Houthis in San'aa. Luke Somers/Demotix. All rights reserved.
The recently crowned King Salman of Saudi Arabia has taken a major gamble by launching ‘Operation Decisive Storm’, a campaign of air strikes in Yemen. Bringing together a military coalition of Arab countries, Riyadh has pledged ‘to do whatever it takes in order to protect the legitimate government of Yemen from falling’. The elected leader of Yemen, President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, has been ousted from power by a coalition of rebels headed by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the leader of a group of Zaydi Shia tribesmen from the North of the country, and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saudi Arabia has been quick to point a finger at Iran, claiming that Tehran’s support for their Shia allies in Yemen, the Houthi movement, is directly responsible for the collapse of the transitional government formed after the deposal of President Saleh in the region-wide Arab revolutions of 2011. Riyadh has a point: the Houthis, mistrustful after decades of perceived discrimination and war against the Yemeni military and jihadi extremists, have been the biggest spoilers of the peace plan and transition process brokered by the United Nations and the regional Gulf Cooperation Council (of which Saudi Arabia is the leading member).
The transition process, which included the election of President Hadi in 2012, was ostensibly designed to rebuild Yemen’s democratic institutions and to find a better way of representing minority interests, including those of the Zaydi Shia who supported the Houthi movement. The Houthis believed none of this – they were convinced that Hadi would become a proxy of Riyadh. Instead Abdul-Malik al-Houthi decided to seize as much territory as he could.
The Houthis took full advantage of the collapse of the Yemeni military in 2009 – its elite units initially sided with President Ali Abdullah Saleh. They made practical alliances with tribal groups in the provinces surrounding the country’s capital, Sana’a, and took the capital itself in September of last year. A demoralized, divided Yemeni military melted away or appears to have been co-opted by the Houthis. In a realist masterstroke, the Houthis forged an alliance with their former enemy, ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose enduring connections to Yemen’s military, business and tribal elites remain formidable.
Saudi Arabia, by committing itself to an unlimited military escalation in Yemen, has over-reached itself. There are several reasons for this. First, they have already lost one war against the Houthis. In 2009 the Houthis killed more than 100 Saudi soldiers after Riyadh bombed Houthi positions along the border. Chastened, the Saudis backed off. This time around, it is doubtful that Saudi Arabia has the stomach to comprehensively defeat them.
Second, President Hadi is, from a military point of view, beyond saving. He has few allies within the Yemeni military – many of the units operating in and around Aden have refused to follow his orders. His tribal allies are no match for the experienced, better organised and well-armed Houthi rebels.
Third, the other big winners out of Yemen’s collapse are al-Qaeda and Islamic State-linked jihadi extremists, who have seen their funding increase, including from private donors in the region. These extremists are a much greater threat to the Saudi government than the Houthis whose ambitions are limited to Yemen.
Al-Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia, including a 2009 failed suicide bombing against the Saudi Minister for the Interior, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, should have alerted Riyadh to the perils of over-focusing on the threat from Iran, instead of dealing with the links between extremists in Yemen and in the wider Arabian Peninsula. Those dangers still exist and the Saudis should not do anything that indirectly empowers jihadi groups along its southern border.
Finally, Saudi Arabia’s key ally, the United States, will negotiate with the Houthis; it will not negotiate with Yemen’s jihadi movements. Washington’s military actions will likely escalate against al-Qaeda and Islamic State-linked groups in Yemen, creating a confusing paradox whereby two allies are bombing different sides in a civil war. If a nuclear deal is signed with Iran in the coming months, then Saudi Arabia will come under increasing pressure to compromise with the Houthis so that the US and its allies in the Gulf can concentrate on the jihadi threat.
Saudi Arabia needs to be saved from itself in Yemen. The Houthis are a locally driven movement. They value external support from Iran but are not controlled by it. But Iran still has some useful influence with the Houthi leadership. Tehran should know that it is not in its interest to allow Yemen’s deepening sectarian conflict to become an even greater fulcrum for global jihad. A senior UN intermediary is urgently required to hold talks between the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as in Yemen, in order to negotiate a détente.
As part of an initial ceasefire, it will be necessary for the Houthis to retain, at least temporarily, some territory based on their recent military conquests. However, in the long-term the Houthis have no interest in seeing their own country, the poorest in the Arab world, slip further into deprivation and bloodshed. Ultimately, neither they nor Saudi Arabia can win by force alone.