Yemen crisis: An Iranian-Saudi battleground?


Yemen is fast descending into a violent cauldron where the competing interests of Shia Houthi rebels, Sunni tribes, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states, Iran, al-Qaeda and now Islamic State are forming a toxic mix.

The situation has got so bad that the US and UK have closed their embassies and evacuated their staff, while Gulf Arab countries have moved theirs to the southern city of Aden.

The Houthis are closing in on Aden, which controls the entrance to the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandab strait, through which about 20,000 ships pass annually.

The city is also the base of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who has called for military intervention by the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), including the imposition of a no-fly zone, while few people hold out much hope for the promised peace talks in Qatar.

So, is Yemen about to embroil the region in a wider war?

Sectarian strife

At its heart, the current conflict in Yemen is one between the rebels and what remains of the elected Yemeni government.

The Houthis are Shia, from the Zaidi sect. They are opposed not just by the government they have ousted but also by Yemen’s many Sunni tribes.

But above all, they are opposed by the jihadists of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State, who consider Shia heretics.

Houthi fighters stands next to a damaged after a suicide bomb attack on a mosque in Sanaa, Yemen (20 March 2015)
Islamic State said it was behind the suicide attacks on mosques in Sanaa used by Houthi supporters

On 20 March, IS marked its violent debut in the country with four suicide bomb attacks at mosques popular with Houthi supporters, killing more than 130 worshippers.

The Houthis come from the far north of Yemen and have little popular support in most of the rest of the country.

But they are effective fighters who seized the capital last September (having said they would not) and they are getting a lot of help from some quarters.

The powerful former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is widely reported to be backing them, determined to make Yemen ungovernable by his successor, the UN-backed President Hadi.

Iran is also alleged to be supporting the Houthis. The rebels officially deny this, but senior figures have been seen in Iran’s holy city of Qom and there are unconfirmed reports of Iranian pilots flying Yemeni planes.

Fishing boats in Aden, Yemen (18 March 2015)
The southern port city of Aden controls access to the Bab al-Mandab strait and the Red Sea

All this is enough to seriously rattle the Saudis, who woke up too late to the prospect of a pro-Iranian rebel movement taking over their southern neighbour.

The Saudis, who conducted air strikes against the Houthis on their common border in 2010, say they will not allow Iran “to sow sectarian strife in the region” and have vowed to back Yemen’s beleaguered president.

Saudi Arabia is still in the process of building a massive border fence with Yemen and is now bolstering its naval base at the southern Red Sea port of Jizan.

Proxy war fears

“The Saudi military preparation,” says security analyst Aimen Deen from the think tank Five Dimensions, “signals, along with the increasing diplomatic efforts, Saudi Arabia’s intent to stop the Houthis controlling the Bab al-Mandab strait.