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Saudi elites divided on Yemen war

A brief survey of Saudi opinion reveals that many elites consider Operation Decisive Storm a legitimate attempt to halt Iranian expansionism, while some view the intervention in Yemen as a sectarian war.
Saudi students prepare to fly a home-made replica of a jet fighter on April 8, 2015 in Tabuk. The plane was nicknamed "Decisive plane" as a sign of support to Saudi-led coalitions Operation Decisive Storm against the Huthi rebels in Yemen. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ALBUHAISI

        (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED ALBUHAISI/AFP/Getty Images)

Many factors make it difficult to assess Saudi public opinion on Operation Decisive Storm, the military operation in Yemen launched March 25. There are no professional polling organizations, and regardless, people sometimes shy away from expressing an opinion that goes against the prevailing outlook.

When it comes to elite opinions, other problems emerge due to the nature of the regime, which bans public political activity. There are no official political parties, movements or organizations in the kingdom. As a result, ideological currents form in a covert manner. There are no organized political assemblies. One way to gauge public thinking, however, is by reading the opinions of influential figures in the leading currents.

Awad al-Qarni, an Islamist close to the Muslim Brotherhood, expressed his support for the military intervention in Yemen March 25 on Twitter. Two days later, Qarni again offered his view in support of the operation in a statement on the Tawasoul website, arguing that it was a way to confront Iranian expansion in the region. Qarni also made several TV appearances, including on 4shbab and Alahwaz, touting the importance of the operation for the entire Muslim nation.

Sheikh Nasser al-Omar, who has ties to the Srouri current (established by Mohammad Srour following his return from Syria to Saudi Arabia in the 1960s and based on Salafist and Brotherhood ethics), stated his support for the military operation in Yemen through a videotaped statement posted on YouTube March 25. He compared it to the March 2011 intervention of the Peninsula Shield Force in Bahrain to put down the uprising against the monarchy there. He also argued that the Yemeni intervention was aimed at defending Sunnis.

Meanwhile, Abdallah al-Maliki, a researcher and writer close to the Islamic Enlightenment current, expressed his support for Operation Decisive Storm March 26 on Twitter. He stated: “The war led by the kingdom is fair and attempts to deter Iranian expansion in the region.” He wondered, “What are Arabs doing as another Arab capital falls into the hands of Iran — after Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut?”

Maliki went on, “It is true that the war is abominable and does not distinguish between the aggressor and the pacifist. But why are some still conflating those who instigated the war on purpose for their own imperial ambitions with those who entered it by necessity? You can criticize Saudi domestic and foreign policies all you want, but Operation Decisive Storm now comes as a necessary step to fix all the major mistakes that were made in the previous period.”

Journalist and writer Nawaf al-Qudaimi, also affiliated with the Islamic Enlightenment current, agrees with Maliki. “The intervention against the Houthi advancement in Yemen is long overdue,” he tweeted March 26, underlining that it would be difficult for the kingdom to put boots on the ground in Yemen. According to Qudaimi, the Houthis will only be defeated through land warfare waged by Yemenis and militarily supported by the Saudis providing airstrikes and arms for Yemeni tribes.

Salman al-Dossary, editor-in-chief of the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, widely viewed as liberal, blessed Operation Decisive Storm in the March 26 article, “An International Decisive Storm to Uproot Houthis.” Dossary reiterated Arab and international support for the Saudi intervention, viewing it as a response to Iranian expansion in Yemen through the Houthis. He also emphasized that Saudi Arabia is backing the legitimate Yemeni government. Mohammed al-Sheikh, affiliated with the liberal current close to the Saudi government, voiced his support for the operation in Yemen in an article published March 29 in al-Jazirah, putting it on par with the historical Battle of Dhi Qar between Arabs and Persians.

Journalist Ali al-Dafiri, associated with Arabism and the nationalistic current, published his thoughts in a March 29 article, “Painful but Essential Storm,” in the Qatari Al-Arab newspaper. He voiced his support for the operation in Yemen because it aimed at stopping Iranian expansion in an Arab region. He considered the operation a necessity and criticized people who were gleeful about it. Dafiri also objected to the sectarian framework in which the battle was being cast. He wrote, “People who think Operation Decisive Storm is directed against Shiites are completely mistaken. This is a strategic war to set the record straight and create balance. Shiites are part of this nation.” 

Sultan al-Amer, who is affiliated with the nationalistic current, wrote a March 31 article in Al-Hayat, “The Return of the Arab Country to the Nation.” To him, the military operation in Yemen is an indication of the Arab-territorial State's return to represent the Arab nation by halting Iranian expansion. Amer also placed the operation in the framework of sectarian confrontation. He wrote, “Operation Decisive Storm is an Arab reaction supported by the Arab summit, which underlined the importance of facing the main threats to the Arab nation. These threats include politicizing sectarian identities, attempting to impose domination and occupation and deployment of militia.”

Saad al-Faqih, a Saudi opposition member and the founder of the Islamic Reform Movement, is not opposed to the battle in principle. At the beginning of a March 26 program on the Al-Islah channel, he said that he is happy with any operation that targets Houthis, regardless of the perpetrator. He also took the opportunity to attack the kingdom’s politics in the region, in particular in Iraq and Egypt. He also criticized Saudi Arabia’s past policies toward Yemen, blaming them for the current Iranian expansion.

The position of another opposition member, Hamza al-Hassan, differs from Faqih's. Hassan rejects the military operation against the Houthis and claimed April 4 on Twitter that it lacks political and military vision and is doomed to defeat.

The above opinions do not represent all Saudi elites, but they are useful for assessing general opinion among them. The motives for supporting Operation Decisive Storm vary, with some considering it a sectarian battle to defend Sunnis and stop Iranian expansion, while others see it as a political war against Iranian influence to support the legitimacy and stability of the Yemeni state. A third group looks at this war from a nationalistic perspective as a way to restore respect to the Arab nation vis-a-vis Iranian-Safavid regional expansion.

It is hard to predict the fluctuating views on the war in the long run. A cursory glance, however, reveals that the majority of elites who currently support the intervention are not as enthusiastic about a future large-scale land operation. They generally advocate limited air intervention without getting involved in bloody battles on the ground, because it would result in unpredictable losses and an unknown conclusion.

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