be put back in place. They took years to build and to put in place. They cannot be—I forget the term that the Obama administration uses—is it "snap-back"? It's just pie in the sky. It's the kind of stuff that you hear from the administration about either energy independence or that we wouldn't go to war to defend the Saudi royal family. We would go to war to defend the Saudi royal family, period, because of the resources in the ground.
QUESTION: Ellen Berenson.
My question was actually the same as his, so there is no point in asking that, although there was a speaker here, an Iranian, a few months ago, who actually said that the sanctions—I remember this—could never be put back, agreeing with your point.
The other comment I have to make is, someone mentioned Yemen, and I thought your whole talk was that Yemen was a failed state—you said that—and that there is no democratic Arab Spring working in Yemen today. Is that not true?
BERNARD HAYKEL: That's correct. The Arab Spring uprising in Yemen, which was peaceful and had democratic aspirations and goals, has been completely thwarted, and deliberately so.
QUESTION: Thank you. William Verdone.
When I was a kid growing up, I learned that Yemen exported tremendous amounts of frankincense and myrrh. I assume that industry is long gone. Then I'm thinking, south of Yemen, there is a Yemeni island called Socotra Island, a draw for tourists. Is that still a thriving industry?
BERNARD HAYKEL: Frankincense and myrrh historically was a product that came from the border between Oman and Yemen, and then was shipped up the Red Sea coast basically into the Mediterranean, and then burnt in Roman temples and ultimately in Christian churches as incense. That is no longer going through Yemen at all.
Tourism is also completely over, as well as on the island of Socotra. The state and the security has completely collapsed. So no, unfortunately not.
Yemen is famous, by the way, for the export of coffee. Coffee is originally from Ethiopia. It was brought to Yemen. In Yemen it kind of became a commodity, and then ultimately from Yemen, it ended up spreading, in the 16th century, through the Mediterranean and then on to Europe. So we owe coffee to Yemen—which is why one type of coffee is called mocha. Mocha is a port town in Yemen, where the coffee was exported from. So we owe coffee to Yemen.
QUESTION: Richard Valcourt, International Journal of Intelligence.
There was a time when Yemen was divided into two. One was Marxist and the other one was non-Marxist. Since ideas don't go away, what has happened to those who held those beliefs in the current post-Soviet period?
BERNARD HAYKEL: I don't know if I agree with you. I think ideas do go away. Marxism has gone away, thank god. What you had in southern Yemen, which was called the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, was a Marxist regime. That regime basically collapsed because the Soviets, after 1989-90, were no longer subsidizing this regime. There was a unity government from 1990, which was a coalition between northern elites—Saleh, the snake dancer—and the socialists of the south. Ultimately that coalition broke apart. He started killing them off in an assassination campaign from 1990 to 1994. Civil war happens in 1994. He crushes them militarily, and the socialists are essentially destroyed.
There are very few remnants of the socialists. You will find them maybe in Aden, in some of the coffee shops, talking about the good old days. But they are politically gone.
QUESTION: Thanks, Professor Haykel. Amanda Entrikin with MSF [Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders].
The humanitarian pause: If you could just speak about the strategy for the five-day pause that the Saudis maybe considered, for not continuing the pause, and then possibly the strategy to bring in another humanitarian pause. What are we looking at in terms of the future for humanitarian assistance?
BERNARD HAYKEL: As you know, there is an incredible humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. I don't know what ultimately prevailed on the Saudis to call for the military pause. It must have been some pressure from the international community and the images that were coming out of Yemen. Also, I know that your organization wrote about this, as did a number of others, I think.
But essentially the Saudi view is, "Why aren't we winning? Why are these Yemenis so stubborn?" Despite this humanitarian pause, the Yemenis—the Saudis thought that "if we destroy their missile launches, if we destroy their airplanes, then they will just collapse." Well, no. The Yemeni forces are basically guerilla-type forces. They kept prodding Saudi Arabia on the border. I think the idea is that the humanitarian pause did what it did, which was to show that the Saudis were kind of decent. But now they want to win desperately.
As I said in my talk, I think this is a war that is being driven largely because of internal domestic power plays and politics within the royal family, to do with this young man that I described. When you have those kinds of dynamics, where the actual facts on the ground are not as relevant to what is driving the policy, then I think the Saudis are going to continue with the war, and they will get more and more desperate, because this particular person wants a victory.
QUESTION: Edith Everett.
Getting back to Iran for a moment, if any deal is a bad idea, what is a good idea?
BERNARD HAYKEL: I say this often. Americans are kind of preternaturally optimists, and they always think that every problem has a solution. In the Middle East, as far as I can see, there are no solutions. You think about the problem as a management issue. How do you best contain the forces that are on the ground?
I think, as far as Iran is concerned, what we should do is to have them fight the Islamic State, which is what they are doing through proxies right now and these militias. I think that is something that is worth talking about with them, maybe coordinating with them on, to some extent.
The other thing that we need to do with Iran is to think about what happens to Afghanistan after the Americans leave.
There are kind of small, discrete issues that we can deal with Iran on and try to find solutions, possibly, but not hold out much hope for any real long-term alliance of any kind. The type of language that President Obama is using about Iran—"This is a great civilization and empire. It deserves its place in the sun." Why? This is kind of Iranian talk. The Arabs have problems domestically. The kind of talk that President Obama has used has been deliberately insulting to Arabs and unnecessarily praising of Iran. I don't see why we should do that. It's not in our interest to do that. I think Iran should be put in its place and we should deal with it discretely on individual problems that we have where we might find ourselves having similar strategic or tactical interests.
JOANNE MYERS: Thank you once again for sharing your knowledge and giving us so much to think about. Thank you so much for coming.