FILE - Fighters of Yemen's Shi'ite Houthi group sit on a truck near Dhahian in northwestern Yemen. (Reuters)

In addition to Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Syria, Yemen represents yet another chessboard in the tactical maneuvers between Tehran and Riyadh in the Arab world.

The current tide of the sectarian militancy between Shi’ite rebels and Sunni Salafi fighters, which began sweeping the northern provinces of Yemen on October 30, has once again put the spotlight on the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in the region.

The timing of the tide could not have been worse. Yemen is at a critical juncture in its fragile political transition, between disintegration and reconfiguration. The country is facing daunting security, economic, political and humanitarian crises which are slowly but steadily pushing its governance structure toward implosion and anarchy.

insight carnegie mec new INSIGHT: Yemen – Another Battlefield in Saudi Iran Proxy WarThe Saudi hand

Probably no country in the world is more concerned with the outcome of the crisis that is gripping Yemen than Saudi Arabia, the giant oil monarchy.

While the U.S. is narrowly fixated on eradicating via drone strikes suspected al-Qaida operatives in the southern and eastern parts of the country, and the E.U. on securing the maritime passage at the intersection of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, the Saudis have much more to worry about in Yemen.

As a rule of thumb, anarchy in Yemen would pose a direct threat to the central nervous system of Saudi national security.  The 1,125 miles porous Saudi-Yemeni border is a hotbed of all sorts of criminal activities, from smuggling of weapons, drugs and humans to cross-border movements of transnational militant jihadists. To realize their long-term strategic goals, the Saudis have infused with generous financial support successive governments in Sana’a, their longstanding patronage-based ties with influential tribes and families, as well as their connections with the Salafi religious establishment. All of which give the Saudis more clout than any other outsider. For decades, the kingdom has been keen to control, contain and combat any form of external meddling in Yemen.

“Violent sectarianism is not endemic to Yemeni society, where tribal and regional ties have been traditionally more powerful than those of religious affiliation.” – Khaled Fattah, Carnegie Middle East Center

Since the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, and the resulting shift of Iraq from Riyadh’s Sunni orbit into Tehran’s Shi’ite sphere of influence, the Saudis have been ultra-sensitive to any Iranian attempt of outmaneuvering their traditional strong influence in Yemen.

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FILE - Army soldiers ride atop a tank on a road leading to the southern Yemeni city of Zinjibar. (Reuters)

The rise of a Shi’ite-dominated government in Baghdad, and the political and military ascendancy of Hezbollah in Lebanon, following its impressive resistance to an Israeli assault in the summer of 2006, the overthrow of pro-U.S. rulers in Tunisia and Egypt, the weakening of Washington’s influence on the Middle East and the stubborn survival of the Assad regime in Syria have altered the balance of regional power in favor of the Iran-led Shi’ite camp in the region. An Iranian foothold in Yemen would hence be a monumental ideological and political setback for the Saudi kingdom.

From the point of view of the Saudi intelligence and security apparatuses, Yemen is the weakest link in the chain of security of the Arabian Peninsula, and thus easy prey for Tehran to penetrate and manipulate. Lacking the long and strong arm of Riyadh in the Sunni world, the Iranian theocratic political administration has often relied on armed non-state proxies for exerting its influence in the troubled waters of Middle Eastern countries, with Yemen now high on that list.

Yemen’s geography of sectarianism

The epicenter of the Saudi-Iranian collision in Yemen is in the border province of Sa’dah, 240 kilometers north of the capital Sana’a, where a violent Shi’ite Zaydi insurgency, known as the Houthi rebellion, erupted in June 2004.  Sa’dah is the ancient spiritual and political seat of Zaydism, which represents one of Yemen’s three main branches of Shi’ism, along with Twelver Shi’ism and the Isma’ili branch.

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FILE - Shi'ites shout slogans during a rally in Yemen's capital, Sana'a, in a show of support for Shi'ite rebels fighting Sunni Salafists in the north of the country. (Reuters)

One of Riyadh’s greatest fears is that the establishment of a pro-Iranian enclave on their border and the confrontational spirit of the Houthi insurgency may spread across the frontier and reach the Shi’ite population in the eastern and southern provinces of the kingdom. The restive northern province of Sa’dah, the power base of the Houthi rebellion, is close to the Saudi province of Najran, where a Zaydi minority and a majority of one million followers of the Shi’i Ismaili sect reside. Riyadh has repeatedly identified Iran’s hand as being behind the Houthi Shi’ite rebels, and accused Tehran of planning to develop the organizational and military skills of the Houthis along the lines of Hezbollah.  

During the insurgency between 2004 and 2010, the conflict between Yemen’s military and Houthi rebels was characterized by periodic low-level fighting which escalated into six major violent bouts. In November 2009, Saudi F-15 and Tornado jets bombed Houthi strongholds along the border area. With the blessings of Riyadh, thousands of Salafi fighters were engaged alongside Yemeni government troops. These six military confrontations resulted in thousands of casualties and hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians.

Reversing the sectarian tide

Yemen is not afflicted with the same sharp sectarian divides and tensions found, for instance, in Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Bahrain. Violent sectarianism is not endemic to Yemeni society, where tribal and regional ties have been traditionally more powerful than those of religious affiliation. Four decades ago, the reservoir for hostility from which potential adversaries would draw upon to mobilize, reinforce and justify violent sectarian attacks was small and shallow.

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FILE - Pro-army tribesmen are seen near the town of Lawdar in the southern Yemeni province of Abyan. (Reuters)

Three main factors are triggering sectarian militancy in Yemen today.

First, the geopolitical rivalries between the two antagonistic regional powers of Saudi Arabia and Iran over the leadership role in the Islamic world, which has aggressively awakened a sleeping Sunni-Shi’ite discord. Since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, both countries have been actively sponsoring insurgent movements and subversive groups in a vast geographical area extending from Lebanon to Pakistan; and from Iraq to the east and north of Africa. The adoption of a proxy war approach has become part and parcel of strategic foreign and security policy goals of the two regional powers.

Second, the war on terror, which activated sectarian polarization in the entire region.

Third, the environment of severe state weakness, domestic socioeconomic grievances and the existing security vacuum.

In addition, the current growing sectarian violence in Yemen stems from an increasingly fierce competition between political elites and non-state actors for control of territories and dwindling resources at a time of acute political uncertainty. Yemen is a fragile state, bordering failure. The dynamics of the current sectarian violence exposes the inability and/or unwillingness of the central government to address grievances, protect national security and maintain law and order. The sectarian militancy in Yemen is a symptom not a cause of the erosion of state authority. To minimize the risks of the growing threat of sectarian militancy, Yemen desperately needs representative and responsive state institutions which would effectively combat external actors-sponsored sectarianism, while at the same time draining the domestic reservoir of radicalization and insurgency.

This post was authored exclusively for MEV.

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 INSIGHT: Yemen – Another Battlefield in Saudi Iran Proxy War

Khaled Fattah

Khaled Fattah is a scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. He is also a guest lecturer at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden.

  • Leon

    Very good analysis. Indeed, the war on terror and regional power struggle between Riyadh and Tehran are causing sectarian violence.

  • JKF2

    Very interesting/informative article. The reality is that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia can’t afford to lose this geopolitical confrontation right in its backyard; unfortunately so far the outcome is far from predictable.