The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Senegal is sending troops to help Saudi Arabia in Yemen

Saudi soldiers take their position at Saudi Arabia's border with Yemen April 6, 2015. (Reuters/Faisal Al Nasser)

Senegal's Foreign Minister Mankeur Ndiaye confirmed on Monday that the West African nation would be sending a detachment of 2,100 troops to Saudi Arabia as part of an international coalition cobbled together by the kingdom in its war effort in neighboring Yemen.

In late March, Saudi Arabia commenced airstrikes on Yemen's Houthi rebels, who had already driven the feeble government of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi out of the capital Sanaa last year. Hundreds have been killed since the operation -- initially dubbed "Decisive Storm" -- began. International organizations have repeatedly warned of the dire humanitarian crisis sparked by the intensifying conflict, which has led either to the destruction or blockade of most of the country's major air and seaports.

On Monday, Saudi officials said they were considering a cease-fire in order to "better facilitate humanitarian relief to areas in need." There were conflicting reports regarding the presence of Saudi and Emirati special forces on the ground in Aden, a southern coastal city that the Houthis, a predominantly Shiite faction believed to be backed by Iran, are battling to control.

Senegal's declared involvement in a war thousands of miles away from its borders is likely welcome news for the Saudis, who have struggled to convince friendly nations to commit ground troops to any potential operation in Yemen. Most notably, Saudi overtures to Pakistan, a longtime ally and recipient of considerable Saudi funding, were rebuffed by the Pakistani parliament last month.

"The most obvious potential benefit of a Senegalese military engagement alongside Saudi Arabia would be in the form of closer political and economic ties between the two, and almost certainly direct cash payments from Saudi Arabia to Senegal," says Andrew Lebovich, a security and political analyst focused on West Africa.

It wasn't initially clear where the Senegalese forces would be deployed and to what purpose. "The international coalition is aiming to protect and secure the holy sites of Islam, Medina and Mecca," Foreign Minister Ndiaye told Senegal's parliament on Monday.

That rhetoric echoes the messaging of other governments closely tied to Saudi Arabia, a country whose position at the vanguard of Sunni Muslim states is a consequence of both its role as the custodian of some of Islam's holiest sites as well as the clout guaranteed by its vast petro-wealth. Even though it shied away from committing ground forces, the Pakistani government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has in public statements reiterated the importance of defending Saudi interests.

"The sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia [is] a policy imperative for Pakistan," said a Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman last month.

The Saudis have framed their intervention in Yemen as a bid to bring stability to a war-ravaged, fractious, failing state -- one whose instability ostensibly is a direct threat to Saudi Arabia. The actions of the past month have underlined Saudi Arabia's more muscular posture in regional affairs, particularly as it seeks to hedge against the influence of Iran, its Shiite rival in the Middle East.

As their Yemen campaign got underway, the Saudis championed the creation of a joint Arab force as a bulwark for regional security, bringing together the expensive military assets of the Persian Gulf states with the manpower of armies like those of Egypt. But real divisions between Arab states, many of whose interests don't always (or often) intersect, remain--and may be a stumbling block, writes Middle East expert Hussein Ibish:

There will have to be a significant transformation of relations between Arab governments. Otherwise, as wags have already noted, the joint Arab force could be seen as a “triple oxymoron.” Not “joint,” because of divisions among its members. Not “Arab,” because of sectarian differences, as well as significant numbers of Pakistani, Turkish or other non-Arab troops. And not a “force,” because it either can’t be deployed or proves ineffective.

Meanwhile, there are these curious offers of assistance from countries further afield like Senegal. It should be noted that Senegal has previously committed troops to Saudi Arabia: in the first Gulf war in 1991, it lost 92 soldiers when the Saudi transport plane carrying them crashed.

More recently, Senegal has played an active role in counterterrorism efforts in its neighborhood, including committing peace-keepers to help safeguard against an Islamist insurgency in Mali. But joining in the Yemen mission would represent something particularly noteworthy.

"Senegalese forces are deployed in a number of places around the world largely as a part of U.N. operations," says Lebovich. "But this would likely mark a more direct combat role for Senegalese forces than they have encountered recently, including in Mali."

Related on WorldViews

How Yemen was once Egypt's Vietnam

Pakistan's long history of fighting Saudi Arabia's wars

What has Saudi Arabia achieved after bombing Yemen for a month?