Political Crisis in Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s Proxy War

Dr. Mohammad Nazrul Bari for BeyondHeadlines

Yemen was among the four Arab countries convulsed by huge protest and demonstrations from February 2011 onwards including Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. In February 2011 after the Arab spring at Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to leave his office by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council. Saleh’s power was divided into several groups. Mansoor Ali Hadi, Deputy of Ali Abdullah Saleh, got elected as the new President of Yemen with full support of Saudi Arabia. Houthis actively participated in uprising but could not get as much power as they were expecting under the new rule. To legalize its claim in the affairs of Yemen, Saudi Arabia blamed time and again Iran and Iranian support to Zaydi Shias of Yemen. Surprisingly in the 1962-67 civil war in Yemen, Saudis supported the same Zaydi Imam and since then, Saudi Arabia influenced the internal political dispensations by providing billions of dollars in aid to Yemen.

Zaydis are estimated to be around 1/3 of Yemeni population of 30 million in number and 8% of 70 million of Shias around the globe. In the view of Ranjit Gupta that Zaydi Shias are ideologically closer to the Sunni’s beliefs of Arab than the Shias of Iran. Zaydis are named after Zayd, the great grandson of Imam Ali. The leader of Houthis, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, was killed in 2004 by the army of Yemen. This group is named after its leader fromSaada, a region of north Yemen. They claim the descent from the Prophet family. But not all Zaydis support Houthis. Even after Saudi Arab’s attempts to make it sectarian war between Shia and Sunni, the highest Zaydi religious head said nothing on the latest events in Yemen and so far kept salient.Houthis’ opponents, headed by Saudi Arabia, view them as a proxy of Shia Iran in Yemen. It is true that this group is hostile to the United States, but has also vowed to eradicate al-Qaeda.

It is also true that after the gap of twenty five years direct air service started between Sana (capital city of Yemen) and Tehran (capital city of Iran) in March, 2015.According to al-Houthi followers, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthihad lived part of his life with his family in Qom, Iran. They also claimed that al-Houthi had a relationship with Ayatullah Khamenei, the man who brought Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 and Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Reasons for Saudi Arab’s involvement:

A famous classical school of national security observes that Saudi Arabia needs an external menace to obtain internal security plus internal unity. Thus, the new king’s first policy within four months was based on Yemen’s crisis. In fact the new king doesn’t have the charismatic leadership of pervious kings. There is an internal conflict within royal family due to balance of power. Therefore he engaged with Yemen to lead the current out of his court and country.

Even Less than four months after ascending the throne, Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the Saudi King has made unexpected changes in the line of succession which will benefit his own sonPrince Mohammed bin Salman. These shifts forced Salman to pursue the most assertive foreign policy in the recent history of Saudi. Not only that, new king even removed the sitting Crown Prince Muqrin, his half brother, and promoted the third in line, his nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, up to number two.

In the view of Bruce Riedel Salman’s decision to start war in Yemen so soon after coming to the throne is the part of his main strategy to divert the attention of his wrong doing inside the royal family of Saudi Arab, looks convincing. The other causes for the direct involvement in Yemen are to check the increasing influence of Iran in West Asia and to control strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, which connects northeast Arabia and south-west Africa and finally with north-west Red Sea with the Gulf of Eden and the south-east Indian Ocean. According to one estimate in 2006, 3.3 million barrels of oil passed through the strait per day, out of the world total of about 43 million barrels per day, moved by tankers.

It is true that in the recent past Iran unexpectedly emerged as a regional power in West Asia.In Riyadh’s view Iran already dominated decision-making in Baghdad (Iraq), Damascus (Syria) and Beirut (Lebanon). It does not want a fourth Arab capital to be aligned with Tehran. The successful negotiations between Iran with USA and its western allies also add one more featherin the cap of Iranian strategy in West Asia. In short Iran is gaining a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula in what has always been the soft underbelly of Saudi Arabia.Salman’s intense effort to secure wide “grand Sunni alliances” for the war, has been less than a success. Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordon, Sudan, UAE and Morocco were any how convinced but Oman, Yemen’s other neighbor, has opted not to join with the other five members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman) in the fighting, instead staying on the sidelines. USA is also providing technical and intelligence support. Egypt, which benefits in billions in Gulf Cooperation Council is deploying an unspecified quantity of naval and air force. Turkey, in spite of earlier support, has now realized that negotiation is the better solution. The Pakistani Parliament voted unanimously to keep neutral and rebuff repeated Saudi requests for ground troops to aid the war effort. Even after more than 2000 air strikes,Houthis’ dominance in Yemen is not being meaningfully checked and out of twelve provinces in Yemen, nine are still in the control of Houthis.Saudi Arabia, anyhow trying hard to established itself as the champion of Sunni Arab world and will do everything to drag Iran directly in affairs of Yemen against it. This way other Sunni countries may also join so called “grand Sunni alliances”. Secondly the Saudi may also get direct support of its trusted and tested friends like USA and its western allies including Israel and the last but not the least in the name of sectarian polarization between Sunni and Shia may give chance to ISIS and the new life of terrorist organization like Al-Qaida (Al-Qaeda has declared war on the Houthis, claims an attack in Sana’a in which 47 are killed on 9th Oct. 2014) in the affairs of Yemen(al-nusra, a sister organization is already fighting against Bashr Al asad in Syria). The terrorist organizations ISIS and Al- Qaida, after their direct
involvement from Saudi side, may get acceptability of their wrong deeds in Sunni world.

(Author is associated with School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Central University of Karnataka as an Assistant Professor.) 

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