Saudis into Yemen

Middle East Strategy at Harvard 2012-03-29

From Daniel Byman

saadaSaudi Arabia is once again sailing in dangerous waters as it increases its military involvement in Yemen. The recent New York Times article on the subject is welcome, because the growing violence in Yemen is perhaps the most neglected news story in the Middle East.

Yemen is racked by no less than three distinct sources of violence, beyond the traditional tribal uprisings that have always wracked the country. The “Houthi” rebellion involves Zaydi Shi’a in the northwestern part of the country near the Saudi border. Also in revolt are some disgruntled southerners, bitter at their steady loss of power since north and south Yemen unified in 1990, and also at their loss in the 1994 civil war. Yemen is also home to many jihadists tied to Al Qaeda of the Arabian peninsula. They have shown up in Iraq and elsewhere, and are increasingly active in Yemen itself and in Saudi Arabia. Yemen was always loosely governed, but the levels of violence are high even by a historical standard. The various rebels do not work together, and their agendas are not harmonious. But together they weaken the state and stretch Yemen’s military forces.

Much of the attention is on the Iran-Saudi competition in Yemen, as the New York Times story notes, because the Houthi rebels are Shi’a. However, their Zaydi interpretation of Shiism is different than the Twelver Shiism of Iran, and the two communities historically have not been close. For now, Iran’s support seems limited at best. (Despite Yemeni government claims to the contrary, I have not seen a credible account of serious Iranian backing, though given the dearth of reporting on this topic that omission is less meaningful than it might otherwise be.)

Saudi Arabia, however, feels it has more at stake in Yemen than just Iran. Riyadh has always felt a proprietary interest in the tribes in the northwest, particularly as some of them straddle the Yemen-Saudi border. Drugs and weapons also come to the Kingdom from Yemen. The Saudis, moreover, have also always felt that they should be the dominant power in Yemen, and for decades have meddled extensively in the country’s domestic politics. (One policymaker I know compared the Saudis’ obsession with Yemen to the U.S. concern over Cuba.)

The danger, however, is that growing military involvement will create political problems for the Saudis and strengthen the insurgents. The Houthis are not likely to suffer more than a minor tactical setback from Saudi Arabia’s military effort (more threatening to the insurgents would be Saudi efforts to patrol the border and stop smuggling). Moreover, the violence seems to be creating some sympathy for the rebels in Iran. Perhaps most important, Yemenis agree on little in general, but there is a strong resentment of Saudi meddling. Saudi intervention delegitimizes the Yemeni government further and may create more support for the rebels.