Yemen has become the latest battleground in a regional intra-religious semi-cold war between the Sunni Arab states, nominally led by Saudi Arabia, and the Shiite-dominated Islamic Republic of Iran. The stakes are high as the two sides compete for primacy in a region that is home to a large portion of the world’s essential energy supply, as well as a transit point for some of the world’s most important maritime trading routes.
Should the United States get cold feet in Yemen and abandon its Saudi allies, then, it will ensure Iran becomes the region’s new powerhouse.
Currently, Houthi rebels—who are nothing more than pro-Iran malcontents—seek to dominate Yemen, turning it away from a pro-Saudi (and therefore moderately pro-American) country into a decidedly anti-American one. Those who worry about the humanitarian costs of the conflict are not wrong. They may be extensive. Yet, Washington must always concern itself with what’s in America’s national interest first. Yemen becoming a pro-Iranian enclave is more of a grave concern for us than the fact that the country’s civil war has become a shameful humanitarian disaster.
Take, for instance, the fact that Yemen’s coastline straddles some of the world’s busiest maritime trading routes. In particular, the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, which connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden (and the wider Indian Ocean). Yemen is also just across—separated by the waterway—from Djibouti (where China now has some of its most important overseas military bases).
Regional Stability At Stake
When the internationally recognized, pro-Saudi regime ruled Yemen, global stability was assured, as vital trade occurred unabated. With the civil war having gone on for years and Iran intensifying its commitment to the Houthi rebels, the Saudis may lose their client in Yemen. With that the entire regional order would be destabilized further.
Consider this: most of the trade passing through the Bab-el-Mandeb either emanates from or travels to Egypt’s Suez Canal—meaning that as Yemen goes, so goes 8 percent of the world’s trade. And as Yemen becomes a major destabilizer along the Bab-el-Mandeb, the stability of the far more crucial Egypt will be next.
Consider, too, that the Egyptian economy receives roughly $5 billion a year from maritime trade passing near Yemen’s coastline. Cairo anticipates an increase in trade revenue to around $13 billion by 2023. One of the primary causes of the Arab Spring—which brought on the overthrow of the pro-American autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, and replaced him with an ardent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi, until the military took him out—was Egypt’s dire economic situation. Imagine what depriving Egypt of such important maritime trade could do to the political stability of Egypt and the wider region.
More important for our own interests is the fact that four percent of the world’s oil supply passes through the strait.
While some have proposed reopening old pipelines to lessen the world’s dependence on the Bab-el-Mandeb, as I argued several months ago, this is simply not a viable possibility. Yes, old pipelines could offset some of the economic damage. But no matter what, pipelines alone could not offset the loss of this waterway (at least not in the near-term). Therefore, transportation of oil would become more costly and the overall costs to consumers worldwide would increase.
No Concessions to Iran
By not fighting in Yemen, Saudi Arabia all but concedes the region to an empowered Iran. The Iranians already enjoy the ability to threaten global trade closer to their shores, in the even more important Strait of Hormuz. Should Iran gain a strategic foothold in Yemen, the mullahs would be able to threaten yet another maritime choke point in the Bab-el-Mandeb. Iran would also have another place to target its medium-range missiles at the Sunni world—and losing Yemen would compel Saudi Arabia to fulfill its threat of purchasing a stockpile of nuclear weapons from Pakistan. No one should want Riyadh, with its large population of Islamists, to possess even one nuclear weapon.
The Trump Administration has rightly pointed out the threat to the world that Iran poses. This is the reason for Trump having abandoned the ill-advised nuclear deal that former President Obama made with Iran in 2015. While not wanting to commit more American forces to another Mideast quagmire, President Trump astutely recognizes that the United States doesn’t have the luxury of simply abandoning the region. If it leaves forthwith, as some on both the American Left and even on the Right seem intent on doing, then other, less savory powers—such as Iran, but also Russia and China—would happily move in to dominate the world’s energy flows and major maritime trading routes.
Thus, Trump has decided to empower the Sunni Arab states (led by Saudi Arabia) as well as Israel to contain Iran. Abandoning the Saudi cause in Yemen means abandoning Saudi Arabia, which, in turn, means abandoning Israel, which all but assures Iran becomes the region’s new master. Virtually overnight, then, the entire American alliance system collapses, as others in the region compete to curry favor with the region’s new masters and abandon the United States.
Meanwhile, farther afield, other twitchy allies might start wondering whether they’ll be abandoned in their hour of need. While America should be more judicious about our alliances, we still cannot allow for our allies (and enemies) to believe we’re seeking to abandon the world; that would be against our interests.
Unfortunately, for now, the United States must either support Saudi Arabia or watch as Iran empowers itself—and threatens the United States.
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Photo Credit: Saleh Al-Obeidi/AFP/Getty Images