Here in Kuwait, as in the rest of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, there is a sense that the Middle East is changing. In the Gulf media, there seems to be a consensus in support of Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led military campaign launched to beat Houthi insurgents and reinstall Yemen's government under President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi. Almost everyone wants to see Iran and its allies, like the Houthis, cut to size, and almost everyone is excited to see Arab governments flex their military muscles. Even those who are questioning the campaign couch the debate not in terms of regional political doctrines like Arab nationalism or Islamism, but rather in terms of national sovereignty and constitutionality.
"Politically, [Operation Decisive Storm] might be the right thing to do," Kuwaiti law professor Ahmed Faily said in a recent debate at the newly founded Rai Institute. "But from the perspective of our constitution in Kuwait, it might not be covered.”
Faily’s interlocutor, Khaled al-Fdhala, explained that, "Article 68 of the Kuwaiti constitution restricts combat operations to defensive wars. Does that permit our fighter jets to launch airstrikes in Yemen?”
Faily said that defensive pacts with other Arab States justify Kuwait’s combat operations, arguing that Kuwait could go to war with Spain, a foreign aggressor, to help Morocco retake the islands of Septa and Malila. However, the professor said, Houthis are Yemenis, which makes their insurgency a domestic issue. Even a coup within Yemen cannot justify foreign intervention on behalf of the toppled government.
Another participant in the debate interrupted Faily: "The world and regional orders are changing, maybe it is time that we update the laws too. OIt feels like we are founding our nations a second time.”
In 1914, most Arabs opposed the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which broke the region into small states. In 2014, the Arabs are fighting to maintain Sykes-Picot, and prevent their states from breaking into even smaller statelets. A century after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Arabs still find themselves grappling with the same old questions about the meaning of the state, its sovereignty and citizenship. Still, it’s hard not to believe that the Arabs are finally entering political modernity. In a sense, they had no choice. With the world order crumbling and America's "light footprint" foreign policy under President Barack Obama, the Middle East was bound to change. For the first time in a century, seven Arab states are engaged in military combat, while four others suffer from civil war.
For the Arabs, their overriding concern is no longer the specter of Western colonialism, or what they’ve long perceived as the Zionist interloper. Rather, the threat comes from within the region itself, a very old neighbor who now threatens to overturn the regional order on behalf of revolutionary causes—the Islamic Republic of Iran.
After Iran’s disastrous eight-year war with Iraq, Tehran came to believe that non-state actors would prove a more effective tool to project influence. Iran's experiment with satellite militias started with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982, and has since been duplicated in Yemen with the Houthis. Even in countries with pro-Iran governments, like Syria and Iraq, Tehran has created paramilitary groups that have outperformed regular armies. Iran's success made some of its senior officials boast about its control of four Arab capitals. And because the Obama administration has been willing to accommodate an expansive Iran on the nuclear threshold, Arab states were compelled to act, and launched Operation Decisive Storm.
How the Arab war against Iran's Yemeni proxy goes will prove decisive for the Arab future. If the war goes in favor of the Arabs, they will win respect in world capitals—presumably even in Washington, where they are viewed as spoiled and unreliable allies. Should the Arabs succeed in projecting power, they will be invited to the table where the Middle East is being reshaped in light of America's decreasing involvement. Should the Arab war in Yemen prove successful, that will not only boost Arab self-confidence, but will also force Iran to reconsider its Arab adversaries, which they’ve heretofore seen only as pushovers.
That is why, in the Gulf, there is a feeling that the Middle East is at a turning point, and that the Arabs should step up and fight for their share, unlike in 1918 when things were decided for them.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Alrai (Kuwait) newspaper. He tweets @hahussain