New Saudi-UAE Pact Backed by US Launches Hudaydah Offensive

Two oil-rich Gulf Arab rulers, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, quietly made history on June 6, when they forged a new pact in Jeddah, cheered on by the Trump administration. The first practical outcome of their new pact, dubbed the Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council, came about on June 13 when they launched a major offensive to wrest the important Yemen port of Hudaydah from Houthi rebels. Their new pact has broad ramifications which transcend the Yemen war. In a trice, it reduced the traditional Gulf Cooperation Council in a (GCC) to insignificance. .

The GCC was established 37 years ago as an instrument for Saudi Arabia, and later the United Arab Emirates, to control fellow-Gulf states, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar and keep them on the same page for Middle East and Gulf policies. External governments, including US administrations, found the GCC useful for advancing their regional and military interests in the region, especially as a barrier for curbing the spread of Shiite Iran’s influence.

Things began changing when President Barack Obama turned to nuclear negotiations with Tehran (2011). Their culmination in the 2015 accord and US-Iranian detente, raised strong opposition in most Arab Gulf capitals, excepting only Oman and Qatar. But internal disputes were also forming cracks in the GCC and disrupting its effectiveness. When Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar got involved in the civil conflicts of Syria and Libya, they backed different rival militias at war with each other. Then in 2015, the Saudis and the UAE joined forces to fight the Houthi insurgency backed by Iran in Yemen. Their feud with Qatar widened the cracks in the organization into a major fracture, virtually undermining its cohesiveness.

The GCC was damaged beyond repair by the final blow delivered by US President Donald Trump three months ago, when he threw in the sponge for the US to broker a reconciliation as hopeless and wasted effort. The two young crown princes found the US president favoring their side of the dispute rather than the Qatari ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani bin Zayed. By this step, Trump generated a new center of gravity for the Gulf region, dominated by the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE The GCC was rendered devoid of significance.

The operation for the capture of the key Yemeni Red Sea port of Hudaydah presents the Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council with its first test. It was launched on Wednesday with a large-scale Saudi-UAE ground assault, supported by air and naval cover. US input comes in the form of intelligence and refueling facilities for their warplanes. This battle is crucial in the sense that it is the first Saudi-UAE attempt to conquer an important Arab town (of half a million inhabitants) from an Iranian-backed army. The challenge may be compared in this sense to the critical 2016 battle for Aleppo. The Russian-Syrian-Iranian victory there turned the tide of the Syrian war in favor of Bashar Assad. A Saudi-UAE success in capturing Hudaydah with US backing would likewise tip the scales of the Yemen war against the Houthis and inflict a major setback to Iran’s designs in the Gulf.

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