Posted on: 11th March 2015
Benjamin Netanyahu's speech in March 2014 to a joint session of Congress showed that concerns about Iran's role in the Middle East go far beyond the country's nuclear programme. The prime minister claimed that Iran had "gobbled up" four Arab capitals through its influence; Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and most recently Sanaa. This mirrored a statement by Alireza Zakani, an Iranian parliamentarian close to Supreme Leader Khamenei, saying that the Houthi takeover of Sanaa in September 2014 represented a "victory for the regime in Tehran".
Statements such as these take place within the context of growing regional tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, much of which has been expressed in religious and ideological terms. This contest now has the potential to destabilise the Arabian Peninsula's most volatile battleground, Yemen. International interest has largely focused on the country as a bulwark against al-Qaeda; however, the recent rise of the Houthi movement has been a significant development in the country's politics, and poses serious questions for international engagement with Yemen.
A new report by Peter Salisbury for Chatham House, Yemen and the Saudi-Iranian 'Cold War', explores these trends of regional influence and ideology in Yemen's history, and considers future prospects for the state. It concludes that while Yemen's conflict drivers are local, and tensions largely domestic, the influence of external actors often affects the calculations of groups on the ground, although the role of regional players is largely exaggerated by all parties.
Saudi relations with Yemen are more pragmatic than ideological.
Yemen's religious demography sees a largely Zaydi Shia population in the north contrasting with a predominantly Shafi Sunni population in the south. In recent decades there has been a growing narrative of ideological opposition within Saudi Wahabbism towards Zaydis, of which there is a notable minority in the south of Saudi Arabia.
But, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Yemen has been largely characterised by pragmatism rather than ideology, with the report drawing out examples of Saudi Arabia alternately backing and undermining both religious groups in Yemen. In the last 15 years, Saudi Arabia has come to focus on tackling jihadism, with Yemen – a hub for al-Qaeda operatives – becoming a key battleground for Riyadh. Saudi Arabia is currently constructing a 1,500-km fence running the length of the Saudi–Yemeni border, aimed at stemming the flow of economic migrants, smugglers and militant jihadis from Yemen into the country.
The rise of the Houthis, a Zaydi revivalist movement, to national prominence has shifted this ideological and pragmatic dynamic significantly. Saudi Arabia in particular, and, according to Salisbury, many Western and Yemeni diplomats, consider the Houthis to be an Iranian (or at a stage removed, Hizbullah) proxy, actively supported by Tehran. Some go further in their claims about the country's influence in Yemen saying that Iran also has ties with the secessionist Southern Movement.
However the report draws out a number of factors that compromise this straightforward Iranian 'proxy' narrative, in favour of a more nuanced view.
Firstly, the Houthis rely on local support and taxation to remain sustainable, according to the report, and foreign support is more likely to be centered on capacity building and training, rather than funding and equipping. Furthermore, the often-emphasised 'shared religious culture' between the Houthis and Iran is also an unsatisfactory explanation of the links, with Yemen's Zaydi Shia closer Shafi Sunnis in practice as to the largely Iranian 'Twelver' branch.
Saudi Arabia considers the Houthis to be an Iranian proxy.
However, Salisbury's interviews with members of the movement indicate that a number of prominent Houthi supporters have converted to Twelver Shia Islam over the last two decades, and have travelled to Iran for religious instruction, indicating that there may be a faction within the movement more closely aligned with Iranian religious influence. In addition, according to Salisbury, there is evidence though that the core leadership is in many cases committed to the Zaydi Shia Islamic revolutionary principles set out by Hussein Badr al-Deen al-Houthi, which in turn borrow heavily from those of Iran, where al-Houthi travelled for his religious education.
The group's slogan and flag which reads "God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, Victory to Islam", was adapted from the "Death to America" slogan of the Iranian revolutionaries. However the movement has been careful to portray a more tolerant religious agenda since the 2011 Youth Uprisings, in the hope of establishing a wider support base outside its Zaydi heartlands.
A major international concern is that the Houthis lack the capacity to deal with the insurgencies in Yemen outside of their heartlands, particularly that of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), without external support. The US in particular is concerned that the Yemeni government should both able and willing to confront AQAP, which claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo shooting, and is viewed by the State Department as one of the most dangerous jihadi groups globally. The report suggests that AQAP has also grown in support since the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, reflecting fear among Sunnis that the Houthis plan on imposing their own religious doctrine on the country after they have achieved their territorial ambitions.
With this in mind, the report advocates for a more nuanced understanding of the Houthis. It concludes that to characterise the Houthis as a true proxy of Iran is to oversimplify the relationships involved and overemphasise any shared objective, stressing that the Houthis receiving external support is very different to the group taking orders. In fact the Houthi relationship with Saudi Arabia is of more immediate importance for keeping the country's economy and state apparatus from collapse.
Since the report's publication, an important development has been the reestablishment by President Hadi in February 2015 of a rival 'internationally recognised' government in Aden, declaring all measures taken by the Houthi movement to be "null and illegitimate": President Hadi was forced to resign at the end of January and had been under house arrest in Sanaa prior to his escape. These rivals blocs, and their international backers, could potentially polarise divisions within the country further along geographical and perhaps even sectarian lines. Whether Hadi and the Houthis are able to engage in a process of reconciliation will prove critical to the provision of regional support, as well as the future of international (particularly Iranian and Saudi) involvement in the affairs of the country.
The report Yemen and the Saudi-Iranian 'Cold War' can be read in full here.