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Yemen crisis tops Arab League agenda in Sharm El-Sheikh

The Arab Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh will support the choices that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have taken to launch strikes against Yemeni rebels

Dina Ezzat , Friday 27 Mar 2015
Arab League
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby, left, and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri speak during a press conference following an Arab foreign ministers meeting ahead of a weekend summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, South Sinai, Egypt, Thursday, March 26, 2015 (Photo: AP)
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From Riyadh where he has recently taken refuge while predominantly Gulf-sponsored jet fighters bombard his political-military adversaries back home, Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is likely to fly to Sharm El-Sheikh to head his country’s delegation at the opening of the Arab summit on Saturday.

“We cannot say that the plans are final yet but this is the most likely scenario; it makes sense to have him at the seat of his country at the opening of the Arab summit because this would send a clear message on where the Arab countries stand…almost collectively on the matter,” said an Egyptian diplomatic source.

According to this source, a recent phone call “at a very high level” between Egyptian officials and Saudi and Yemeni counterparts indicated Egyptian readiness to provide full security for a short visit by the contested Yemeni president, whose country has fallen to the sword of his enemy.

This was before the Gulf countries, with Saudi Arabia at the helm, called on close allies in the Arab and Muslim world to come together for what promises to be no small war to regain Yemen from the control of the Houthi rebels who have taken over much of the country and who are supported by Saudi’s regional adversary, Iran.

The participation of Hadi is not that consequential in any event, according to Arab League sources who spoke to Ahram Online, to the resolutions on Yemen that will be adopted by the Arab summit, as its annual gathering comes to a close on Sunday.

At any event, say sources at the 70-year-old organisation, the Arab summit, upon the wish of the Arab Gulf states and despite the isolated protests of countries like Algeria and Iraq, will adopt a resolution to support the Saudi air strikes targeting Houthi bases in Yemen since the crack of the dawn of Thursday, prior to the convocation of the Arab foreign ministers meeting.

“There are no two ways about it, the war started and the Saudis, despite the appeal of close allies including Egypt and the UAE, declined to wait pending the adoption of an Arab League resolution, much less a UN Security Council resolution, and would not go back before they have Hadi Rabou re-instated,” said one of the Arab League sources.

'Impatient Saudis" 

If the ground operations had not started already as the summit concludes – something that several sources were not willing to completely rule out by the evening of Thursday – then the summit will give a green light to ground troops to start moving into Yemen.

Egypt has announced its political and military support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen and said it would provide ground troops if necessary.

“Obviously this is a complicated scenario given the fact that Yemen is not easy terrain and that the Houthis are there on their own but with the direct presence of elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and also with elements of other Iran-supported organisaitons; it is about guerrilla warfare and this is not the kind of thing that most Arab armies have experience with,” said an Egyptian official.

He added that “the hope is to avoid the ground operation by convincing the Saudis to exhaust the air strikes first rather than to rush to a ground operation, especially in the absence of a clear UN mandate which makes the intervention trick from the point of view of international law.”

This said, sources in the corridors of the Sharm El-Sheikh ministerial meeting venue told Ahram Online that the impression was that the Saudis are simply impatient.

“It is a big challenge for the Saudis to see the Shias of Yemen who are directly and openly supported by Iran taking over a country that is considered the immediate backyard of the Saudi kingdom,” said one Arab diplomat who is taking part in the meeting.

He added that the Saudi tolerance is “below zero” when it comes to listening to views suggesting that the airstrikes should not be extended for long and the UN-sponsored dialogue should be promptly resumed.

According to this and other sources the Saudis know that at the end of the day a negotiated deal would have to be incorporated with whatever military achievement may be granted but they insist that at least a semblance of military victory for the political camp supported by Riyadh has to be first achieved.

West opposition 

In the assessment of the apprehensive Arab capitals, a military success in Yemen is not an easy objective to secure, given that the West is by and large opposed to this war and could actually reach a point to exercise pressure to have it stopped.

These capitals have been suggesting to Cairo, who is to take the rotated seat of the Arab summit chair starting Saturday, that given the keen interest of the West to reach a deal with Tehran on its nuclear programme, it is unlikely that either Washington or Brussels would want to divert attention away from their talks with the Iranians at this point.

A Washington-based Arab source told Ahram Online on Thursday evening that US officials have been sharing with the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia and the UAE concern over the potentials of the military attacks. The US is concerned over "the lack of vision in the operation" despite the reported participation of American jet fighters in the strikes. 

“I cannot exactly say that they asked for the operations to be stopped - no, at least not yet,” she said.

But Russia has been making it clear that it wants the war stopped and it informed several Arab capitals that they need to try to encourage the Saudis to give the diplomatic means a new chance.

Whatever the fate of the military operation in Yemen and its length, the political repercussion is clear: the Sunni-Shia confrontation in the Arab world/Middle East is taking a much higher profile.

“The Saudis are openly talking about the Shia invasion of the Arab world and they insist what they are doing in Yemen is to stop this invasion,” said one North Africa Arab diplomat.

He argued that this has been for the last few years a key Saudi concern: “It was there when the Saudis gave a green-light through Egypt to the Israeli attacks on Hezbollah in 2006 and later on the Iran-supported Hamas in 2008-2009” – although unlike Hezbollah, Hamas is a Sunni movement.

According to Egyptian and American diplomats who were in office at the time, the Saudi wish for the elimination of Hezbollah as conveyed by then Foreign minister of Egypt, Ahmed Aboul Gheit,  could not have been more explicit.

“It was also there when the Saudis used every trick in the book of intelligence and diplomacy to remove the clearly Shia-biased Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki last year and it is there in the Saudi perception of the ruling Assad regime in Syria as a non-Sunni rule,” the same diplomat added.

The direct support and participation offered by Pakistan and the verbal support offered by Turkey for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen only accentuated the Sunni versus Shia mood.

This week’s war in-on Yemen brought back to the older Arab diplomats, mostly retired, the disturbing ghosts of the Egyptian military intervention in Yemen in the early 1960s – then against the Saudi scheme there.

“Back then it was not just the ethnic element but also the fact that the Saudis did not want the traditional norms of rule challenged,” said a retired Egyptian diplomat.

Today, he added, it is more the ethnic concern that is directing the Saudi choices. “I think that they feel comfortable with the end of the Arab Spring which  offered a serious challenge to traditional norms of rule but they are very worried about Shia influence and for good reason – Iran has no small military influence in several Arab countries and it is now getting ready to come out from the diplomatic cold with a deal that is being negotiated with the West over the Iranian nuclear programme,” he argued.

According to Arab League sources, delegates in Sharm El-Sheikh are already negotiating a firmly worded resolution on Iranian intervention in Arab affairs.

Turkey’s participation as an observer in the Arab League annual summit was rejected by Egypt, as the chair and host of this summit, given Cairo’s dismay at what it qualifies as direct Turkish intervention – in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood – in Egyptian political affairs.

Israel, the third non-Arab regional player, will only receive what is by now a very much déjà vu resolution that criticises its lack of commitment to the two-state solution.

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