Spare a thought for Saudi Arabia’s long time Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal who must be asking himself what can go wrong next. As if the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) was not already posing a significant existential threat to the Kingdom, as of a few days ago a new challenge has emerged on its southern flank.
Saudi Arabia shares a 1,700 kilometre border with Yemen, a state that has staggered from crisis to crisis as the Arab Spring unfolded. Now, in a lightning strike every bit as astonishing as the ISIS seizure of the Iraqi city of Mosul, the capital Sanaa has fallen to Shia Houthi rebels who now patrol the streets and guard the parliament buildings.
The collapse of government forces in the capital is eerily reminiscent of what happened in Mosul, even if the outcome has been far less brutal and bloody. No beheadings of captured Sunni soldiers or implementation of the harshest tenets of Sharia law.
But the fact that the Houthis routed government troops with such apparent ease is a stark reminder of just how dramatically the game has changed for Saudi Arabia. What should be even more unsettling is the thought that Iran, which the Saudis believe has armed and encouraged the Houthi insurgency for more than a decade now has a proxy boot print on the peninsula that Saudi Arabia, notwithstanding the other Gulf states, has pretty much regarded as its own.
The Saudis got used to a Yemen that for decades has been in a near constant state of conflict, corruption and chaos. They had largely adopted a policy of containment and non-engagement watching disinterestedly while Yemenis suffered some of the worst governance and some of the highest levels of poverty and infant mortality in the region.
When the Arab Spring hit, Saudi Arabia was more concerned about helping crush a popular uprising in the Bahraini capital Manama then with anything that was happening in Yemen. They sent their soldiers down the causeway that links Bahrain to the Saudi mainland in March 2011.
Of course, the Saudis were not happy to see their long time Yemeni ally President Saleh forced out in 2012 but they accepted that he was no longer a credible leader. Once a suitable candidate emerged, the country would surely slip back to its usual state of near paralysis, with the Houthis penned up in the north, an insurgency in the south smouldering along and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) keeping a reasonably low profile.
No one had calculated that the Houthis would seize Sanaa. Just as no one in Iraq or anywhere else for that matter had foreseen Mosul falling.
What happens next may be the stuff of nightmares for Saud Al-Faisal and the rest of the Saudi ruling family.
To the south of their border, what the Saudis believe is an Iranian proxy is in control, barely, of the capital city of a country hurtling rapidly out of control.
To the north, the bloody jihadists of ISIS who, more than two weeks after airstrikes were launched against them, remain as menacing as ever.
ISIS regards the House of Saud as corrupt and unworthy guardians of Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Madinah. While they may not be able to launch a direct attack on Saudi territory, the kind of terrorist attacks the West is so afraid of are in fact as likely to happen in Riyadh or Jeddah as they are in London, New York or Paris.
That is because, as social media in Saudi Arabia (and elsewhere in the Gulf) has so clearly shown, there is strong support for ISIS and its call to establish a caliphate that would envelop the Arabian Peninsula.
That is perhaps unsurprising given that for decades the Saudi education system and the religious elite have inculcated the young with a unique degree of entitlement and intolerance not found in any other Islamic society. To their credit the vast majority of Saudi youth have risen above those limitations. But a small minority have not.
So it is not surprising that hundreds, or some argue thousands, of young Saudis are said to have already joined ISIS. Those who return will pose a significant terrorist threat to the Kingdom.
The Saudi leadership, just like its counterparts in Britain, the United States and Turkey, is loathed to put boots on the ground in the battle against the Islamic State. Thus far the Kingdom, along with the United Arab Emirates has joined the West in attacking the jihadists from the air. But, without ground troops, ISIS will not be defeated and the longer the airstrikes go on, the greater the internal domestic threat to Saudi Arabia.
It is hard to think of a time when the ruling family has been so beset. Indeed during the long tenure of Saud Al-Faisal – he has been in post since 1975 – no such period has arisen. Not even the Iranian revolution of 1979 or the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by religious fanatics the same year can compare to what the wily old foreign minister now faces – the old foe Iran with a proxy presence in a collapsing Yemen coupled with a jihadist campaign in Syria and Iraq that could readily spill over into Saudi Arabia.
A nightmare scenario indeed.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.