MESOP RESEARCH : The Formation Of A Sunni Arab Military Coalition — An Historic Shift In Facing Iranian Expansionism

By: Y. Carmon and Y. Yehoshua* – MEMRI report 1149 – 31 March 2015 – The Saudi-led joint Sunni Arab coalition that is fighting the Houthi in Yemen constitutes an historic shift in the Sunni pushback against Iran’s expansion in the region, as 10 countries — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, and Pakistan, with Turkish support — have formed a military-political coalition and launched Operation Decisive Storm that aims to restore the ousted Sunni regime in Yemen. This operation, that received immediate logistical and intelligence aid from the U.S., was termed by Arab media “an overall change in Arab politics” and a precedent in which “Arabs take their destiny into their own hands” and send a stern message to Iran and to the entire world.[1]

Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni countries consider the Houthi a proxy of Iran, which is endeavoring to occupy a fourth Arab country, after Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. The Houthi aspirations to take over all of Yemen, not just the northern region that they currently control, while at the same time threatening to take over Bab El-Mandeb, places Saudi Arabia and other countries such as Egypt and Sudan in grave strategic danger.

With its back to the wall, Saudi Arabia wisely formed an alliance of Sunni countries to transcend internal differences and act together against their common enemy — Iran. The building of this alliance, begun during the reign of Saudi King ‘Abdallah and continued by King Salman, required inter-Arab diplomatic efforts to reconcile between states hostile to each other, such as Qatar and Egypt, and to effect a rapprochement with pro-Iran Sunni countries, such as Sudan.

By forming this alliance, the Arab countries have proven that they remain a force to be reckoned with in the region, even in the wake of the nearly five years of political division and deterioration of security that followed the Arab Spring. As they face down the Houthi, the Sunni countries are sending a message to both Iran and the West that they are tired of Iran’s expansionism and will no longer allow it to threaten their interests.

Operation Decisive Storm is also an assurance that the Syria scenario — in which Sunnis’ failure to intervene produced an arena where its two main enemies, the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Islamic Republic of Iran, are fighting each other for regional hegemony —  would not recur. It has repositioned the Sunni states as a Sunni establishment alternative in the struggle against Iran, which so far has been waged almost exclusively by extremist Islamist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Now, as the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh writes in its editorial, “Tehran will think a thousand times before approaching another Arab country.” It added that this was because “for decades, there has been no joint Arab military action against a common enemy.”[2] In a similar vein, the Bahraini daily Akhbar Al-Khaleej stated: “This military surprise is a declaration by all the Arab countries of their determination, assertiveness, and absolute objection to the foreign plots to interfere in our affairs — particularly Iran’s provocative interference.”[3]

Implications For The U.S. And The West

In response to the formation of the Saudi-led Sunni coalition, the U.S. immediately showed its support, with logistical and intelligence assistance. Even before Operation Decisive Storm kicked off, the U.S. had supported Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s war against the Houthi, and had considered his presidency legitimate. However, at the same time, and to the displeasure of the Gulf states, it refrained from accusing Iran of supporting Houthi attacks, claiming that there was no proof.[4]

Operation Decisive Storm was a wakeup call for the U.S. and the Obama administration, signaling that there was still an active and dominant Sunni force that could mobilize the entire Arab and Muslim world, including Turkey and Pakistan, against Iranian expansionism, and that the Western view of the Arab world as hopelessly disintegrated and divided — and of Iran as the only player capable of acting as sheriff to stabilize the region — is wrong.

In assisting Decisive Storm, then, the U.S. has acted realistically, mobilizing to support the Sunnis much more than it ever has before. Prior to the U.S. announcement of support, the media in many Arab Sunni countries had been highly critical of U.S. foreign policy, calling it pro-Iranian.[5] Now, however, following its declaration of support, this criticism appears to have abated.

The Aims Of The Sunni Coalition: Defeat The Houthi, Achieve Limited Political Goals

The Saudis’ great strategic move has a realistic political goal: In addition to the effort to completely neutralize the Houthi military strength, by destroying their weapons caches, restricting flights, taking over ports, and so on, it also aims to achieve a political solution, to represent all Yemeni groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Houthi.

Efforts To Direct “Decisive Storm” Momentum To Promotion Of Additional Sunni Arab Goals

The March 28-29, 2015 session of the Arab League — an organization that has lost much of its clout since the onset of the Arab Spring —  retroactively approved the Sunni move against the Houthi, and also offered the organization a chance to bolster its strength to promote other Sunni Arab military measures. The Al-Madina editorial expressed hope that “the alliance that was in fact first formed to deal with Yemen must inescapably continue also in other places such as Syria and Libya.”[6]

Egyptian President ‘Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi, who has repeatedly called the security of the Gulf states a red line, used the momentum of Operation Decisive Storm — originally aimed at defending the Gulf states against Iran — to attempt to realign the Arab world along the lines of Arab nationalism and under Egyptian leadership. He concluded his speech at the Arab League session by repeating “Long live the Arab ummah” three times, as had Egyptian president and pan-Arab leader Gamal ‘Abd Al-Nasser.

Also expressed in the Gulf press was the hope that this resolute pinpoint Sunni move against Yemen’s Houthi could be expanded into joint Arab activity in other fields as well. The Bahraini daily Akhbar Al-Khaleej noted, “This could be the start of a new Arab way in decisively and determinedly dealing with all problems and crises threatening the Arabs and harming their security.” Likewise, Al-Riyadh stated that the Arab League “has been resurrected today as a breathing, speaking, acting body. It is as though it awaited someone to awaken it from its slumber — and along came ‘Decisive Storm’ to awaken Arabs to a different reality.” It went on to promise: “The coming days will reveal a new reality, in which the Arabs will impose their agenda on the forces of the West and on the way they are handling the Iranian nuclear dossier, peace in the Middle East, and the Syrian crisis.”[7]

However, it is doubtful whether this Sunni joining of forces — which has to date been used only to defend against Iran — could be expanded to encompass Al-Sisi’s other stated goals, among them amending the Arab League charter, establishing a joint Arab army, and reviving pan-Arab values. This is because aside from the Iranian issue, there has been significant and unresolved disagreement among the Arab countries on a number of issues in recent years, including the Palestinian problem and the fight against ISIS. 

*Y. Carmon is President and Founder of MEMRI; Y. Yehoshua is Director of Research at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), Akhbar Al-Khaleej (Bahrain), March 29, 2015.

[2] Al-Riyadh, March 29, 2015.

[3] Akhbar Al-Khaleej, March 20, 2015.

[4] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6007,
Arab Gulf Media Supports Sunni Military Campaign To Push Back Shi’ite Iranian Expansion: Syria Scenario Will Not Recur, March 26, 2015.

[5] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6003,
Arab Press Harshly Criticized Obama Administration For Allying With Iran, Turning Its Back On Arab Friends, Leading Region To Disaster, March 23, 2015.

[6] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia) March 30, 2015. The Qatari daily Al-Sharq also called for the coalition to intervene in Syria; March 30, 2015.

[7] Al-Riyadh, March 29, 2015