Egypt is hosting a weekend Arab summit at which regional leaders will discuss plans to form a joint military force against the backdrop of Saudi-led strikes on rebels in Yemen.
In a post-Arab Spring era of conflict and political turmoil in which jihadists have emerged as a serious threat, Yemen is serving as a test case of joint military intervention by regional players rather than led by Western powers.
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, alarmed by the chaos in neighbouring Libya and violence in its own Sinai Peninsula, has been advocating joint action against Islamists.
On the eve of the summit in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, fellow regional superpower Saudi Arabia forged an Arab military coalition to carry out air strikes this week on Iran-backed Shiite rebels in its neighbour Yemen.
Egypt itself has joined the coalition of more than 10 countries, deploying both its air force and navy, as Riyadh leads the predominantly Sunni Muslim 22-member Arab League in a bid to curb the growing regional influence of Shiite rival Tehran.
Yemen’s beleaguered President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi arrived in Sharm el-Sheikh on Friday, flying in from Saudi Arabia to be greeted by Sisi for the summit at which his country will take centre stage.
– Security clampdown –
The emir of Kuwait, the kings of Jordan and Bahrain, presidents of Tunisia and the Palestinian Authority, the speaker of Libya’s internationally recognised parliament and UN chief Ban Ki-moon are among other leaders expected to attend the Saturday-Sunday gathering.
The summit is being held under tight security, with extra police and army deployed on the streets of what is normally a tourist resort and with military aircraft patrolling its skies.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as in every Arab summit, also figures on the agenda, with the Islamic State jihadist group’s penetration in Iraq, Syria and Libya another high priority.
But the air strikes launched on Thursday against Huthi rebels in support of Yemen’s president have brought the formation of a joint Arab military force very much to the fore.
Arab foreign ministers, in preparatory meetings, already agreed Thursday on the force, in a draft resolution to be submitted to Arab leaders.
They “agreed on an important principle, to establish the force”, Arab League secretary general Nabil al-Arabi told a news conference.
“This is the first time that a force will be created and work under the name of Arab states,” he said, describing the move as “historic”.
The rapid response force envisaged by the Arab League will work to counter “terrorists”, Arabi told AFP in a recent interview.
The draft, seen by AFP, said the force would be carry out “rapid response operations” against threats to Arab states.
– Yemen timely test case –
Locked in combat with Islamists in the Sinai and having carried out air raids against IS in February to avenge the jihadists’ beheadings of Egyptian Coptic Christians, Cairo, with the largest army in the Arab world and one of its best equipped, has been the main driving force behind its creation.
The Yemen intervention represents a timely “test case for the planned Arab fast-reaction force”, said Mathieu Guidere, professor of Arab geopolitics at France’s University of Toulouse.
“This intervention will give an idea of the scope of the force,” he said, adding that countries such as Egypt and Jordan could later bolster it with artillery and special forces.
Its establishment, however, could run into differences between Arab League member states that slow down the process.
A Yemeni diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, cautioned that any such force must have “specific objectives, as well as a clear plan and programme”.
Oraib al-Rentawi, head of Al-Quds Centre for Political Studies, pointed out that the Saudi priority is “to confront Iran’s growing influence in the region” whereas Egypt and Jordan remain focused on combating Islamist radicals.
“For the moment, IS takes second place to the threat of the expansion of Shiite power in Yemen that could alter the balance of power in the region and its geopolitics,” Guidere said.
He said any Arab intervention in Libya, the scene of security mayhem and political chaos since its 2011 revolution, would depend on the outcome of events in Yemen.