President Trump’s upcoming summit with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abd Al-Aziz rounds out his meetings with the five most powerful friendly leaders in the region. The first four in Washington with the heads of state from Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Israel all produced common themes: the campaign against ISIS and terrorism, the challenge of Iran, the turmoil of collapsing states in Syria and Yemen. But in the immediate background is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process which the president has said is a top priority for his administration.
The strategic clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen masks multiple layers of conflict underneath that have deepened—and in some ways altered—the country’s fractures in local politics, society and security. The chaos has devastated Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries, and has the potential to burst beyond the nation’s borders and further destabilize an already troubled region. It also allows the likes of the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to thrive.
Looking at the maneuvers by Iran and the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen from afar, the battlefield looks a lot like a black-and-white contest for regional power. But as the U.S. considers escalating its role in the conflict—and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis visits Riyadh this week—it is essential to understand how local realities can get lost in a proxy war.