The Middle East in the Wake of the Arab Spring: The Battle for Yemen
The severing of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, at the beginning of this year, has not come as much of a surprise. The two states have plunged into a cold war after the outbreak of the Arab Spring, with the competition between the two transforming the entire Middle East into a chessboard for geopolitical struggles.
The Arab Spring or the Jasmine Revolution has stirred up fears within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which feared a possible regional expansion of Iran in the context of the achievement of a consensus within the negotiations of the nuclear deal between Washington and Tehran. With this backdrop, Riyadh used its petrodollars to consolidate internal stability within the GCC member states, as in the case of Bahrein, Oman or Kuwait which, following this financial support, managed to avoid the escalation of social tensions within their own borders.
Afterwards, Riyadh’s foreign policy focused on reducing any Iranian influence in the region, thus supporting the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Egypt, the creation of the Future Movement in Lebanon as a counterweight to the Shiite Hezbollah or for the backing of Palestinian rival group Hamas.
Last but not least, Saudi Arabia managed to secure the backing from a series of West African states like Sudan, Djibouti or Somalia, that have supported Riyadh’s gesture of breaking diplomatic ties with Iran in January 2015. Sudan’s decision was the most surprising, with the regime in Khartoum having been once perceived as a long time fundamental ally for Tehran. For example, in 2013, Riyadh had forbidden President Omar al-Bashir access through Saudi airspace for an official visit to Iran. Based on bilateral relations, Iran has supported the development of the intelligence apparatus in the African state and has also developed the military-industrial complex, which facilitated the arming of groups like Hamas, Hezbollah or the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The rapprochement between Omar al-Bashir and Saudi Arabia is a political as well as an economic decision. Beyond the straight funding that the Saudis have offered the Sudanese for the consolidation of their economy, al-Bashir is afraid of the Ansar al-Sunnah Salafist movement’s rise. The movement is getting stronger by the day, and is bolstered by being a part of the Sudanese government. The Salafists, backed by Riyadh, have managed to build schools, roads, mosques and other such elements, gaining the sympathy of the population. Thus, the current political leadership is interested in maintaining good relations without causing internal conflicts. Last but not least, the Saudis host over half a million Sudanese that work in the Kingdom. Their possible expulsion could mean trouble for Khartoum.
In spite of these policies, Saudi Arabia has not managed to achieve its national interests in Yemen, a state in chaos and on the brink of secession.
The paradox is that, after resisting the unification of Yemen at the beginning of the 1990’s, the Saudis are now pushing for the preservation of the territorial integrity of this state by backing the Haidi led government, which faces a military advance from the Houthis.
Having roots with the Zaidi tribes, the Shiite Houthis are seen as catspaws and concealment for Iranian interests, which orchestrated a proxy war, trying to project power in a country within GCC borders. Thus, the Houthi rise would lead to the awakening of the Shia axis, leading to tensions in countries like Saudi Arabia or Bahrein and giving Iran indirect access to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea, recovering its strategic advantage after the severing of diplomatic relations with Sudan.
The future of Yemen remains uncertain with a military intervention by an Arab coalition led by the Saudis in the North of the country, where the Zaidi tribes live, being a real challenge for Riyadh. Just like Afghanistan’s reputation as the “cemetery of empires”, the difficult mountainous terrain of Yemen has proven to be a formidable obstacle, including for former Egyptian leader Nasser’s powerful army that lost over 10,000 soldiers during its prior intervention in the 1960s, dramatically lowering Rais’ popularity at the time in Egypt.
Last but not least, the internal struggle between the Houthis and the Yemeni army and the government’s inability to control the entire national territory will indirectly facilitate the ascent of terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and Daesh, which is why Yemen today can truly be likened to the Afghanistan of tomorrow.