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Houthis and external intervention in Yemen

Dr Prasanta Kumar Pradhan is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • November 25, 2009

    Yemen is going through severe domestic turmoil due to the violent activities of Al Qaeda, Houthi rebels in the north and the Southern Movement in the south. Amongst these three, the armed struggle by the Houthis in the northern part of the country, particularly in the Saada province has drawn the involvement of regional powers. The Houthis belong to the Zaidi Shia sect. The rebels are fighting against the Yemeni government accusing it of widespread corruption, socioeconomic negligence of the Shias, the growing influence of Sunni Wahhabism in the country and the country’s alliance with the USA.

    Iran has been supporting the Houthis by providing them with money, arms and training. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh directly accused Iran of supporting the Houthi rebels stating that some arrested Houthi rebels have confessed of their links with Iran. Iranian authorities have rejected the Yemeni claim instead offered to help Yemen come out of the crisis. The recent disclosure by a former Houthi leader, Abu Sulaiman, about the Iranian plan to establish a Shiite state carved out from a large chunk of northern Yemen and the southern part of Saudi Arabia’s territory has further established Iranian support for the Houthis. Abu Sulaiman confessed that the Houthis are being supported by Iran and Tehran is providing them with weapons, training and weapons manufacturing capabilities as well. This was reiterated by Hamoud al Hitar, Yemen's Minister of Religious Affairs who stated that, "they (Houthis) have an expansionist agenda and this was evident when they started fighting Saudi Arabia, it shows that they want to create a state in northern Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia." But despite that, both Iran and the Houthis have completely rejected the Yemeni claim. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has been accused by Iran and the Houthis for supplying sophisticated weapons to the Yemeni government, something which has been rejected both by Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Houthis have also alleged that Saudi Arabia has provided military bases to Yemen to launch attacks on them from Saudi territory.

    Iran supports the Houthis primarily because the Houthis belong to the Shiite sect and it has remained an unstated policy of Tehran to help, support and unite the Shias all over the region. Furthermore, supporting the Houthis in the backyard of Saudi Arabia would give Tehran a geo-strategic advantage vis a vis that country with whom it has a longstanding regional rivalry. This has heightened Saudi fear about the possibility of an increased Iranian influence over the Houthis. Saudi Arabia is concerned about the intrusion of Houthis into its territory and that increased activities by the Houthis may spill over to its territory and inflame its Shia population which has, in the past, triggered several violent uprisings. That apart, Saudi Arabia is worried that Al Qaeda terrorists from Yemen and elsewhere may seize the opportunity to enter the Kingdom using the porous Saudi-Yemeni border for their operations. Other GCC states are also not immune to the threats from Al Qaeda and the possibility Shia insurrections in their countries.

    To Saudi Arabia’s disbelief, Houthi rebels attacked Saudi border security guards and infiltrated the Kingdom’s territory. For their part, Saudis launched heavy military operations including aerial bombardment to push the Houthis back to their territory. Heavy confrontation was reported from areas like al-Khuba and Jabal al-Dukhan in the Jaizan region bordering Yemen which has led to several deaths on both sides. Saudi Arabia also imposed a naval blockade on the Red Sea coast of northern Yemen to check the flow of weapons to the Houthis.

    On the political and diplomatic front, Saudi Arabia won the support of all the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries on its offensive against the Houthis. A meeting of the GCC Foreign Ministers at Doha on November 10 expressed its full support to Saudi Arabia to protect its territorial sovereignty. The meeting also reaffirmed the GCC states’ support for Yemen's unity, security and stability and lauded Yemen’s efforts to curd threats to its security. This GCC stance was highly appreciated by the Yemeni government. Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, also extended the OIC’s total support for all the measures taken by Saudi Arabia to defend its security and territorial integrity. He also stated that, “this is in line with the Organization’s Charter which underscores respect, safeguard and defence of the national sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all Member States.”

    Iran has warned all regional countries not to interfere in Yemen. Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki stated that regional countries should not interfere in Yemen’s internal affairs as instability in any country in the region will affect security in the entire region. At the same time Iran has suggested that Yemen should ‘rehabilitate relations’ with its public, including its Shia minority. Yemen, for its part, has clarified that the confrontation with the Houthis is not a sectarian war rather it is a law-enforcement operation against the Houthis who are undermining the security and stability of the country.

    The situation in Yemen is deteriorating every day. The failure of the government to stem Houthi-led violence and the involvement of the external powers in Yemen’s sectarian problems has aggravated the country’s stability. Yemen has been turned in to a theater of conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Houthi issue, it seems, is no longer a problem for Yemen alone. Rather than confronting each other through their proxies, external powers should support the impoverished and conflict ridden Yemen to emerge from the crisis. If the violence continues, such a volatile situation holds the potential to challenge peace and stability in the whole region.