Is Saudi Arabia’s Assault on Yemen Just About Curtailing Iran’s influence?

According to Saudi foreign policy commentator Khalid al-Khalil, “having another Lebanon, another Hizbollah, is out of the question for us. We will not allow it happen no matter the cost.” He was referring to Yemen’s Ansar Allah, also known as the “Houthis.” These mostly Zaydi-Shi‘a rebels, since the 1980s, have protested what they perceive as discrimination against the Zaydis, the economic and political marginalization of Sa‘dah province (from which their leaders hail), and foreign influence on Yemeni policy.

Since September 2014, the Houthis have managed to hold sway over the capital San‘a and other parts of Yemen. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia began its offensive against them in part to roll back what Riyadh perceives as the extension of Iranian influence near its borders. Saudi Arabia’s paranoia concerning Iran is certainly real but makes its actions in the political realm all the more dangerous. Saudi Arabia’s claim that it has chosen Yemen as the “port of entry” for containing the perceived Iranian threat in the region has had much domestic appeal.

Its third war in Yemen cannot be seen in isolation from what Ghaith Abdul-Ahad has called Saudi Arabia’s “quixotic sectarian war against Iran.” In addition to disputing the strength of ties between the Houthis and Iran, several Western countries and above all the United States have expressed concern about the Saudi-led offensive’s destructive aftermath and the empowerment of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Despite these considerations, the West supports the Saudi effort. In the press, meanwhile, few analysts have challenged the idea that Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting a proxy war in Yemen.

Why Saudi Arabia Fights

However, even if the Saudis were to allow themselves to be persuaded that Iran’s influence in Yemen was insubstantial and that the Houthis are taking neither advice nor orders from Iran, they would still fight them. The present situation is different from the 1960s when the Saudis were worried about Egyptian influence in Yemen and were happy to back the ousted Zaydi-Shi‘i Imam’s initiative to regain power. In his autobiography, Prime Minister of the Arab Yemen Republic Muhsin al-Ayni claims that during a visit to Riyadh in 1970 he persuaded the Saudis that “those who have told you that the Republic was imposed by the presence of Egyptian forces in Yemen are wrong.” Once the Saudis were convinced that Egypt no longer posed a threat, they did not hesitate to withdraw their political and financial support from the Royalists, even though they granted stipends to those remaining in exile. The Saudis realized that the newly established Yemeni Republic was weak, in desperate need of cash, and could to some extent be stage-managed.

When they started to bomb Yemen on March 26, the Saudis wanted to prevent the Houthis from becoming the dominant force in government. They are aware of the Houthis’ agenda to build a strong, independent civil state and their refusal to tacitly acquiesce to foreign meddling in exchange for Riyadh’s cash. When in the 1970s President Ibrahim al-Hamdi strove to build a centralized, independent Yemen and dissolve independent power centers among the country’s sheikhdoms (many of which were on Saudi Arabia’s payroll), he did not last long: three years compared to ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih’s three decades. As Paul Dresch notes in his History of Modern Yemen, “‘Ibrahim’ was vastly popular. There was money in people’s pockets…and part of Hamdi’s message was Yemen’s unity…But the tension with the Saudis was irresolvable (socialism aside, they disliked the idea of a united Yemen).”

Furthermore, the Saudis are dismayed that the Houthis have succeeded in revitalizing Zaydi institutions and undermining the Saudi-sponsored neo-Salafi-Wahhabi project of cultural homogenization of the peninsula. Salih, a self-identified Zaydi, cooperated for his own opportunistic reasons. “They [sponsors] provide the dough” he once told Zaydi scholars and was pleased that the Salafis dealt a blow to the already weakened Zaydi elites even further. There were no sectarian tensions in Yemen prior to the introduction of neo-Salafi schools and mosques. The tensions greatly increased when Salih used Sunni Islamist paramilitaries during the Sa’dah wars and after Saudi Arabia’s short war against the Houthis in 2009. It should not take anyone by surprise that Iran’s support for the Houthis started only in 2009.

Flirting with AQAP

As for its Sunni Islamist adversaries, Saudi Arabia’s aim to eliminate the Houthis while establishing what amounts to a non-aggression pact with AQAP is a dangerous gamble. AQAP, which has joined up with some of the militia combatting the Houthis in southern Yemen, seems to be the most efficient fighting force in the area. If local forces, aided by a small number of foreign mercenaries, succeed in forcing the Houthis to retreat, AQAP may eventually push into areas where it has not had any significant representation in the past. The Iraq scenario may then repeat for there will not be an army capable of dislodging the extremists. Unlike the Houthis, AQAP wants to overthrow the Saudi monarchy. One would have thought that the hawkish crown prince would have learnt his lesson when he allowed himself to be fooled by an al-Qaeda member and nearly lost his life in a suicide bomb attack in 2009.

Ever since Yemen became the third Arab country to experience the pro-democracy movement that began in the region in 2011, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have been struggling to maintain the status quo ante in that country (without the Salih dynasty in the saddle). When Saudi academics are asking“Where are the tribes?” they are referring to those tribal leaders who have been handsomely subsidized by Yemen’s northern neighbor for decades. However, since the tribes have been reluctant to do Saudi Arabia’s bidding (and those now trained to take up the fight against the Houthis will demand a high price), the Saudis felt they had no choice but to take matters into their own hands. What we are witnessing now is a continuation of the counter-revolution that began in 2011 but pursued by other than diplomatic means.

The Gulf Cooperation Council countries sponsored the transition agreement in Yemen as a way to demobilize the very forces who in 2011 demanded wide-reaching structural changes that may have collided with the GCC’s interests in Yemen and the demands of their own domestic constituencies. In 2011-12 the Houthis had no choice but to remain a militia. Like Hirak (the Southern Independence Movement), they were excluded from the talks determining the terms of the transition, and from the newly formed government, which greatly favored their Muslim Brotherhood rivals. Indeed, the Houthis were not even offered a single provincial governorship.

The war will diminish not just the Houthis’ fortunes but also all hope Yemenis have had for a more accountable, democratic government. The Saudis are likely to oppose a constitution that guarantees freedom of speech and women 30% participation in all government institutions. As Lara Aryani concluded in a thoughtful article on Saudi Arabia and the war in Yemen, “Yemen will have to grapple with the consequences of trading in an unpopular, out of control rebel militia for the heavy hand of an imperial power that has always done everything in its power to subordinate the Yemeni state. And as always, the price of power will be paid by the people, with their hopes and their lives.”

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