Proxy War in Yemen: Saudi Arabia and Iran Vie for Regional Supremacy

A Saudi Arabia-led coalition continues to bombard Yemen in an effort to stop the advance of an Iran-backed Shiite militia there. The conflict is becoming a proxy war for regional supremacy. The risks to the House of Saud are great.

Photo Gallery: Violence in Yemen

On recent evenings, as Western foreign ministers negotiated fervently with the Iranian leadership in Lausanne, Switzerland, two young women in the Yemeni capital of Saana spent their time gazing fearfully into the darkening night sky. Nina Aqlan, a well-known civil rights activist, and her friend Ranim were on the lookout for Saudi Arabian fighter jets. Ranim was staying with Aqlan because her own apartment stands next to the headquarters of the Political Security Organization, Yemen's domestic intelligence agency. The building is considered a potential target for the Saudis and their allies.


"In the beginning, we thought they might bomb us for one or two nights. But it keeps getting worse!" says Ranim. In the background, the thump of the anti-aircraft batteries can be heard, occasionally interrupted by the thundering explosions of bomb detonations. Sometimes, the attacks last from early evening to midnight, they say over a Skype connection that repeatedly crashes. At other times, the bombing begins later and only ends at dawn.

The nightly strikes come as a Saudi Arabia-led, largely Sunni coalition consisting of nine countries seeks to push back Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen. Coalition jets have struck military bases and intelligence agency headquarters, but also a cement factory, a dairy and a refugee camp. By Thursday, the death toll from the bombings, which began one week ago, had risen to over 90. "What kind of war is this?" Aqlan asks angrily. "Why is it being fought?"

There isn't a direct connection between the hostilities and the surprisingly comprehensive deal reached between the West and Iran on the country's nuclear program on Thursday night. But aside from Israel, no country views the pact with as much skepticism as Saudi Arabia. Indeed, following similar developments in Syria and Iraq, the conflict in Yemen is increasingly looking like a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran. The two capitals are blatantly wrestling over supremacy in the region. Either Saudi Arabia, the traditional Western ally that is watching nervously as the United States slowly pulls back. Or Iran, which has been expanding its power in the region of late and which has just taken an historic step toward rapprochement with the US and its allies.

Thursday night saw Iran take another step forward. The Saudi monarchy, whose power is based on the country's vast oil reserves, were forced to watch from the sidelines in recent weeks as its historic ally America passionately pushed for a solution to the nuclear conflict with Iran. The deal was announced late on Thursday by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini -- and means that Iran has now moved a bit closer to the West and, first and foremost, to the US.

Aiming at Its Ideological Rival

The Saudi military coalition began its intervention in Yemen in the name of security. But after just a week, it has become clear that the top priority of the alliance is not that of creating a balance of power between the two adversarial camps in the Yemen conflict -- which pits Shiite Houthi rebels, who have joined together with former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh (who was ousted in a 2011 "Arab Spring" uprising), against Saudi-backed government troops. Indeed, the conflict is more of a complicated domestic struggle than a purely sectarian fight. Still, the Saudi monarchy's intervention is primarily aimed at its ideological rival: Iran.

At the same time, the military operation is a chance for Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to demonstrate his independence from the US -- as well as to perhaps prove his country's military leadership in the region as a complement to its longstanding economic strength.

What is clear, however, is that the brewing Sunni-Shiite struggle in the Middle East has the potential for not just destroying Yemen, but also for turning into a disaster for Saudi Arabia.

It was only last fall that Riyadh badly miscalculated in Yemen by cutting off financial aid to Hadi, who has since fled his country for the Saudi capital. The Saudi monarchy believed that Hadi, a Sunni, was being far too lenient with the Shiite Houthis, which make up a third of the population of Yemen. But Hadi had only been striving for political survival between the various fronts -- a task made all the more difficult by the return of his Shiite predecessor Saleh. Without support from Riyadh, Hadi didn't have a chance.

Even if the Iranians are confessional brothers to the Houthis and have allegedly supplied them with weapons, it is ex-president Saleh who has been the primary reason for their triumphant march through the country. It is an ironic development, given that Saleh, while in power, waged a campaign of his own against Houthi insurgents. Now, however, he has placed his old elite troops -- which he once equipped with the help of hundreds of millions of dollars from the US -- at their disposal. The troops are akin to a private army, and Saleh has a fortune of billions he can use to finance them.

One of Saleh's Dances

Saleh once compared governing in Yemen to "dancing on the heads of snakes." What is now taking place is "one of Saleh's dances," says Abdulkader Alguneid, a leader of recent protests against the Houthis in the economically important city of Taiz, located in the highlands between Sanaa and Aden. "It wasn't foreign powers from outside who took over Taiz," he says. "It was Saleh's followers, soldiers who had defected." Nevertheless, the city is now under Houthi control and it has become the jumping off point for the Shiite militia's forays to the south.

Taiz, too, has become a target for the Saudi coalition's air strikes. "They aren't just killing Houthis," says parliamentarian Abdulkader Mughales, cursing the Saudis. "One-hundred years ago they already took three provinces away from us and still today they are afraid of a strong Yemen." So far, he says, there are no Iranian fighters in the country. "But if the Saudis keep on like this, the Iranians will come and turn our homeland into a battlefield in their war."

The military operation in Yemen is a significant departure from Saudi Arabia's foreign policy tradition. Riyadh has always relied on three strategies to pursue its interests abroad. First, it used its wealth to support allied governments or groups. Second, it established a global network of clerics and Koran schools to spread the puritanical interpretation of the Koran known as Wahhabism. And third, it practiced classic diplomacy and mediation, such as leading the peace talks that ended the 15-year civil war in Lebanon in the late 1980s.

Indeed, even experts on Saudi Arabia have never quite understood why the monarchy has spent decades -- and billions -- arming itself to the extensive degree it has. But the operation in Yemen has now provided the international community with an answer to that question. It is to defend itself from instability in Yemen, a country fractured along confessional and tribal lines.

Cross-border clans in addition to a small army of migrant workers have long bound Saudi Arabia tightly with its southern neighbor. The bin Laden family, one of the most influential in Saudia Arabia, is originally from Yemen as are the mothers of some Saudi princes. For King Salman, it is a nightmare that Iran -- Saudi Arabia's long-time rival for dominance in the region -- is now instigating its confessional brothers in Yemen and seeking to bring the country into its Shiite sphere of influence.


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