The Yemeni Conundrum: How old regional rivalries may destabilize the Gulf

 

The Houthi takeover of Yemen and the ousting of elected president Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi has done more than illuminate the fragile nature of Yemeni politics and the critical role that nation plays in the Gulf, but recent events also illuminate old regional conflicts, notably between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Saudi impressively pieced together a ten-nation coalition and launched “Operation Decisive Storm” against the forces of the Houthi and former president Saleh. While Saudi Arabia undoubtedly took such a bold action as a measure of their determination to maintain a level of stability in the Gulf, their strikes are also to be interpreted as a message to Iran about Riyadh’s desire to minimalize Iranian influence.[1] These two giants of the Gulf are believed by some to be fighting a proxy war in Yemen in a quest for greater hegemony in the Middle East and global influence; however, what is at stake here is much larger than Yemen and the future of the Gulf depends on Saudi-Iran cooperation, not blood-soaked competition.

 

Saudi-Iranian Distrust is Not New

Saudi-Iranian animosity has a long history and the religious differences between the two nations became highlighted following the 1979 Khomeini revolution. However, while Iran supports the Houthis, it seems unrealistic that Iran would wage war on their behalf and take on a coalition of Arab countries. This is not truly a proxy war fought by Saudi Arabia and Iran, but it is a stare-down that if mishandled or misinterpreted, could continue to forge a deepening rift within the Arab world. What the Gulf needs above all is stability as this will benefit all nations, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia, two countries that have seen recent transference of power handled with ease and governments that, while theologically different, have similar interests in maintaining a secure Gulf. With Iraq still reeling from the lasting political and economic ramifications of the U.S. invasion and Syria mired in a quagmire of a civil war, this is a moment when Gulf cooperation is most necessary.

More Than a Military Operation: the Humanitarian issue in Yemen

It is easy to understand from a geo-political spectrum why Saudi Arabia launched this military action in Yemen, but what cannot be overlooked is the humanitarian costs it will generate. At the time of this piece, Houthi leaders have claimed that the bombing raids have led to over five hundred deaths and nearly two thousand wounded.[2] The Kingdom is acting on its own behalf to offset what it sees as a rising Iran, particularly in light of the recent nuclear deal Tehran struck with the United States. If the Saudis perceive the United States as willing participants in the establishment of a more significant Iran, then Saudi Arabia rightfully has the authority to attempt to vie for a leadership role. However, in a desire to grasp greater authority in the region, Saudi Arabia cannot risk taking on the qualities of, as Charles Schmitz recently wrote, a “foreign aggressor” that will only lead to more disruption.[3] Riyadh has clearly made its point concerning their dissatisfaction with the removal of Hadi and the rise of Ansar Allah, and now is the moment to work towards a peaceful cease-fire. The people of Yemen were suffering under the presidency of Hadi as he was unable to alleviate the suffering of average citizens and recent events will only solidify hatred of the members of the GCC who took supported the aerial raids.

Cooperation does mean not mutual agreement, nor does compromise mean weakness. Rather, both Riyadh and Tehran must recognize that they have much to lose with the growing influence of Al Qaeda in Arab Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (Da’esh) threatening their borders. Stubbornness or an adherence to antiquated disputes will only perpetually alienate these two critical players and prohibit the region from moving forward on issues, such as terrorism and energy concerns that demand multi-national collaboration.

Yemen presents both a significant opportunity for Saudi-Iranian success or a turning point in which hopes for mutual assistance fails and another nation dissolves into greater chaos.

[1] Younis, Nussaibah. “The Saudi-Iranian Powerplay Behind the Yemen Conflict”. The Guardian. 28/3/2015

[2] Dunn, James. Yemen: Houthis call for halt of Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign that’s killed 500 people in two weeks. The Independent. 5/4/2015

[3] Schmitz, Charles. Misadventures in Violence in Yemen: Operation Resolute Storm. Middle east Institute 1.4.2015

Image 1 – IndoUSnewsonline – 1st April 2015 – http://www.indousnewsonline.com/post/10066/yemen-on-verge-of-collapse;-indians-evacuated

Image 2 – The Independent – 5th April 2015- http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/yemen-houthis-call-for-halt-of-saudi-arabias-bombing-campaign-thats-killed-500-people-in-two-weeks-10157315.html

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