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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.
TIGHTENING THE PURSE STRINGS
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.
This is not the first time that Saudi Arabia has withdrawn aid or support to punish Yemen. In 1990, when Yemen held the rotating position of UN Security Council president, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh decided to use his power to vote against a resolution authorizing the use of force to expel Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his troops from Kuwait. The Saudis interpreted the move as a tacit endorsement of the invasion and retaliated by revoking the special status of millions of Yemeni workers in Saudi Arabia, forcing many of them—an estimated one million—to return to their homeland and putting tremendous pressure on an already overburdened economy. It is estimated that at that time, Yemen lost close to $3 billion in remittances. Recent figures indicate that the remittances of Yemeni workers currently in Saudi Arabia constitute 4.2 percent of Yemen’s GDP.
After existing as two separate countries for decades, North and South Yemen chose to unify in 1990 under Saleh, largely because the south lost the financial and military support of its biggest patron, the Soviet Union. Only four years later, the two regions broke out in civil war when some former leaders of the south attempted to secede. The Saudi support for the split—which ultimately failed—reinforced the idea among many Yemenis that their northern neighbor saw a strong and unified Yemen as a threat. Like Saudi Arabia, other states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) supported the split because of their lingering mistrust of Saleh—after his perceived betrayal during the Gulf War over the UN vote—as well as a legacy of what the renowned Gulf scholar John Duke Anthony described as “a discernible pan-GCC bias in favor of South Yemenis.”
Overnight, the Houthis’ control of Sanaa erased the strides made toward national reconciliation in November 2011 after Saleh, who had ruled since 1978, agreed to step down in the face of Arab Spring protests, signing an agreement brokered by the GCC to transfer power to his vice president. The deal held so much promise that Jamal Benomar, the UN secretary-general’s special adviser for Yemen, had said, “Yemen’s transition has been an extraordinary story . . . [The country] was definitely heading towards a Syria-type scenario. Now Yemen is undergoing a peaceful transition.”
The comparison of Yemen with Syria is not unjustified. Both countries suffer from long-standing tribal and sectarian strife, competing factions that receive external support from enemy countries, a loss of control by the central government over vast territories, and the presence of terrorist groups. In Yemen, AQAP is trying to exploit Sunni grievances, much like the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). All these factors will make it difficult for Saudi Arabia’s new leader, King Salman, to decide how he will handle Yemen’s new leadership. But for the Saudis, the most dangerous common denominator among all these grievances is Iran.
The election of Hassan Rouhani as Iranian president last year led to a slight improvement in Saudi-Iranian relations—for example, senior officials from the two countries met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings in New York in September 2014. But the Saudis and Iranians still find themselves on opposite sides in just about every conflict in the Middle East: in Bahrain, Lebanon, and Syria. And while Saudi relations with Iraq have improved markedly since Haider al-Abadi became prime minister last summer, his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, was regarded by the Saudis as Iran’s stooge. Now, many countries that belong to the GCC regard the Houthis in the same light: as proxies helping Iran “encircle” the Sunni-led monarchies with its Shiite-allied states, from Beirut to the Persian Gulf. It is not only the Saudis who feel that way. The U.S. Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein recently expressed her own anxieties about Iran’s growing influence. She explained, “My concern is, where is Iran going? Iran has been supporting the Houthis. Is Iran trying to begin the development of an Iranian crescent?”
For the Saudis, Syria is a critical example of where Iran’s meddling in regional politics is only fostering instability, whether it’s through supporting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria or Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group. The Saudis regard Assad as the reason why the bloodshed in Syria has not stopped and ISIS was able to surge.
THE LEAST WORST
Despite the international community’s initial high hopes—some organizations, such as the UN, maintained as recently as 2013 that Yemen was the only country in the Middle East that had sought a negotiated power transition—optimism has given way to resignation that Yemen is once again on the verge of disintegration. While the Western backers of the Hadi government try to make sense of the rapid developments on the ground and the dizzying speed with which alliances are forged and broken in Yemen, King Salman and his new Saudi leadership will have to take a decisive stand on what sort of relationship they will forge with Yemen. Some have argued that Saudi influence in Yemen has waned significantly since the death in October 2011 of then Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, who had long cultivated Saudi ties to Yemen. It remains to be seen whether King Salman will make a similar effort or if he will keep this task relegated to the overburdened deputy crown prince and interior minister, Muhammad bin Nayef, who currently handles diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Not only have the Saudis fought the Houthis in a series of cross-border military clashes in 2009—which raised questions about the underperformance of the vastly better-equipped Saudi forces—but the Yemen-based AQAP has also launched terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, the latest of which took place during last year’s Ramadan and resulted in the deaths of five Saudi security officers.
The previous dominant political power in Yemen, the Sunni al Islah, also known as the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, is another threat to Saudi’s quest for stability in the region. Given Saudi Arabia’s goal to root out political Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, some Saudis have even suggested that the Houthis might be a more palatable option than al Islah, at least in the short term. The pickings, however unpalatable, are slim. Most likely, as is often the case in such scenarios, the Saudis will have to choose the least worst option.