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How Saudi Arabia (and friends) moved so fast to intervene in Yemen

WATCH: Vassy Kapelos reports on the second day of Saudi Arabian airstrikes aimed at Houthi rebel targets in Yemen.

The Saudi Arabia-led intervention in Yemen appeared as a swift reaction to a rapidly deteriorating situation, one the U.N. warned this week had put the country on the “edge of civil war.” But it’s quite likely the Saudis have been preparing for a confrontation with Shiite rebels, known as the Houthis, for a while.

Dr. Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said the Saudi’s have been “anxiously” watching the situation and the advance of the Houthis for months.

READ MORE: Turmoil in Yemen escalates as Saudi Arabia bombs rebels

“The Houthis started really expanding the territory under their control, and more generally being more openly ambitious, around September of last year [when they took control of the capital, Sanaa],” he said.
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“You would have to expect that at some point between September 2014 and [Wednesday], Saudi Arabia had been seriously working on and thinking about contingency plans,” he said.

The Saudi’s say the operation against the Houthis is to support the “legitimate” government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi — who fled the country on Wednesday.

Hours later, the Saudi government deployed 100 fighter jets to launch airstrikes against the Houthis.

READ MORE: Saudis ‘very pleased’ with U.S. help in Yemen air campaign

Saudi Arabia took on the Houthis once before, in 2009, and it didn’t go well for them. “It was fairly humiliating for Saudi Arabia,” said Juneau.

“Their air force was not competent. [They had] lousy targeting, lousy training. They were not ready at every level,” he explained. “We’ll see in the next few days how well they’ve been doing, just in terms of their performance.”

This time, they have been joined by jets and air support from nine other countries — mostly members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

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That includes Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Jordan Egypt, Morocco, Sudan and Pakistan. The U.S., an ally to both Saudi Arabia and to Hadi’s government, has offered intelligence and logistical support for the offensive.

“To some extent, Saudi Arabia wants the regional legitimacy that comes with building this broader coalition,” said Juneau. “All these actors oppose the Houthis.”

But, Juneau wonders how much weight those coalition members will actually be pulling to help Saudi Arabia out this time.

“They support Saudi Arabia in principle, of course they do,” he said. “But, how much are they actually going to do? I don’t think that much.”

Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt have also deployed warships and navy units to support the mission, known as Operation Decisive Storm. Meantime, 150,000 Saudi soldiers are prepared for a possible ground offensive against the Houthis.

The amount of coordination, that seemed to happen in an instant this week, would take weeks of debate in countries such as Canada and the U.S. But not in Saudi Arabia, said Dr. Abdelkerim Ousman, a professor of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Under an autocratic regime such as Saudi Arabia’s, he said, one person can call the shots. The Saudi government didn’t even have to appeal to the public to back the operation: it was announced by Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S., in Washington, D.C.

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READ MORE: What you need to know about the crisis in Yemen

Adding to that, Saudi Arabia has a lot of influence over its Sunni Muslim friends and neighbours, Ousman said.

“We’ve seen how the Saudi government had a lot of influence on Egypt because they basically told the military to take over power and designate the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists. And that’s what was what the Egyptian military [did].
“Sudan, it is a poor country and it is looking for money from everywhere. It seems they may have received money from Saudi Arabia and that’s why they are participating in [the] coalition.”

Whether or not the Saudis will quash the Houthi advance and restore Hadi’s government is yet to be seen. Juneau doesn’t think that’s likely to happen.

Hadi, who came to power after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising and the President Abi Abdullah Saleh was forced to step aside after 34 years, wasn’t that strong a leader to begin with, explained Juneau.

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“I think he is really weakened and isolated. He was always weak, he said. “He was never able to build his own power base.”

Add to that, Saleh and military forces still loyal to them are helping the Houthis, so you’re probably not going get any sort of consensus that would see Hadi running the country.

Is this a proxy war?

So what’s the point of all this? It has a lot to do with Saudi Arabia’s regional foe — Iran

Ousman said the Saudis aren’t really all that interested in the Houthis. “They want a confrontation with Iran. They’ve had a grudge against Iran for a very long time.”

And much of Saudi Arabia’s reaction to regional developments is viewed “through the prism of its rivalry with Iran,” Juneau added.

Iran has been widely accused of supporting the Houthis, even though the Iranian government denies this.

But contrary to some reports, Juneau said the Houthis are not Iran’s proxy in this regional rivalry and what support Iran offers the Shiite militia group is “unclear.”

“Iran does not control the Houthis, he said. “The Houthis act autonomously. If they can get support from Iran, then of course they’ll take it. There are some alignments of interest, notably their mutual hostility to Saudi Arabia.”

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