Yemen provides the latest example of a clash of policy between the two Middle-Eastern powerhouses, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran is widely thought to be backing the Houthi rebels, who seized Sana’a and ousted President Hadi during a coup in September last year – although the Houthis have certainly not depended on Iran. This spread of Iranian influence has prompted a drastic response from Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf. On the 26th of March they began bombing Houthi-held areas to devastating effect; the UN human rights commission has already reported close to 400 civilian casualties with many more injured. On top of consistent bombing, Saudi Arabia has mobilised 150,000 ground troops, strengthened its border with Yemen and conducted talks with Egypt over the last few days about a ‘major strategic exercise’.
The instability that conflict in Yemen brings to the Gulf is part of the reason Saudi Arabia is showing such concern and they have stressed the need to back the legitimacy of Hadi’s government, but it is the influence of Iran that is the driving force behind the decision-making. Speeches at the Arab League last month, for example, consistently referenced the threat of foreign or outside parties in the Yemen conflict as a key issue and Hadi, who is now in Saudi Arabia, has often referred to the Houthis as ‘Iranian puppets’. Far from being the sectarian conflict that some see this as, it is just two states vying for power. Saudi Arabia’s alliance with Egypt, who continues to crack down on the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, best demonstrates this.
Iran has always denied any military involvement in Yemen and has condemned Saudi Arabia’s actions. Furthermore, Iranian foreign minister, Jared Zarif, has today emphasised the need to ‘end this bombardment and all the bloodshed’ and stressed that Iranian influence will be used to ‘bring everybody to the negotiating table’. Iran had been seen as a cause of conflict in Yemen; now, suddenly, Saudi Arabia is fully committed to a military conflict that may prove very complicated and Iran is portraying itself as the peace-broker. Iranian involvement has been very hard to prove. Saudi Arabia’s obvious show of strength therefore leaves them outmanoeuvred, though not outgunned, as such transparent involvement means civilian casualties can now be pinned on them. Clearly, the prospect of US sanctions on Iran being lifted has created a fear of Iranian dominance in the region.
Through all the geopolitical blustering, the fate of the people of Yemen has too often been over-looked. In the Gulf’s poorest state, the death-toll is mounting (including increasing numbers of civilians) there are widespread food shortages, and unrelenting damage to infrastructure. As the chaos increases, so too does the disruptive presence of al-Qaeda. Although foreign involvement may be the only answer, the bombing campaign will only worsen the situation and leave the country more broken and fragmented than before. Geopolitics and the struggle for regional dominance, however, continue to overshadow the humanitarian issues.