Saudi-UAE interventions: Arms, aid and counter-revolution

Rafeef Ziadah

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The waves of uprisings in North Africa and West Asia over the past decade caught pundits and academics by surprise. According to these commentators the case for democratic change had been foreclosed long before, with an insistence on the ‘resilience of authoritarianism’ and the region’s ‘exceptionalism’ as regards global trends, including democratization. Much has been written since about the underlying causes, impact and trajectory of the uprisings. This work has largely focused on individual states. Yet one of the major outcomes of the uprisings has been the increased role of regional players in multiple states, working to stabilize the political system to their advantage. The uprisings, in both the so-called first and second waves, have held out much hope for change and articulated demands for social and economic justice. With that hope also came many setbacks, frustrations and all-out counter-revolutions; the role of regional actors has been central to these dynamics.

More specifically, a host of regional actors, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Turkey and Iran, rapidly intervened to secure their interests, undermine opponents and assert their power regionally. Instead of analysing the uprisings and their aftermath simply within individual states, a broader comparative analysis allows us to examine emerging actors and their mechanisms of intervention at a regional level. In the following analysis I focus on the interventions in Yemen and Libya after the uprisings of 2011. Although the uprisings in both states had different trajectories, a similar constellation of regional actors intervened militarily, financially and diplomatically to try to ensure the installation of leaderships favourable to them. With a focus on the UAE and Saudi Arabia, this contribution examines the various modes of intervention that were applied, including direct military campaigns, the use of proxies, financial aid and humanitarian packages – all working in tandem to shape a regional outcome that, unfortunately, has buttressed the status quo against the initial hopes of change offered by the uprisings.

Regional players

As the cascading uprisings took hold in several states, threatening individual leaders, established regional actors understood the threat, but they also saw the opportunity to intervene to shape the trajectory of the uprisings. In the wars that followed the uprisings in Syria and Libya, for example, various modes of military intervention were applied, including the provision of arms to support a range of different internal factions.

Within the array of international and regional actors vying for dominance, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who until recently have had the closest alignment on geopolitical questions, led or participated in a series of military campaigns (directly and indirectly) – most prominently in Yemen. They acted to maintain their control and to preserve the status quo, initially intervening within the Gulf Cooperation Council, supporting the regimes in Oman and Bahrain – in the latter case, deploying the Peninsula Shield Forces to back King Hamad in suppressing protests against his rule.

Often forgotten in accounts of these events is that the regime in Saudi Arabia also moved quickly to quash internal protests within its own borders, in the eastern region of Qatif and in smaller cities like al-Awamiyah and Hofuf. Organized by the Shia minority in the country, the protests were initially against the Peninsula Shield intervention in Bahrain, but they also spoke to internal grievances. In the UAE, too, internal protest arouse, though on a much smaller scale: in 2011 a group drafted a petition calling for reform of the Federal National Council, including a demand for universal suffrage. The response was increased surveillance and the arrest of reform activists.

Thus, at this time, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had begun to feel the cascading impact of the uprisings, and they could see how the uprisings, especially as they unfolded in Oman and Bahrain, were emboldening internal dissent within their own borders. Motivated by a broader rivalry with Iran for geopolitical dominance, and their desire to lessen the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood, they therefore sought to intervene in multiple ways to influence the trajectory of the uprisings.

The various military interventions conducted by Saudi Arabia and the UAE were backed by financial assistance, which had the aim of securing their foreign policy objectives, especially through aid packages to Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia.1

Understanding the violence and the scale of the post-uprising interventions by the Saudi-UAE alliance requires a broader analysis of the region, beyond individual states, especially in the light of escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia/the UAE, on the one hand, and Iran, on the other. It is clear that the UAE and Saudi Arabia took a multipronged approach, incorporating military campaigns and the alignment of foreign aid with the interests of private capital in these states. Saudi-UAE interventions also largely mirrored the methods – both military and in regard to discursive tools – of US intervention in the region, underscoring the historical relationship of the US as the patron of these regimes, but also the international connections of the arms industry, and the circulation of military equipment and techniques, and models of counter-insurgency.2,3 Such norms of counter-insurgency, which were applied by the Saudi-led coalition, have been most starkly evident in Yemen. The case of Yemen also highlights the multipronged approach to intervention, which involved both applying direct military force and making use of proxies, while at the same time providing aid to areas under coalition control and using aid as a means to influence political ends.

Controlling Yemen

In 2011 a popular uprising in Yemen forced Ali Abdullah Saleh to cede power after 33 years of rule. A Saudi-brokered deal was key in allowing Saleh to step down in return for immunity, to be replaced by his deputy, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. A National Dialogue Conference (NDC) was then initiated, with the aim of establishing a negotiated power arrangement between Yemen’s various stakeholders. Two years into discussion, the NDC had failed to reach a consensus and the idea it presented for a new federal map that partitioned Yemen into regions was rejected due to its shortcomings in accounting for the various economic conditions and long-standing grievances in the country. The Houthis, an armed group based in the north of the country that had been engaged in a long-running conflict with the Saleh regime, capitalized on the setbacks of the NDC. In September 2014, the Houthis moved to take over a number of army and security positions in Yemen’s capital Sana’a. Following the Houthis’ takeover of Sana’a in early 2015, President Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia. Under the pretext of supporting the democratic will of the Yemeni people, in 2015 a Saudi-led coalition then engaged in direct military action against the Houthi insurgency. Saudi Arabia maintained that the Houthis were supported by Iran. Indeed, the Saudi-UAE-led intervention in Yemen began when the Houthi rebels agreed to allow direct flights between Sana’a and Tehran, and when they gave Iran access to the port of Hodeidah, Yemen’s main port on the Red Sea.

The Saudi-led coalition was supported by, and received logistical and intelligence support from, the US, UK and France. The coalition argued that the military campaign in Yemen would be quick and decisive. However, after six years of military action, which has caused huge death and destruction and has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,4 the Saudi-led coalition has not achieved any of its stated goals. Instead, the Houthis have been forced to move closer to Iran and the Saudi coalition’s actions have left in their wake untold suffering and a fractured country, with multiple armed factions (which the coalition helped to create).

There have been numerous reports of widespread violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, including systematic attacks on civilian targets and the utilization of humanitarian aid for military purposes. Yemen has largely become a test case for direct Saudi-led military intervention, as well as a showcase for its stockpiles of arms, purchased largely from the US, UK and France. According to the Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute (SIPRI), ‘Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the 2nd and 4th largest arms importers during 2013–17 respectively’, with exports to Saudi Arabia rising by 225 per cent, and those to UAE by 51 per cent in this period.

The destruction of Yemen may have happened at the hands of the Saudi-led coalition, but it was enabled by two American administrations, which gave it the green light, as well as by the weapons industry in the US and Europe, which was eager to keep the lucrative trade with the Gulf states going. Indeed, while lip service was paid to the suffering of Yemeni civilians, the arms trade with members of the Saudi-led coalition never declined during this period. The Biden administration then began a review of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, including a $35 billion deal to sell Abu Dhabi F-35 fighter jets, but this may not have much to do with Yemen: more likely it reflects the US’s desire to maintain an overall balance of arms in the region that ensures that Israel continues to have the upper hand.

Although they were part of the same coalition, it is important to note that the UAE and Saudi strategies in Yemen were not identical. The appointment of Lt. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who was considered to be pro-Muslim Brotherhood, to the position of Vice President of Yemen triggered the UAE to change tack in the country. In the UAE’s view, his appointment risked empowering the Muslim Brotherhood and its local party Islah. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, continued to be mainly focused on the Houthis, and on reinstalling the Hadi government.

In addition to the coalition actions against the Houthis in Yemen, the UAE in particular also turned its fire on Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Saudi Arabia and the UAE had a division of labour which saw the UAE’s fighting against the Houthis concentrated in the southern and eastern governorates. The UAE also invested in training local security forces, such as the Security Belt Forces, and it funded and trained the Shabwani and Hadrami Elite Forces in the east, the Joint Forces in the west, and the Abu al-Abbas Fighters in the southwest. (The United Nations’ Yemen Panel of Experts’ 2020 report noted that the UAE had operational control of these groups).

When the UAE announced a draw-down of its forces in Yemen in 2019, it switched to a strategy of indirect control, strategically utilizing forces like the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which holds the southern port city of Aden, having pushed out Hadi’s forces in 2019.

In February 2020, five years after launching its military campaign as part of the Saudi-led coalition, the UAE officially withdrew from Yemen, although it continues to be formally part of the coalition and it maintains its influence on the ground. As a matter of fact, indirect engagement allows the UAE to distance itself from the bad publicity associated with the human rights abuses of the war, while guaranteeing the protection of its interests. According to the Riyadh Agreement between the Government of the Republic of Yemen and the UAE-backed STC, signed on 5 November 2019, the STC, with support from the UAE managed to gurantee inclusion in any new Yemeni government.

The Saudi-UAE military strategy in Yemen was largely geared towards securing the Bab Al Mandeb passage at the intersection of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. As part of this effort, the UAE’s military took control of Yemeni ports on the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, including Mukalla, Aden and Mokha – as well as the islands of Socotra and Mayun (the latter being located in a strategic location in the Bab Al Mandeb strait, thus being a very important asset for the UAE). These ports are along a primary maritime trade route between Asia and Europe and a major chokepoint in global shipping. Although the UAE is now technically drawing back from some of these locations, it has maintained proxies in various regions to guard its interests, and it is building military bases on the islands to maintain its control. In this regard, calls for Yemeni sovereignty have fallen on deaf ears.

With discussions of coalition draw-downs, and with US President Joe Biden announcing an end of US support for the intervention in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are now entrenching their control in strategic locations throughout the country. The Saudi regime has taken control of al-Mahrah, on the border with Oman, which gives it direct access to the Indian Ocean, an advantage it reportedly wants to use to build an oil pipeline from Saudi Arabia through this town. Moreover, Saudi troops are working with allied tribes to secure their control of Yemen through a network of bases.

The hopes of the protestors in Yemen, similarly to those in the rest of the region, were that they would at last be able to control their own fate, and hold free elections, and that the resources of the country would be shared equally for the benefit of the population. The Saudi-UAE alliance from the start worked to thwart these ambitions. First, by ensuring immunity for Saleh, their long-term ally, and then through their support for Hadi.ii In this context, it is worth remembering that Hadi’s policies in his short-lived interim administration entailed further neoliberalization of the Yemeni economy and privatization of its natural resources. Thus, there was no change in the overall trajectory for Yemenis – the identity of the figureheads changed but they continued to line their own pockets. The popular uprising in 2011 offered a real possibility and hope for political and economic change for all in Yemen but the military intervention has left the country fractured among various groups that are armed and funded externally. It is best to see the talk of draw-downs and an end to direct intervention as a redeployment that will ensure indirect control of the country and a limit on Iran’s influence. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE are now attempting to limit the damage to their reputations due to the war, they are at the same time vying to control strategic locations and embed their allies further in Yemen’s political structures. Their attempts at a ‘quick victory’ have certainly failed, but they aim to reap what benefits they can from new power-sharing arrangements.

Proxies in Libya

Much like the uprisings in the rest of the region, protestors in Libya took to the streets in opposition to extreme state repression and a stagnating economy. Emboldened by events in Tunisia and Egypt, protests were organized against the arrest of Benghazi-based Fathi Terbil, the lawyer pursuing the case of those killed in the regime’s infamous Abu Salim prison. As protests escalated, the regime responded violently, with the security forces firing directly at crowds, alongside a campaign of mass arrests. However, many cities in the eastern part of the country could no longer be controlled by the military, as military forces fled or changed sides. Stockpiles of weapons were left unattended and many of the residents seized them, taking up arms to protect themselves after Gaddafi’s declarations against what has been called the 17 February Revolution. The forces opposing Gaddafi locally formed the National Transitional Council (NTC) in February 2011.

With the militarization of the uprising by the regime and the fear that Gaddafi’s military forces would enter the cities that had defied him, there were calls for NATO involvement. A United Nations Security Council resolution was passed establishing a no-fly zone over Libya and the use of ‘all means necessary’ to protect civilians. The NATO mission was couched in the language of defending civilians and the ‘responsibility to protect’ principle; however, those Western states calling for intervention had themselves developed relationships with the Gaddafi regime in the preceding decade. His regime had become central to the US rendition programme, and he had arrangements with the EU regarding preventing migration through Libya.i As the EU turned against him, Gaddafi’s main card was his cynical promotion of the idea that without him migrants would ‘flood’ Europe. Despite the rhetoric, the NATO intervention had little to do with the regime’s human rights abuses: rather, upon seeing that the regime was weakened, the NATO powers perceived a chance for further geopolitical gains from an even more favourable regime than the somewhat unpredictable Gaddafi. Importantly, the intervention was pushed forwards by states like Qatar and the UAE, who participated alongside the NATO missions and manoeuvred to help secure the United Nations resolution for intervention. The Gaddafi regime was weakened by direct NATO intervention, especially by a bombing campaign against military installations and critical infrastructure, which led directly to its overthrow.

While the Libyan case is different in important ways from that of Yemen, there are consistencies in the destabilizing impact of regional actors. Emerging from the decades of Gaddafi’s rule, there was no single coherent political entity to hold power and the initial spaces of the uprising where the grassroots movement had put forwards progressive demands were quickly overtaken by stronger, militarized factions. With many smaller militias vying for power domestically, regional powers inserted themselves into the process in an attempt to thwart the revolutionary demands and ensure there would be no change in the overall power distribution on the regional level. Governance was fractured between two opposing sides, each backed by different regional actors: one side backed a grouping of militias following the CIA-affiliated General Haftar, under the banner of the Libyan National Army (LNA); the other supported the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli. The GNA was supported by the United Nations, Turkey and Qatar, while Haftar’s forces were supported by the UAE, Russia, France, and Egypt. Reports to the United Nations Security Council in September 2020 explained that eight countries had violated the arms embargo that had been imposed on Libya, and a United Nations Security Council report of 8 March 2021 deemed the 2011 arms embargo ‘totally ineffective’. The report documented the transfer of transport aircraft, drones, surface-to-air missiles and armoured vehicles by Russia, the UAE, Egypt and Turkey.

More recently, there have been moves towards reconciliation among the main Libyan factions, but the issue of foreign military groups and arms looms large. On 23 October 2020, the LNA and the GNA reached a ceasefire agreement which required that all foreign fighters leave Libya within three months. An interim unity government was formed, with elections to be held in 2021. Meanwhile, the UAE tried its best to arm Haftar to ensure he would have a strong position in any negotiations and future arrangements. While the UAE’s (and others’) hopes for an all-out Haftar victory have not materialized, he continues to control large parts of Libya’s territory.

It remains difficult to assess how power arrangements will proceed in Libya. Some internally displaced Libyans have started to go back to their homes, but the local economy has largely been destroyed. A significant strand of the talks among Libyan factions is about how the economy will be organized, and, importantly, how the sharing of oil revenue will be arranged. This is among the most contentious issues, and it also goes to the heart of why the uprisings occurred in the first place: protestors sought a more egalitarian sharing of resources and distribution among the population, rather than their benefiting small coteries around ruling elites. Unfortunately, a host of international and regional actors are guiding and influencing these new arrangements, rather than the majority of Libyans.

Aid as intervention

The Yemeni and Libyan cases were clear instances of military intervention, yet in conjunction with the military operations aid was central to the Saudi-UAE alliance, with both states emphasizing their humanitarian donations and promising aid packages to secure alliances. For example, while military attacks on Yemen escalated, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE continued to be the major providers of humanitarian assistance, managing aid to areas under their control while enforcing a blockade on Houthi-controlled territories. Direct military intervention went hand in hand with financial aid packages, infrastructure investments and humanitarian aid. In fact, a focus on conflict and destruction in much of the evaluations of the uprisings in Yemen and Libya has tended to obscure the spaces of construction and investment, which were as important in shaping geopolitical outcomes as military actions.

Well before the uprisings, states of the Gulf Cooperation Council had major investments in critical sectors across the region, including agriculture, banking and construction.i The UAE, for example, has actively aligned its foreign aid with investment policies that help UAE domestic capital groups to enter regional markets, especially in the real-estate, agriculture and infrastructure sectors. As far back as 2008, the government established the UAE Office for the Coordination of Foreign Aid (OCFA) as an umbrella for UAE-based charities and organizations, largely drawing upon expertise from United Nations agencies and populated by international staff. The majority of UAE overseas assistance is earmarked for development rather than humanitarian aid, the bulk of which is in bilateral assistance to governments, including in-kind donations of commodities such as gas and oil. According to the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, ‘UAE foreign assistance will seek opportunities to work with the private sector, in particular, UAE-based companies, and to encourage them to trade with and invest in developing nations’.

The case of UAE aid to Egypt offers one example of the use of aid to try to shape and manage political outcomes after the uprisings, and to stabilize investment spaces. The election of the Muslim Brotherhood stalled UAE aid to Egypt (with Qatar assuming the role of main donor): both Saudi Arabia and the UAE feared the Brotherhood’s overtures to Iran and its prominent role in Turkey. The coup against the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi brought former military general, and now president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power. This was a clear reorientation of allegiance from Qatar to the Saudi-UAE alliance. Aid injections by the UAE and Saudi Arabia have since propped up the Sisi regime. In conjunction with this aid, the UAE has moved to open up the space for private sector investments in Egypt, creating an Egypt-UAE taskforce and commissioning a private consulting firm to develop a plan for attracting private investment to Egypt. In 2014, the taskforce asked none other than Tony Blair to assist with advising Sisi on economic reform. This led to a donors’ conference in 2014, sponsored by the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Part of the conference recommendations was to secure better investment conditions, including by making changes to Egypt’s investment law. This demonstrates how official aid has worked in tandem with the investment interests of the private sector in these Gulf countries.

Securing trade routes

We tend to think of the uprisings in the context of states, revolutions and counter-revolutions, and changes in leadership. However, it is also useful to consider the importance of the region to global trade in oil and commodities on the Asia/Europe route, and to look at the ways in which actors are vying to secure trade routes from the Indian Ocean through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal. This is most strikingly clear in the case of Yemen, with its strategic location and potential for any group controlling the country to block one of the most militarized trade routes in the world.8 Over the past decade there has been a rush to build mega ports across the Arabian Peninsula, with multiple Gulf Cooperation Council states aiming to move trade into their territories directly, away from the regionally dominant Dubai-based Jebel Ali. In addition, along with maintaining a strong foothold in key Yemeni islands, the UAE has also been developing a growing network of commercial ports across the Horn of Africa, which are frequently attached to provisions for military and police training and/or military bases. From the long-term concession at the Sokhna Port at the southern entrance to the Suez Canal, to the investment in Berbera Port in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, an important story emerges. In Somaliland, Dubai Ports World, a Dubai-based conglomerate and international port operator, signed a 30-year concession in May 2016 for the port of Berbera, which includes the construction of a logistics park and a free trade zone. In 2018, the UAE announced it was also building a military base adjacent to the Dubai Ports World facilities there. Moreover, the UAE military has a 30-year concession agreement for the Eritrean deep-water port of Assab. Not only are such ports important for commercial trade, they are also central to war-making. The Assab port was crucial to UAE’s role in Yemen, being used as a springboard for its operations there. Troops were deployed from Assab to Aden, including Sudanese and Eritrean men contracted by the UAE military.

The control of this vital trade route connecting Europe and Asia has lasting implications. Regional powers are vying to block off future competition, while at the same time facilitating integration with China’s proposed One Belt One Road network. By looking at these trade routes we can get a sense of how broader regional economic and military power is being constructed. The dominant mainstream developmental vision is not simply about single states: it involves linking infrastructure developments, aid and militarism in order to control the area from the Gulf and the Horn of Africa to the Suez Canal, so as to enable actors like the UAE, for example, to significantly control and impact the circulation of goods in coastal areas, including Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Somaliland.

The arms trade and local weapons industries

In addition to making major arms purchases and circumventing arms embargoes, since the mid-1990s the UAE has been developing a national arms industry, in cooperation with foreign companies. UAE manufactured arms are exported to allies thus contributing to the militarization of the region. Over the past decade, the UAE has made significant progress in its local production efforts, focusing on the production of armoured vehicles, ships and drones. In 2019, the UAE consolidated its defence industries under the banner EDGE, a holding company which absorbed its predecessors Emirates Defence Industries (EDIC), Emirates Advanced Investments Group (EAIG), Tawazun Holding and a host of smaller companies. Its five major areas of operation are platforms and systems, missiles and weapons, cyber defence, electronic warfare and intelligence, and mission support. In 2020, EDGE was ranked among the top 25 arms manufacturers internationally. According to Pieter Wezeman, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Programme: ‘EDGE is a good illustration of how the combination of high national demand for military products and services with a desire to become less dependent on foreign suppliers is driving the growth of arms companies in the Middle East.’ This localized arms industry has, and will continue to have, an impact on the trajectory of ongoing conflicts in the region.

This development must also be seen in the light of the normalization deals with, and overtures made towards, Israel, which represent an important regional shift that is taking place due to the intensification of the circulation of weapons and surveillance technologies. The UAE’s deal to normalize relations with Israel, dubbed the Abraham Accords, was certainly not the start of relations between the two states, but it will intensify them and make them more overt. Prior to the deal, in 2018, media reported on a lawsuit filed in Israel and Cyprus against Israeli spyware company NSO, for selling the Pegasus program to the UAE. At that time the UAE used the program to record smartphone conversations of UAE dissidents, and also of Qatari and Saudi royals. The UAE had already made purchases from private Israeli firms (based outside Israel) for surveillance equipment: for example, the Falcon Eye system, which integrates facial recognition technology and biometric software scans of individual faces for analysis and identification. The system receives a live feed from visual surveillance equipment controlling the road network. The company behind Falcon Eye is Switzerland-based Asia Global Technology (AGT), owned by former Israeli intelligence agent Mati Kochavi. Thus, even though, technically, connections between the UAE and Israel were banned at this time (before the formal normalization agreement), deals were nevertheless made under the radar. With the new agreement, they are due to increase. This normalization makes the repressive apparatus of the Israeli state more accessible. (It is important to note that the technology that the UAE is buying from Israel is first tested on Palestinians before being marketed to the UAE – which in turn expands its use in the rest of the region.)

While not as advanced as the UAE in terms of developing its local arms manufacturing, Saudi Arabia is clearly looking to reduce its dependence on international arms. In 2021 it was announced that Saudi Arabia will invest $20 billion in its local arms industry in the coming years, with the target of 50 per cent of arms purchases coming from local sources by 2030. Moving in this direction, Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI) signed an in February 2021 setting up a joint venture with US firm Lockheed Martin to enhance Saudi Arabia’s defence manufacturing capabilities. SAMI is owned by the Saudi state’s Public Investment Fund and will own 51 per cent of the venture. So, despite the Biden administration’s freezing of some arms sales to Saudi Arabia due to the war in Yemen, overall military build-up and corporate collaborations are ongoing.

This trend of military build-up fits neatly with the use of proxies by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Such locally manufactured arms fuel further conflict as these arms are gifted to proxies and/or allies across the region and beyond. Embargoes imposed in situations like Libya, and international treaties around the circulation of arms, can also be circumvented through the local control of production. Needless to say, the billions spent on weapons purchases and on the production of this local arms industry could be put to better use in a region that is marked by widespread poverty.

Future trajectories and reconstruction agendas

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have pursued an aggressive foreign policy to further their interests in North Africa, West Asia and the Horn of Africa, while at the same time repressively restricting internal dissent. In the coming years they aim to influence the reconstruction agendas in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq, after the massive destructive toll of the wars in those countries. Although not always in complete alignment, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are gearing up to intervene to shape these reconstruction agendas and to gain both political and economic influence in these states. This will involve targeted aid packages, infrastructure projects and encouraging privatization and the involvement of UAE- and Saudi-based conglomerates in these countries’ economies.

In the 1960 and 70s, the left in the region contended that one of the pillars of continued US dominance were the reactionary regimes in the Arabian Peninsula. The role these regimes have played in suppressing left movements and crushing uprisings is not new. However, the importance of their capital has grown as the region’s political economy has shifted towards open markets. Their military power has likewise increased, with arms purchases and with the integration of generals from Western armies in high-ranking positions advising on military operations. At the same time, the use of proxies funded and armed to do the bidding of these states is becoming a dominant feature of their interventions, whether in Yemen or Libya. Nevertheless, their dominance is not a foregone conclusion. It remains difficult for the Saudi-UAE alliance, which has its own internal differences, to control territories, even through proxies. Indeed, just as the picture was beginning to look bleak for the various uprisings and when it seemed like coercion had succeeded, another spark of hope has emerged, in a new wave of protests. Because the status quo has not changed, and because the initial grievances of the protestors remain unaddressed, it will be difficult for any alliance, regional or international, to keep control of the region, though in trying they will continue to cause untold destruction and suffering.


Rafeef Ziadah is a Lecturer in Politics and Public Policy in the Department of International Development, King’s College London.  Her research interests are broadly concerned with the political economy of transport infrastructures, war and humanitarianism, racism and the security state, with a particular focus on the Middle East.


Copy-edited by Ashley Inglis

Illustrations by Fourate Chahal El Rekaby

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2 Khalili, L. (2012) Time in the Shadows. Stanford University Press.

3 Stavrianakis, A. (2019) ‘Controlling weapons circulation in a postcolonial militarised world’, Review of International Studies 45(1): 57–76.

4 The toll of the war in Yemen has been devastating. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented more than 20,000 civilians killed and injured by the fighting since March 2015. United Nations agencies and NGOs report that 3.65 million people were forced from their homes since 2015 and 24.1 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance to survive. Infrastructure has been destroyed and human rights violations have been extensively recorded.

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8 Jones, T. (2012) ‘America, oil, and war in the Middle East’, The Journal of American History 99(1): 208–218.