Yemen

Donald J. Trump and Mohammed bin Salman have a similar outlook when it comes to Iran. Both see the Islamic Republic as a threat that needs to be contained. What then does the elevation of Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS, to the role of crown prince of Saudi Arabia mean for the Sunni kingdom’s relationship with Shi’ite Iran?

“Nothing good,” said F. Gregory Gause III, head of the international affairs department at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service.

“I do see the likelihood of an American-Iranian confrontation, whether it is in Syria, whether it is on the water in the Gulf, whether it is in Iraq after the campaign in Mosul is concluded,” said Gause. The US administration, including President Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis, “came into office with a view that Iran was the major issue in the region,” he noted.

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The Arab world is in a sorry state. The spat between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Qatar is but the latest symptom of an enduring serious rot in governance and a destructive power struggle in the wake of the Arab Spring. This situation is compounded by a lack of constructive dialogue on addressing the challenges that face most countries of the region.

Qatar’s excommunication from the GCC is the latest schism to hit what has seemed, at least since 2011, to be a stable and unified bloc. On June 5, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt broke diplomatic ties with Qatar and cut off air, land, and sea transportation links. On the surface, it appeared that Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism was at the heart of the dispute. Certainly, US President Donald J. Trump’s tweet, sympathizing with the action taken against Qatar, implied that this was his understanding. It took reminders from the Pentagon and the US State Department of US national interests in Qatar and its strategic interest in Gulf stability to get Trump to pull back on his original impulse to take sides and instead advise Saudi King Salman to seek unity and harmony within the GCC rather than allow a dangerous escalation in rancor.

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Russia’s deepening engagement in the Middle East is a positive development from the United Arab Emirates’ perspective. The Emiratis, with their unique relationship with the Kremlin, are trying to resolve regional security challenges that threaten their interests. More importantly, the Emiratis’ relationship with the Kremlin could help the UAE become an important interlocutor in efforts to defuse tensions between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The UAE’s strong relationship with Russia was on display when Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, visited Putin in the Kremlin on April 20. The two discussed crises in the Middle East as well as strengthening an already substantial relationship between their two countries.  The visit took place at a time when the Trump administration has ratcheted up its anti-Iran rhetoric and US-Russia relations have reached an all-time low.

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Six years ago today, the Yemeni people erupted in a Day of Rage against a corrupt regime to demand equal rights, but the transitional process faltered leading to the now nearly two-year-old conflict between Houthi rebels allied with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the government-in-exile led by President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi backed by Saudi Arabia. Continuing clashes have delivered a brutal humanitarian crisis, an economy on the verge of collapse, and over 10,000 Yemeni deaths according to UN figures. It may seem antithetical to discuss issues of transitional justice while Yemen struggles with an ongoing war, but the conflict is slowly creeping toward an inevitable stalemate.

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In a last ditch effort by the Obama administration to salvage Yemen’s peace talks as the war grinds on, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Oman twice this month, personally meeting with Houthi representative Mohammed Abdussalam. In a statement released after his second visit, Kerry welcomed a 48-hour ceasefire in Yemen, but not all parties appeared to be in agreement.

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The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has witnessed considerable strain over the past few years, but increasing reports documenting poor targeting practices and disproportionate collateral damage in the Saudi-led coalition’s conduct of the war in Yemen has sparked an unprecedented outcry in the US Congress.

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On May 1, 2003, then-President George W. Bush stood in front of a large crowd aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego and famously pronounced with a draped “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him the end of US combat operations in Iraq. The declaration, it turned out, was wildly premature, for Washington’s direct military involvement in the war would go on for another eight costly years. It was an embarrassing if not deceitful moment in the history of US foreign policy, one that America’s friends in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, took turns to mock and decry.

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US Secretary of State John Kerry met two weeks ago with Gulf Cooperation Council representatives, officials from the United Kingdom, and the UN special envoy in Jeddah to discuss the war in Yemen and the desperate need to advance the peace talks. He pledged $189 million in humanitarian aid and called for a new peace initiative.  The talks are currently in recess, so increased attention from the White House might nudge the parties back to the table.

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The month-long break in UN-facilitated Yemeni peace talks announced on August 6 wasn’t a surprise; indeed, it was preordained and widely expected. But this doesn’t make the relative breakdown in the negotiations any easier for the international community and the UN Security Council to stomach.  UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called upon the parties to renew “without delay” cooperation with his special envoy, a testament to his repeated belief that further military conflict will only delay the inevitable political solution that is required to end the conflict. 

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As the Yemen peace talks went on hiatus on August 6, the Houthi-Saleh alliance moved to convene a newly formed governing council in the capital Sanaa. As they did so, forces loyal to internationally recognized President Abd Rabbou Mansour al-Hadi tried again to take Sanaa militarily. The Houthi and Saleh camps experienced tense moments during the last round of talks, with Ali Abdallah Saleh complaining that the Houthis were acting unilaterally and not collaborating with (General People’s Congress) GPC leaders. But their cooperation in announcing and convening a new assembly suggests that those differences have been put aside.

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