The Zaydis, who constitute a third of the population of united Yemen, are a Shia community, but unlike the Iranians who follow Twelve Imams, the Zaydis only follow the first five. During the 33-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, with the expanding influence of Saudi-sponsored Salafi preachers, the Zaydis, former rulers of Yemen, saw themselves marginalised both doctrinally and politically. Hussain Badreddin Al Houthi, religious teacher and political activist, mobilised the burgeoning grievances of the Zaydis by setting up a youth group in 1992 for religious and political study, in their home province of Saada; the group quickly acquired about 20,000 members. Fearing their political strength, Saleh unleashed the Yemeni armed forces upon them in 2004. Hussain was killed in this attack, thus providing the nascent militia, calling itself Ansarullah, with a hero and martyr, under the leadership of Hussain’s younger brother, Abdelmalik Al Houthi.
Between 2004-10, the Houthis fought off six wars launched by Saleh to smash them as a military and political force. With these successes, the militia’s numbers increased to 100,000, while it expanded its control over the northern provinces and even reached the sea. Taking advantage of political chaos in the country following the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-sponsored handover of power from Saleh to his deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in early 2012, the Houthis emerged from their mountain fortresses in Saada province in September 2014, and within a few weeks, occupied the capital Sanaa, facing hardly any military opposition from the Yemeni armed forces. In this foray, the Houthis worked in close concert with Saleh who guided their entry into the capital and ensured that military units loyal to him did not confront them.
In early 2015, following Rabbo’s resignation as president, the Houthis took control of the presidential palace and the parliament building, and dissolved the government. In February, Rabbo fled to Aden, withdrew his resignation and denounced the Houthi takeover as a coup d’etat. The Houthi forces then advanced southwards till they reached Aden without facing any serious resistance. On March 25, Rabbo fled to Riyadh, which launched “Operation Decisive Storm” the very next day. The coalition put together by Saudi Arabia includes all members of the GCC except Oman, and forces from Morocco, Jordan, Egypt and Sudan. The US is providing intelligence support by pinpointing targets.
The Salman Doctrine
A clear narrative relating to the “threat” from Iran has been built into the GCC discourse relating to the conflict. According to GCC scholar Ghassan Shabaneh, Operation Decisive Storm seeks “to establish a new order in the Middle East and to deter Iran from meddling in the affairs of its neighbours”. This new order is enshrined in the “Salman Doctrine”, named after the new Saudi ruler, and has the following principles: first, the Arabs are able and willing to defend themselves on the basis of their “new vision for unity”; second, Iran threatens Arab unity and stability and must be deterred, and, third, Arab security and development must be based on their own efforts; in fact, their joint force can now effectively confront any existential threat they might face.
Iran, in the GCC’s perspective, has been making inroads in the Arab world over the past decade – in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and now in Yemen. The divide with Iran is entirely sectarian. GCC scholar Abdulla Mohammed Al Ali notes that Operation Decisive Storm is a “response to the Iranian strategy of trying to encircle GCC countries with its Shiite allies”. He applauds the military and political support that the GCC has garnered from a variety of Arab and non-Arab countries, and the fact that these Sunni countries are no longer dependent on western support against Iran. With this “Sunni Front” in place, Shabaneh concludes that Operation Decisive Storm is likely “to change the political and military dynamics in the Middle East for years to come”.
Central to the Saudi narrative relating to Yemen is the conviction that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy force dancing to the tune of their masters. Most objective observers have tended to be sceptical about these Saudi claims. They point out that the Houthi movement is largely indigenous, reflecting longstanding Zaydi grievances. Again, the sectarian affinity between Iran and the Zaydis, central to present-day Saudi discourse, is actually quite limited, with the Zaydis traditionally having more in common with their Sunni brethren in doctrinal terms.
Above all, Iranian political, financial and military support for the Houthis has been greatly exaggerated: the Houthis are not Iranian puppets and have often acted on their own, such as in taking over Sanaa against Iranian advice. The Houthis have not needed weapons from Iran: they were flush with weaponry from domestic sources; more recently, they have been well-supplied by Saleh or through capture of armouries well-stocked with US weapons, valued at $500 million, that were supplied to Saleh by the Americans from 2006 onwards.
The Sunni Front
Many observers have also questioned the efficacy of the so-called “Sunni Front” which is central to the Salman Doctrine: Pakistan and Turkey have refused to participate in the coalition; differences between Turkey and Egypt persist since they differ fundamentally on political Islam; Turkey has little in common with Saudi Arabia (other than regime-change in Syria) and is also building up its ties with Iran, while Egypt opposes regime-change in Syria and is also reaching out to Russia. Qatar, of course, retains its autonomous position in regional affairs, backing political Islam as represented by the Brotherhood, in tandem with Turkey. Jordan is concerned that the assault on Yemen is diverting attention from the fight against the Islamic State poised at its borders.
Finally, while the Salman Doctrine speaks of the capacity of the Arab states to defend their own interests in the face of Iranian encroachments, the fact remains that they even now remain entirely dependent on the US security umbrella. However, important changes are apparent in this area to their disadvantage: the US is gradually re-building its political ties with Iran even as it has signalled a reluctance to engage in military interventions in West Asia. While it is providing some intelligence support to the Saudi war effort in Yemen, a number of US officials and commentators have raised doubts about Saudi perspectives relating to Yemen, including the extent of Iran-Houthi cooperation. The US has signalled that it does not foresee a military solution in Yemen in the absence of a viable political framework that addresses the aspirations of the Houthis.
The US also has grave concerns about the strengthening of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as a result of the Saudi military intervention. Saudi bombings have avoided striking AQAP targets, giving them the opportunity to capture the town of Mukalla in south Yemen in early April, along with its airport, military base, weapons depot, oil terminal and prison from where Al Qaeda members have been released. They have also announced that they will mobilise “Sunni” forces to fight the Houthis.
Threat to Saudi from within
The attacks on Yemen are thus part of a larger region-wide Saudi-Iran confrontation, in a situation which the Kingdom views as an existential threat to its security and well-being. But, is this the principal challenge that the Kingdom faces? The most significant threat to its order is from within, from the widespread aspirations for political, social and cultural reform which seek to sweep away its Wahhabiya order that privileges the royal family and, while articulated in terms of religious doctrine, is in effect authoritarian, intrusive and coercive. This order has placed Saudi Arabia on the wrong side of every issue being debated in international councils, be it democracy, human rights, gender sensitivity, religious freedom or the rights of minorities.
The Kingdom has placed before its people the “existential” threat posed by Iran, has sought to obtain their support through raw appeals to their sectarian identity, and then has beaten the drums of war to silence all demand for change. However, a bunch of autocrats forming a coalition for war will not re-shape West Asia; this can only be done by sweeping domestic political, economic and social reforms, and policies of accommodation and engagement regionally.
Talmiz Ahmad is an expert on the Middle East and a former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.