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Egypt and Saudi Arabia's Big Adventure

It was bound to happen sooner or later, and the Middle East decided on sooner: Saudi Arabia is bombing Yemen, and Egypt is prepping a ground invasion.

Why was this bound to happen? Because Yemen's Iranian-backed Shia Houthi movement is sweeping across the country in force. And if any two countries in the Sunni Arab world are going to get involved in that fight it will be Egypt and Saudi Arabia, partly because they're Yemen's neighbors and partly because that's how they roll. Egypt fought a long war in Yemen from 1962 to 1967 and the Saudis invaded Bahrain in 2011 to put down a Shia rebellion against the Sunni ruling house of Khalifa.

Iran has been a regional power since the time of the Persian Empire, and the current revolutionary regime that swept away the Shah in 1979 wants to restore Iran's place as a regional superpower. It's tricky, however. The overwhelming majority of the Middle East's population is Sunni and Arab while Iran is Shia and dominated by Persians. These ethnic and religious differences mean little to us in the West, but they mean everything in the Middle East. 

Much of the Arab world is fractured along ethnic, sectarian, and tribal lines, but Iran, despite its patchwork of Persians, Kurds, Azeris, Baluchis, and Arabs, has long been a coherent nation-state. It rests atop the region's relatively temperate highlands and can easily project power down to the hot Arab lowlands below. Its preferred method these days is divide-and-conquer rather than direct confrontation, and it has been perfecting the art of sectarian proxy war since its Revolutionary Guard Corps founded Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982.

Yemen's Houthis are its latest project, and the neighbors are not going to stand for it. They'd rather have Al Qaeda take over the country, not because they swoon over Al Qaeda—they don't—but because sect in that part of the world, as ever, trumps ideology.

It's not just that the Houthis are at war with the Egyptians' and the Saudis' fellow Sunnis. Every Arab government in the region aside from Syria's and Iraq's fears and loathes the rise of Iranian power.

Egypt’s megalomaniacal former president Gamal Abdel Nasser got more than 20,000 Egyptian soldiers killed in his ludicrous bid to overthrow Yemen’s monarchy in the mid 1960s. “In this terrain,” Patrick Seale wrote in The New Republic in 1963, “the slow-moving Nile Valley peasant has proved a poor match for the barefoot, elusive tribesmen armed only with rifle and jambiya--the vast, curved, razor-sharp dagger which every male Yemeni wears in his belt.” But that disastrous doesn’t register as a loss any more than the disastrous war against Israel in 1973—which Egypt claims to have won—registers as a loss.

Egypt's current ruler General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi wouldn’t care either way. He's basically a 21st century version of Nasser, minus the latter's regional popularity. Throngs of Arabs outside Egypt aren't clamoring to be annexed by Cairo as they did during the 1950s, but Sisi is nevertheless as puffed up and full of himself and eager to restore Egypt as the rooster of the Arab world regardless of what anyone else over there thinks about it. Pulling a Nasser and stomping the Shias of Yemen wasn't inevitable when he seized power from the Muslim Brotherhood last year, but it became almost inevitable when the Gulf region cried out for help against Iranian malfeasance on the peninsula.

The Saudis, meanwhile, are Iran's bitterest enemies in the Arab world, and they share a border with Yemen. Saudi citizens on their own side of the border have long been linked to Yemen in the same way Vancouver, British Columbia, is more linked to Seattle and Portland than to Quebec. Riyadh is simply not going to tolerate Iranian adventurism so close to home in a region that overlaps with its own territory. If Iran succeeds in Yemen—and it might—there's nothing stopping Tehran from backing a Shia insurgency against the Saudi crown and the fanatical Sunni Wahhabis.

So here we are with yet another Middle Eastern civil war that's sucking in regional powers. The United States can stay out of it. The United States is going to stay out of it. The United States is less involved in Yemen right now despite the internationalization of the conflict than when the country was kinda sorta “stable” before the Arab Spring blew through the place and knocked everything sideways.

You might think from Western media coverage of the region that the Israelis are the only ones concerned about Iran's expansionist foreign policy and its nuclear weapons program, but that's only because Arab governments make less public noise about it in public. Look at what Arab governments are doing, however. While the Israelis groan about it on television and in Congress, the Arabs are going to war.

 

 

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