Riyadh’s new military adventure (following the occupation of Bahrain and an earlier attack on Yemeni Houthis) has proven unexpectedly costly after only the first few days, threatening a regional diplomatic realignment that could fundamentally undermine the Saudi religious state.
Erdogan, who sometimes aspires to lead the Mideast and sometimes aspires to be the Sunni leader of the Mideast, by either measure has advanced his goal(s) this week by inserting himself in the rather distant Yemeni conflict, a step taken immediately after Saudi Arabia transformed that long-lasting backwater civil war into an international conflict by intervening militarily.
While Riyadh committed its forces to combat in pursuit of enhanced regional influence, Ankara smoothly reached agreement with Riyadh’s closest ally Islamabad to pursue a peaceful solution. The only peaceful solution on the Yemeni horizon right now would entail the Saudis immediately returning to their own country and the Houthis so hated by Riyadh gaining a significant measure of political authority over Yemen, putting the country firmly outside the Saudi orbit. This move not only puts Erdogan at the center of the regional stage at hardly any immediate cost (“I exist, and every time you forget it, it will cost you”) but leaves Saudi pretensions of military glory stripped naked for it is very difficult to conceive of the Saudis winning any war without Pakistani ground troops to do the dying.
Erdogan also found time to pop across the border for a chat with Iranian President Rouhani, where each leader touted his own peace-loving pretentions (Rouhani concerning Yemen, Erdogan concerning Iraq). Of course, we all love peace, but for the pretender to the world Sunni throne to go out of his way to call for peace in talks with the head of world revolutionary Shi’ism and in talks with the key Sunni military ally of the current king of the Sunnis the week after a Saudi attack on neighboring Shi’i insurgents makes these innocent-sounding calls for peace sound more like a regional reversal of alliances. I am of course getting slightly ahead of the facts here, but perhaps it is time to consider what the Mideast/South Asian region would look like if Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan decided to soar above the traditional groveling in the gutter of sectarianism and achieve a joint understanding on frankly secular national security grounds.
Saudi Arabia is effectively the Sunni Vatican, but other Sunni states in the region apparently find the prospect of Saudi Arabia becoming a regional military hegemon as well just as problematic as Renaissance Catholic France and Spain found the prospect of submitting to Papal political/military control. So Saudi military intervention in the affairs of its neighbors, surely intended in Riyadh to shore up the shaky religious state’s regional secular pretentions of leadership, already—after only a week—seems to be undermining Saudi power and prestige, a familiar outcome of over-commitment that certain global superpowers of the last century would recognize.
The regional security ripples flowing out of the internationalization of the Yemeni civil war have just begun to form breakers on the shores of neighboring states. Much, much more is now to be anticipated as this new regional political dynamic intensifies, its waves washing away the ideological sandcastles of long-standing ruling cliques.