Yemen: The new Saudi Arabia/Iran battleground

Kirthi Jayakumar

"Sana'a after airstrike 20-4-2015 - destruction (34734594)" by Mr. Ibrahem - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Sana’a after airstrike (April 20, 2015) – destruction by Ibrahem | Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

That Saudi Arabia, a Sunni majority is at loggerheads with Iran, a Shiite majority, is not news. The resultant effect of these differences is years of hostility punctuated with conflict. The simmering undercurrents have turned into open conflagration on occasion, and the latest proxy battleground for the two nations is Yemen.

The Saudi Arabia led military campaign, Operation Decisive Storm, was purportedly in response to President Hadi’s request to Saudi Arabia, for intervention against the Houthi Rebels, who, it appears, were supported by Iran. The winds of the Arab Spring blew over Yemen, as peaceful protests began against the regime a few years ago. For the most part, these protests didn’t find much mention in the media: and was nearly almost ignored. One of the rebellious factions, the Houthis, gained control of Sanaa and began to make inroads into other parts of Yemen. In November 2014, President Hadi of Yemen fled to Saudi Arabia. But it was only a month ago, that Saudi Arabia decided to lead a coalition into taking action.

Looking closer, it does seem clear that the Iran quotient has had a role to play in this decision. Saudi Arabia and its allies have clearly had their ears to the ground, trained to sniff out potential avenues to trounce Iran. With the then impending nuclear deal pressing forward between the US and Iran, there was a very strong likelihood that the US would dismantle its sanctions against Iran, in exchange for its genuine commitment and assurance not to pursue a nuclear weapons program. With the winding down of sanctions, Iran would no longer have to bear the crushing burden of a deprivation system that would bleed it dry: which means, Iran could gain economic and political strength. Saudi Arabia would not be comfortable with a stronger Iran. That allegations were rife to the effect that Iran was supporting the Houthis was a window of opportunity for Russia to act on.

Right now, what Saudi Arabia is doing, is not only interesting, but precedential for world politics. After a month of bombing Yemen, it has chosen to stop Operation Decisive Storm, and has picked up strings for Operation Renewal of Hope: a measure that’s in place to ensure that civilians are protected. Saudi Arabia has gone on another tangent with this step: to project to the world that there is not only a responsibility to protect, but a responsibility while protecting. Saudi Arabia and its coalition have two things in mind: to assert power and dominance while remaining the ones in charge all through, and secondly, to carve a path that is distinct from the West, that has often been called out for its flawed interventionist policies. And so, Saudi Arabia has been careful to be on the right side of the fence with its approach of defining necessity and proportionality. The altruism and humanitarian angle is a collateral advantage.

With both the nations having been locked for years in a battle for influence across the region, the thirst for power and regional dominance still remains alive now, more than ever. Yemen was a catalyst: it was a way to draw Iran into another sphere that could bleed it dry. An eleven member coalition backing up the legitimate government versus one nation backing up rebels: anyone can do the math here.


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