This past week has been an eventful one. From Eastern Europe to the Arabian Peninsula, the flames of instability are being stoked with a new fervor. In Saudi Arabia, the passing of King Abdullah comes at a time of social unrest in the Kingdom, international concern about oil output, and a potentially explosive situation to the south in Yemen. The new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has decisions to make that are going to reshape the path that the Kingdom is on.
Sergei Prokofiev International Airport in Donetsk is firmly under rebel control. The Ukrainian forces defending the airport’s main terminal building were overrun by a renewed rebel effort earlier this week. The Ukrainian government claims that its forces still control portions of the airport grounds, but that statement has not yet been confirmed. The battle for the airport lasted months. Fighting was fierce and the once modern airport has been reduced to a shell of its former self by months of combat. The spirited Ukrainian defenders had captured the imagination of citizens, repelling dozens of attacks by Russian backed separatist rebels. Control of the airport became a symbol of the Ukraine’s resolve. Now, with it back in rebel hands, it is becoming a symbol of a resurgent rebel offensive.
In the midst of winter, the resupplied and invigorated pro-Russian separatists are launching new offensives on six fronts across the eastern Ukraine. Fighting has broken out from Luhansk to Donetsk and all the way south to Mariupol. On Saturday morning, rocket fire reportedly killed 15-20 civilians in Mariupol. For weeks, Kiev has warned about the presence of large numbers of Russian troops and equipment pouring into the country. Moscow denied that Russian forces are involved in the fighting. While this statement might be technically true, it’s apparent that the separatist groups have been rearmed to the point where they are capable of undertaking offensive operations once more.
The recent turn of events in Yemen are a significant concern for the US. The nation is unstable The resignation of President Abdu Rabbuh Mansour Hadi is a major setback to US operations against Al Qaeda in the region. Hadi was a faithful supporter and partner of the US. Without him in power, the future of US drone-strikes and counter terror efforts are in question. There was no successor to Hadi’s government waiting in the wings. The Houthi rebels have not come through with replacement members yet. In fact, the extent of Houthi control and influence is already being put to the test. Thousands are marching in Saana in protest against the Houthi as the rebels work to consolidate their gains. If Yemen’s people decide not to accept the Houthi’s de facto control of their government, the current instability could lead to a power vacuum.
Right now, Yemen is leaderless and without direction. The Houthi power grab is not yet etched in stone. Iran is the major supporter of the Houthi’s and the Islamic Republic has been keen to find ways to extend its influence on the Arabian Peninsula. The US can ill afford to allow Iran a free hand in the region, especially now with a change in leadership underway in Saudi Arabia. Decisions have to be made in Washington regarding how to best deal with the chaos in Yemen and avoid potential spillover into Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.
As mentioned above, Saudi Arabia is undergoing a change in leadership. King Salman is a highly respected member of the royal family. In many ways he is cut from the same cloth as his predecessor King Abdullah. Salman is pragmatic and a prudent reformer. He is taking power at a time when the Kingdom facing social challenges at home. Two thirds of the population is under the age of 30. 1.9 million Saudis are going to enter the workforce in the next decade and the nation’s limited economy is ill prepared to accept them. Unemployment is already high and will only increase unless the problem is addressed. Saudi Arabia has been under close scrutiny for its human rights record. Specifically, the case of the blogger who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes essentially for running a website that is dedicated to freedom of speech has garnered much attention.
Internationally, the Kingdom is facing tests as well. Yemen’s political strife opens the possibility of an unhinged nation-state on its southern border. Iranian influence on the Arabian Peninsula is tied in here. The Saudis are wary of any Iranian inroads on the peninsula and have to make it a priority to shut down any potential openings for Iran to exploit.
There are concerns about Salman’s health. Many reports have come out regarding the 79 year old monarch’s health condition. Saudi Arabia’s media is under tight state control, so the reports can not be confirmed. Reports that Salman had suffered a stroke are well known, as well as some lesser known ones that he suffers from dementia. Again, there has been no way to confirm or refute these claims.
What is definite is the fact that the Arab World is facing its largest crisis in decades and a strong, stable Saudi Arabia is necessary to keep a foreign enemy from exploiting the situation.
And by ‘foreign enemy’ I am referring to Iran.