It’s easy to dismiss yet another outbreak of fighting in the Middle East – this time led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen – as more of the same; more fighting in a region of perennial turmoil. But that would be a mistake. This new war in Yemen, in which Saudi Arabia leads an alliance of 10 countries, is a big deal, with a potential to become even bigger.
The decision by Saudi Arabia and its allies, mostly Sunni Arabs, to take action represents a historic turning point for many reasons.
As soon as Saudi planes started bombing Yemen, oil prices spiked on global markets. The rise receded but it was telling. The future trajectory of oil will depend on how the fighting unfolds, among other factors. But there is no question that the conflict in Yemen has the potential to cause major disruptions in the global economy.
The economy is only one reason why what is happening in the Arabian Peninsula, 7,000 miles away from the United States, can impact practically every person on earth, including the West.
At the risk of oversimplifying, this is a confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites, between Arabs and Iranians. It is a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The original revolt in Yemen is complicated, but the international involvement is to a large degree about fear of Iran’s rising power.
Why should non-Muslims worry?
Where to begin? Yemen is small, but the sides are massive. Not only are Arab countries joining in, but also Turkey and Pakistan could become more deeply involved. Wars are unpredictable. They can end quickly and decisively; they can linger, or they can expand.
The stated aim of the coalition is to push the Iran-backed Houthi militias out of power and restore President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi. The fighting could end quickly, with a swift defeat of the Houthis and a decision by (Shia) Iran to retrench, rather than continue arming the rebels, who belong to a branch of Shiite Islam.
There is also the possibility that the battle will go on, that the Houthis will not give up, that Iran will keep boosting their position, or that it could expand. Saudi-Iran proxy fighting is not new, but the sides are coming closer to direct confrontation.
Making matters worse, Yemen is a stronghold of al-Qaida’s deadliest branch, and Islamic State, too, is trying to stake its ground there. The fighting in Yemen could intensify. And the chaos is a godsend to terrorist organizations.
Yemen is already a production line for Jihadi terrorists. The plots assembled there have reverberated across the globe. Anwar al-Awlaki, the militant imam who was a U.S. citizen and a Yemeni, used his position there to send terrorists to the West. He inspired Maj. Nidal Hasan, who killed more than a dozen U.S. soldiers at Fort Hood in 2009, and he recruited the so-called “underwear bomber” who tried to blow up an airliner flying from Amsterdam to Detroit.
When terrorists massacred Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris, al-Qaida in Yemen said that was their operation.
A chaotic Yemen spreads destruction around the world and scatters extreme Islamist ideology that knows no national borders.
The first tragedy is for the people of Yemen, caught in the crossfire, but the impact could expand vastly, just as the first airstrike on Wednesday evening U.S. time sent oil prices spiking.
It is a fortunate coincidence that global oil production had already climbed ahead of the crises. Oil prices had dropped because the United States is producing more oil than ever, even as Europe and China were undergoing a slowdown. That meant oil supplies climbed while demand was lower, sending prices plummeting.
Yemen stands at the mouth of the Red Sea, where oil tankers move more than 3 million barrels daily, and commercial traffic from Asia, India, and the Persian Gulf moves to the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean, Europe and the Americas.
Keep your world maps handy. Keep up with the news from this war. Everything is connected: the talks about Iran’s nuclear program, the price you pay for gas, the security checks at the airport. Yemen is much closer than it seems.
Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for the Miami Herald. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.