Pouring petrol on a raging fire is not generally a good idea. And yet that’s what the Saudis and their Gulf allies are doing in Yemen. By bombing the Houthi rebels in a Yemeni civil war, Riyadh is signalling that it is not interested in a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
The Houthis have been careful not to engage Saudi forces on the border, and thus constitute no threat to the kingdom. Nevertheless, the Saudis see the loss of their influence in their impoverished neighbour as a gain for Iran, their rival for regional dominance.
This present round of violence and chaos in Yemen has its roots in the Arab Spring which saw thousands pouring into the streets of the capital, Sana’a, to demonstrate against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a dictator who had ruled the country for decades. At the time, Yemen was widely known as a kleptocracy, and was ranked 164th in Transparency International’s list of the 182 most corrupt countries in the world.
After weeks of escalating violence and popular discontent, Saleh handed over power to Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. However, Saleh continued to wield considerable influence, and received the backing of the Houthis, as well as from units of the Yemen armed forces. As fighting broke out in and around Sana’a, Hadi fled to Aden in the south. The rebels have followed him there and have taken over the airport.
To prevent Hadi from being removed, the Saudis have launched air attacks against the Houthi column. For decades, Saudi Arabia has sought to control events in their neighbouring country by funding tribal chieftains, thereby keeping the central government weak. Much as Pakistan once treated Afghanistan as its private preserve, the Saudis cannot abide rising Iranian influence in Yemen.
Complicating matters further, Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) has been active in Yemen for years. The group has been incessantly targeted by US drones, and the Americans supported Hadi to ensure his compliance to their presence. However, the special forces base has been evacuated due to rising violence.
AQAP has been specially feared by the Americans for its determination to bring down civilian aeroplanes over the United States. At least two attempts have been thwarted at the last minute. The explosive underwear worn by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and designed to bring down an American Northwest Airlines airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009, was prepared by AQAP. The young Nigerian had spent several months in Yemen with the militant outfit before the flight during which he was overpowered by fellow passengers as he tried to ignite the explosive sewn into his underwear.
Incidentally, AQAP has often attacked the Houthis who are Zaidi Shias, and also go under the banner of Ansar Allah. Their Shia faith makes them targets in the eyes of the hard-line Sunni AQAP. Into this incendiary mix has stepped the self-styled Islamic State. Although still a marginal presence, it has claimed a number of suicide attacks in Sana’a.
So what makes Yemen so important to the Saudis and the Americans? The answer, in a word, is oil. Situated at the Bab al-Mandap strait linking the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, a hostile Yemen could choke off a large proportion of oil supplies from the region. Although they are not participating directly in the Saudi-led operation, the Americans are supplying Riyadh with satellite imagery that is a key to accurate air attacks.
Despite many rumours of Iranian money and arms reaching the Houthis, little hard evidence of this support has been revealed. Obviously, the Iranians must be pleased to see an expansion of Shia power in the region, with Iraq and Syria — both Shia dominated states — already under their influence.
This is something that clearly irks the Sunni alliance led by Saudi Arabia. In what is an increasingly zero-sum game, any gain for the Iranians is a loss for the Saudis, and vice versa. Ironically, it was the Bush-led invasion of Iraq twelve years ago that has opened the door to an expansion of Iranian influence in the region.
By toppling the Sunni leadership of a Shia-majority Iraq, the Americans have ensured Shia rule. And as the IS threatens Iraq, it is Iran’s military assistance that is keeping the jihdis at bay. Together with American air cover, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and local Shia militias have halted the IS’s seemingly unstoppable momentum.
In Syria, the Alewite government of Bashar al-Assad is also being propped up by Iran. So from Yemen to Lebanon, the Saudis see an arc of Iranian influence that threatens stability. For the House of Saud, any change that might loosen their grip on power is to be resisted at all cost.
The Americans are also watching events in Yemen with growing alarm. Already engaged in Syria and Iraq, and with an extended presence in Afghanistan, there is little Washington can do to influence the civil war. And as Obama has seen time and again, the United States has no magic wand, no silver bullet to fix the region’s problems and rivalries.
And yet the stakes are huge. Convincing a war-weary American public that US involvement, in one form or another, might be inevitable will be a hard sell. Watching the growing turmoil across the Arab world, Americans could be excused for wanting to walk away from the mess.
Although Saudi Arabia has a stake in the Yemen conflict, its actions are crude and ham-handed. It has enough clients on the ground to initiate a dialogue between the two sides. By provoking the Houthis instead of talking to them, it might end up with the worst possible outcome: a shooting war on its border that might suck Pakistan into the fighting.
Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2015