The Houthis Test King Salman

The Turmoil in Yemen Puts Saudi Arabia in a Tight Spot

Shiite Houthi rebels gesture as they stand atop a government army vehicle in Sanaa, September 22, 2014. Khaled Abdullah / Courtesy Reuters

In late January, in the span of only a day, both Saudi Arabia and Yemen turned a new leaf. Ninety-year-old Saudi King Abdullah passed away on January 23 after years in power. Earlier in Sanaa, Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi announced his resignation after the Houthis, an Iranian-supported Shiite revivalist group, besieged the presidential palace. Although the insurgent group’s influence had been growing for months, its advance on the capital in September set off alarms across the Middle East and in the West. For the Saudis, the change of power within Yemen may weaken the leverage they once had with Sanaa and signals the growth of an even larger threat: Iran.


Saudi-Yemeni relations have been strained more often than not. Because the two share a border, the Saudis have intervened whenever Yemen’s volatile mix of political, tribal, and sectarian tensions and perennially stagnating economy threaten to throw the country into endless violence and chaos. Yemen regards Saudi Arabia’s heavy involvement in its domestic affairs as an attempt to exacerbate existing problems and keep the country weak. In return, the Saudis argue that they are only trying to ensure that Yemen’s crises stay within the country’s own borders.

For years, the Saudis provided billions in aid to Yemen to prop up the country, enabling it to build infrastructure, provide welfare, and even fund its military. These payments largely stopped when the Houthis took power, signaling the Saudis’ disapproval at their rise. The suspension of aid may also have been an attempt by the Saudis to force the rebel group to rethink its aggressive posture, as well as a way to ensure—given heightened sectarian tensions across the region—that their aid would not be perceived as support for a Shiite group in Yemen. Such a view could be exploited by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other Sunni militant groups to bolster their recruitment efforts. 

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