Friday,24 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)
Friday,24 November, 2017
Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Ending in a quagmire?

When a war starts to go wrong, as happened in Vietnam for the US in the 1960s and is happening now for the Gulf states in Yemen, popular enthusiasm inevitably wanes, writes Bill Law

Al-Ahram Weekly

War as a shorthand for building national identity and securing political clout has proved a useful tool throughout history. There are many examples, but a couple of more recent ones spring to mind.

In 1982, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was facing a revolt within her own party. She was little more than a year away from an election that most pundits thought she would lose. Her decision to take Britain to war over the Falklands Islands against Argentina united the country behind her. She won the war and swept to a massive election victory in 1983 wrapped in the Union Jack flag.

When Canadian Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper won the elections for the first time in 2006, he was determined to stamp a new international image on his country. Canada, often seen as a minor but honest broker and the country most responsible for turning military force into peacekeeping operations worldwide, was now to be an aggressive warrior, standing foursquare behind the United States and Israel.

Harper sent Canadian soldiers to fight and die in Afghanistan. He spoke eloquently and often of their efforts to quell the Taliban while his government pumped out a steady diet of television advertisements glorifying war and warriors. But he did little to help returning veterans and their families — one reason, no doubt, for his crushing election defeat in 2015 at the hands of the current Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau.

The war in Yemen, now close to a year old, has provided a similar sort of political and identity-building function for Gulf governments that are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), already feeling challenged after the Arab Spring by a young population that is asking questions about who they are and what role they can and should fulfill in their societies.

When the GCC coalition led by Saudi Arabia’s Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman launched air strikes in Yemen in March 2015, the assumption was that the Houthi rebellion in the country would be quickly snuffed out.

It was a proud statement of intention both to young Gulf citizens and to the wider world: we are going to war decisively and on our own, not, as happened in the past, backing up wars America started. We are in control of our own destinies. We know who we are.

In this bellicose scenario, the young prince wanted to emerge as a strong and courageous Sunni warrior, smiting the Houthis and their backers in Shia Iran. He would strike a blow for the 70 per cent of Saudis who are under the age of 30 and beginning to show impatience with their parents’ acceptance of a social contract that for decades has stressed caution over action and quiescence over complaint. He would use war as a tool to help define a generation looking for change, and by defining them he would control them.

This script has not worked out, but popular support for the war remains high in the kingdom, as it does in the other GCC states. Only Oman has stood to the side.

The UAE has backed the war resolutely, even after dozens of its soldiers were killed when a Houthi rocket hit a weapons-storage depot in early September last year. By that point, it had already announced a new civic holiday, Martyrs Day. It has subsequently followed through on numerous plans for martyrs squares, parks, monuments and streets throughout the seven emirates that make up the country.

Conscription was introduced in 2014 and was enthusiastically embraced by young Emiratis. It was seen as a way to give something back to the nation, a responsibility that once accepted would help define national identity. Qatar, with its tiny indigenous population, which often feels overwhelmed by a sea of expatriates and migrant foreign workers, soon followed suit.

When the UAE casualties came home, many saw the sacrifice of the soldiers as spilling blood for the nation. As the Latin poet Horace wrote, “Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori” — It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.

But they have not seen the blood of the thousands of Yemenis who have died, and the destruction of schools, hospitals, roads, electricity and water desalination plants in one of the world’s poorest countries in quite the same light, perhaps because their media has chosen not to show these things.

To tie national identity to war, tempting as it may be, is to go down a dangerous road. When wars start to go badly wrong, as happened in Vietnam for the US in the 1960s and is happening now for the GCC states, popular enthusiasm inevitably wanes and questions begin to be asked of leaders.

In the Gulf, those questions will not be public ones. Dissent has already led to people being imprisoned and Al-Wasat, the only independent newspaper in Bahrain (indeed, in the entire region) was shut down for two days last year because it neglected to refer to Bahraini casualties as martyrs.

Of course, it is right and necessary that soldiers who die in war are acknowledged. But what of the people of Yemen? They have already paid a far too heavy price while others pursue political agendas and build national identities on the transient glories of war. That, too, should be acknowledged.


The writer is a Middle East analyst and specialist on Gulf affairs.

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