The Arab League Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh over the weekend produced a show of unity and pledges of support to the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. Enthusiastic commentators have declared it the dawn of a new era for the Arab world and the launch of an enduring new doctrine of autonomous Arab collective action in the absence of American leadership. In fact, the summit felt eerily familiar. The final resolution was manifestly the statement of an Arab Thermidor Summit. Nothing in it, from the warnings about Iranian power to the counter-terrorism agenda to the ignoring of democracy and political freedoms would have felt out of place in 2009 – the last time the Saudis launched a doomed war against the Houthis in Yemen. The only thing missing was Hosni Mubarak.
This is not the first Arab summit to produce paroxysms of enthusiasm and ambitious plans for joint action, of course. The Sharm el-Sheikh summit should be seen as the latest in a long line of bids for leadership of the official Arab order, with Riyadh following a well-rehearsed script for such bids. The assembled Arab leaders reaffirmed their mutual solidarity and admiration, called for Arab unity, offered the requisite lip service to the Palestinian cause and carefully ignored areas of serious disagreement. They promised to come together around the campaign to eradicate Yemen’s Houthi movement and pledged to create a joint Arab military force, a move that has grabbed headlines. Arab summit meetings have promised many such things over the years. They are legendary for announcing grandiose initiatives that fail to materialize, and it is telling that the details of this last proposal are conspicuously unspecified.
But the actual impact on the ground is somewhat beside the point. The coalition’s formation is actually a goal unto itself. Arab summit meetings, as Michael Barnett long ago argued, have traditionally been moments in which aspirants to regional leadership seek to define the Arab agenda and assert their own claim to the mythical throne of “Arab leadership.” Metrics of their success typically include the number of heads of state they can convene (the “failure” of several summits in the late 2000s was due to the boycott by key competitors) and the text of the final resolution (even if nobody expects its terms to ever be actually implemented). By these metrics, at least, the Sharm el-Sheikh summit looks to be a Saudi success. Most Arab leaders showed up, including key Saudi rivals such as the emir of Qatar, and there were no major disruptions to embarrass the hosts to compare with notable moments such as Moammar Gaddafi’s 2009 performance in Doha. The final resolution text and most of the speeches closely followed the intended narrative of unity against Iranian expansionism and terrorism and produced the desired promises of material contributions to the campaign in Yemen. It was thus a show of carefully stage-managed symbolic power backed by financial inducement and the cultivation of shared threat.
Supporters are heralding this as a sign of potent Saudi leadership and a new era in independent Arab action. It probably isn’t. The Saudi bid to mobilize an Arab order against the Iranian menace conveys more about the weaknesses of Arab regimes more than it does their strengths. The unresolved demands of the Arab uprisings hang over almost every regime in the coalition, haunting their dreams of legitimacy and stability. Sectarianism has long been a useful framework for Saudi ambitions, both at home and abroad, and its invocation here likely has less to do with real Iranian gains than with their long-standing instrumental use of sectarianism. Such sectarianism has taken far deeper root than in the past, through the steady accumulation of killing and incitement, which has driven the region so far down the road of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Despite this growing internalization of sectarian conflict, the most intense divisions in the region over the last few years have still been among the Sunni powers. Iraq and Syria have unleashed genuine sectarian horrors, too often embraced on instrumental grounds even by Western analysts. But Iran was only a background player as Turkish and Qatari backed Islamist forces battled Saudi and Emirati proxies across the battlefields of the Arab uprisings. Tehran had no role in the failed transitions in Egypt and Libya and had far less of a role in Bahrain and Yemen than sectarian entrepreneurs tried to claim. Islamists and their adversaries across the region hardly needed Iran to set them at each other’s throats. The Emirati-Qatari spat over political Islam has been more divisive than sectarianism within Gulf quarters. Presenting Sunni-Shiite conflict and rising Iranian power as the defining principle of regional order is exceedingly helpful when attempting to impose discipline on these competing “Sunni” forces under Saudi leadership. The Saudi leadership bid crystallizing around the campaign in Yemen looks, then, like a classic episode of a would-be regional power taking the lead in forming a balancing coalition against Iran… just as it’s been trying to do for many years. Realpolitik clothed in sectarian drag, as Gregory Gause might put it, lives on.
The summit’s final resolution makes these priorities glaringly clear. The opening preamble mentions state sovereignty, stability and national security repeatedly, along with a litany of threats both external and internal that require cooperation. The campaign in Yemen is framed as overturning the Houthi coup and defending “legitimacy,” deliciously enough given that these had been precisely the code words used by the Muslim Brotherhood against the summit’s host in the last two years of Egypt’s fierce political wars. There’s a call for a global effort against terrorism, including comprehensive intelligence and security cooperation, along with a call to dry up the sources of terrorist funding, which must have caused uncomfortable side-eyed glances between some of the participants. Official Islamic institutions are to lead religious reform to combat terrorism and extremist ideas, a campaign that the media and intellectuals are instructed to support. Democracy is nowhere to be found, of course, with even the section devoted to “soft” issues referring to development and social justice but not to human rights or political freedoms. The prosecution of war crimes also was evidently too awkward to raise during a campaign including Sudan’s International Criminal Court-indicted Omar Bashir.
The focus on Iran and its alleged proxies is an effective vehicle for setting aside the mortal combat between competing Arab regimes and regaining some domestic support through the demonization of an ever-convenient internal enemy. The last four years, recall, have been both frightening ones for embattled regimes and deeply divisive ones within the so-called Sunni Arab world. The campaign against Iran offers a convenient way to move on from those years of bitter competition among Sunni powers and movements. Thus, after years of a global campaign led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and to dismantle its local and global networks, those Brotherhood organizations now seek a place under a “Sunni” umbrella. Senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, prominent Islamist figures such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi and movements that have clashed with the Saudis, such as Hamas, have all have expressed their support for the campaign. So have popular Saudi Islamists who have been put out by recent policies toward Egypt and at home. The recent convergence between Muslim Brothers and UAE pundits or a friendly kiss between the emir of Qatar and Egypt’s president or a common position on anything among warring Libyan factions would have seemed unthinkable last year.
This cooperation is all quite convenient, even if it’s rather unlikely to last. Most of this will likely be soon forgotten, as the deep divisions between regimes reassert themselves and the intense polarization at the popular level resurges. It was easy for Arab states to agree on a policy toward Yemen, given how little it matters to them relative to the Saudi stake in its southern neighbor, but that agreement does not extend to region-defining conflicts like Libya and Syria.
The profound weakness underlying this would-be new regional order is difficult to miss. Most of the traditional aspirants to Arab leadership remain completely on their backs. Syria and Iraq are arenas for regional proxy war, no more factors in the regional balance of power than similarly afflicted states like Yemen or Libya. Egypt, despite Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s Nasserist pretensions, remains unstable at home and deeply dependent financially on its Gulf sponsors, leaving it a taker rather than a maker of regional order. This void at the center of the Arab order created an opportunity for the Saudi leadership bid, while the catastrophe on the ground in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen and the rise of the Islamic State has driven a profound and growing sense of threat. The ruins of those countries are a monument to the price of these regional proxy wars and the determination of the autocratic leaders to hold on to their thrones at any price. The prospect of an Iranian nuclear deal is only one dimension, then, of continuing internal disarray.
Nor does any of it bode well for Yemen itself. Many of the same Yemenis, academics and policy analysts who had for years been warning loudly about the deep problems with the Saudi management of the transition from and grant of immunity to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh are now equally skeptical about the Saudi-led military intervention. The military campaign itself will almost certainly quickly bog down, leaving inevitable choices between embarrassing climbdown or unsustainable escalation. The air strikes, being waged over heavily populated urban areas, will inevitably cause the sorts of civilian casualties such as those inflicted on March 30 on a well-known refugee camp. The campaign’s avowed goal of the eradication or disarmament of the Houthis is unrealistic one, as is attested to by Saudi failures to defeat the Houthis militarily over the last decade. Even if it were not so impractical, doing so would only be an easy first step compared to the difficulty of any forcible reimposition of state authority in Yemen. But since the real goals of the campaign are likely elsewhere, Yemenis seem to be the latest victims of yet another regional proxy war without end.