In the Yemeni conflict, what we see is a number of states behaving in a particular way whether that is Saudi Arabia, the GCC, or Iran and each state is positioning itself so that it can achieve some strategic or geo-political gain from the crisis in Yemen. This raises a key question which has been missed in the debate so far in Pakistan; to what extent are states rational and flexible to determine their own strategic decisions and foreign policy calculations? Is Saudi Arabia, the GCC and Iran able to make and determine their own strategic calculations and decisions that are consistent with their geo-political requirements or is it the case that these states are restricted in the level of flexibility they have resulting from existing structures and paradigms that squeeze them to behave and act in a particular way? These are some useful questions to answer to try to understand visibly the crisis in Yemen, as an answer to these questions will allow a comprehension of whether the states involved are rational actors making cold blooded strategic decisions or whether they exist in a strategic straightjacket in which their rational decision making processes and flexibilities are limited, resulting in irrational behaviour that makes no strategic sense or is of little strategic value to them.

In international relations, the debate between Agency and Structure is extensive, with some arguing that states possess Agency, meaning that states are the reality and they act as rational actors, making their own foreign policy decisions that would be in their strategic interests. So Agency would propose that states such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and the GCC involved in Yemen are rational actors and the decisions they are making, whether to air strike Yemen or to back the Houthi’s are rational moves based on their perception of the geo-political reality which they find themselves in. On the other hand, those who argue that states exist within a structure, somewhat eliminate or reduce the existence of Agency, with them arguing that states are not atomistic and do not exist in a vacuum but that they are tied into a structure, which is powerful and persuasive enough to determine the behaviour of states and what direction that they move in. This school would not look to Saudi Arabia, Iran and the GCC as being rational actors but that their behaviour in Yemen is being determined by existing structures that are pushing and persuading them to intervene in Yemen for strategic reasons that might not necessarily be in their own strategic interests or fall into their own geo-political calculations. Therefore Agency is somewhat removed and states loose rationality and flexibility, instead becoming irrational as their behaviour is determined by a predetermined structure.

This raises the question of who determines the structure and the framework of this structure? The answer to this is simple, the global power naturally has a great say in laying down the structure for its own interests, and in the world we live in, clearly the US is the global power which since 1945 has engineered a structure for its own global strategic and geo-political interests. It has been able to do this through the creation of global institutions such as the IMF, WB, UN, NATO, NAFTA and WTO, resulting in states being sucked into a global structure which inevitably serves the interest of the state that formalized it in the first place creating unequal wealth and power relationships. Subsequently, through this structure, the US has been able to spread its wings leaving its isolationism, develop strategic interests in all corners of the world, penetrating strategic decision making processes of states and having a critical say over how states behave and function, with states losing their rationality and becoming either client or orbit states. The former loses all thinking capacity, with it doing what it is told, with no comprehension of strategic positioning, vision or geo-political interests whereas the latter remains some autonomy in foreign policy decision making and sees its strategic interests to be consistent with the structure in which it exists, meaning that where US strategic interests are, this state will see its strategic interests to be same and will have no problem in orbiting US foreign policy. One could argue most Western states that lack the political muscle would fall into the orbit category unable to make assertive foreign policy decisions and instead prefer to orbit the US.

Now if we were to take this debate and look to Yemen to what extent has Saudi Arabia, The GCC and Iran been able to make their own strategic calculations and decisions? Have they gone into Yemen resulting from their own foreign policy decision making processes or can we look to structure in understanding their behaviour? Clearly Saudi Arabia and the GCC have a long history of being colonial units to global powers, whether that was Britain in the past, which controlled the foreign and defense policies of these states or the reality today where Britain has come to grips with its own colonial decline and its need to give to the US when its key strategic interests are at stake, meaning that Saudi Arabia and the GCC are sandwiched between Britain and the US, with both exerting great influence over their foreign policy decisions and calculations. This can be proven by how the Saudi Ambassador to the US, Adel al Jubeir confessed that Saudi Arabia sought permission from the US before it began its extensive airstrike campaign in Yemen, proving that Saudi Arabia is not able to exercise foreign policy muscle without the consent of the global power, reducing it to a client status, with it moving right or left depending on the strategic and geo-political interests of global powers. Iran is a more complex and confusing case, as it seems to the naked eye as to having foreign policy muscle and is able to strategize on its own with little influence from others. However, if one looks to Iran’s key foreign policy decisions over the last 30 years such as taking arms from the US during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), supporting the First Gulf War, helping in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq post 9/11, playing a key role in the politics of Iraq and sending its proxies into Syria to keep in place the Syrian regime, it seems that Iran’s foreign policy is not as independent as it may seem, as for a rational actor that is supposedly antagonistic to the US it has played a key role in allowing the US to militarize the Gulf and Afghanistan, resulting in the US sitting comfortably on the west and east of Iran. This makes no strategic sense at all; leading to the question is there any difference between Saudi Arabia, the GCC and Iran? An analytical look would say no, as Iran like the others has been instrumental in implanting US strategic objectives in the region. The recent nuclear agreement is a case in point with Iran in effect giving up its nuclear programme, so that it can be normalized into the region and play, an open role in key areas where US strategic interests are at stake such as in Syria and Yemen. It seems that the structural argument is more persuasive in understanding the behaviour of states in the Middle East, raising the question of how to break out of this structure? This inevitably requires states to think independently and to develop their own strategic visions, objectives and determinates. If not, states will continue to remain as clients which is a great injustice given the huge potential of many states like that of Pakistan, which also finds herself between a rocks and hard place unable to exert herself in the region.