On Thursday, March 26, Saudi Arabia launched a military campaign in Yemen, after fighters and army units allied with the Houthi movement threatened to overrun the southern port of Aden, as reported by The New York Times.
Saudi Arabia insists the Houthis, who adhere to the Zaydi branch of Shi’ism, are proxies of Iran and part of an Iranian plan to destabilize the region. Indeed, since the Arab Spring in 2011, Iran has stepped up its regional role, backing predominantly Shiite factions in regional conflicts, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and the Iraqi military in its fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
For Saudi Arabia and its allies, Iran’s involvement in regional affairs is unacceptable. They fear the Iranians will ignite Shiite revolts across the region and destabilize the Middle East even further.
However, as the Saudi military continues its assault on Yemen, it is becoming increasingly evident that the greatest threat to the region is not coming from Iran, but from Saudi Arabia, which has also been involved in various proxy wars. While these have mostly been aimed at curbing Iranian influence, Saudi Arabia’s approach to the region is single-mindedly driven by a desire to increase its regional hegemony.
The Saudi attack in Yemen is backed by an allied force, including ten mostly Sunni-majority regional states (Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, Pakistan, and Turkey), and has support from the United States. A few days after airstrikes began, ousted Yemeni president, Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi, fled from to Saudi Arabia from his refuge in Aden.
Hadi, who was leading Yemen’s transitional government until being ousted by the Houthis in January, was the only candidate in presidential elections held in February 2012, following the overthrow of former Saudi-backed dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. During Hadi’s rule, the Houthis repeatedly demanded greater representation in the Yemeni parliament. The Houthi movement has had other, more long standing grievances with Yemen’s central government, dating back to the early 2000s. Frustrated by the government’s failure to address their demands, the Houthis staged a take over of Sana’a in September 2014.
Recently, the rebels managed to advance to Aden, where they engaged in several clashes with pro-Hadi factions. Claiming “to protect and defend the legitimate government [of Hadi],” Saudi Arabia sent in warplanes, bombing key-Houthi held positions. A potential Saudi-led ground invasion has also received support from regional states and the United States.
If Saudi Arabia is genuinely concerned about regional stability, though, why has it remained largely inactive over the very real threats from ISIS, and multiple crises in Libya, Syria, and Iraq? These conflicts are arguably more destabilizing to the Middle East than Yemen’s Houthi movement, and could have benefitted from a joint Arab intervention.
In reality, Saudi’s ‘concerns’ over Yemen, as with many other issues in the region, are not actually about Yemen or its stability, but rather about Saudi Arabia’s own hegemonic power and desire to overshadow Iran.
Yemeni political and human rights activist Baraa Shiban emphasized this in an interview with Free Speech Radio News, saying
It’s just a ground for a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia…And instead of having that fight in the lands of either Iran or the Saudis, the battlefield is Yemen now. And actually there are many people questioning the benefits of supporting either side because simply they feel that they are fighting a fight that doesn’t belong to us and then results of it will either work for the benefit of the Iranians or the Saudis. Yemen will lose either way.
Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners are likely to continue bombing Yemen, until Saudi achieves its goal – to circumscribe Iranian influence in the country and assert itself over Yemen.