The dramatic turn of events in Yemen with “Operation Decisive Storm” is more than a battle against a rebellion in one country in the Gulf. It is about the Saudi comeback in regional politics in the Middle East. Yemen is a political card in the hand of Saudi Arabia that can be used to bargain with Iran on regional issues, including Syria.
On March 29, the Arab League held a summit in Sharm al-Sheikh during which the establishment of a joint Arab military force was declared. In principle, all members of the League are supposed to be part of this voluntary elite force. The declared motivation behind the force is encouraging security cooperation across the Arab world. The underlying motivation is securing Arab regimes against internal and external threats, be they internal rebellions or extremist jihadism, as well as reconfiguring power relations in the Arab world to restore the position of Saudi Arabia as a regional leader.
Saudi policy towards Yemen had been ambiguous in the period leading up to the Houthi rebellion that started in September 2014. Channels of communication between Riyadh and the Houthis were open, albeit covert, but the declared Saudi position on the Houthis was that they were dangerous Iranian proxies. This was despite the Houthis not being Twelver Shiites and not having had a long-term, deep and ideological relationship with Iran as in the case of Hezbollah in Lebanon for example. Iran subsequently started courting the Houthis partly in response to Houthi reactions to the accusations made by Saudi Arabia, and partly in an attempt at increasing its own role in the Arab world. The Iranian-Houthi relationship therefore was a useful alliance for both that took advantage of the retreat in Saudi Arabia’s regional role over the past few years.
The Kingdom also did not pay attention to the ambitions of ousted Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was allowed to stay in Yemen following the implementation of the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative that ended his presidency. Saleh’s stay enabled him to lead his own political party and continue to influence the Yemeni military as well as court the Houthis on the basis of shared grievances against the government and president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Saudi’s contradictory approach towards the Houthis coupled with lack of attention to Saleh contributed to the escalation of tension in Yemen witnessed today as both saw in Saudi’s political retreat an opportunity to widen their influence.
The Houthi rebellion and its rapid expansion southwards towards Aden was alarming for Saudi Arabia, signaling that Houthi and Iranian ambitions have increased. Far from seeing the Houthis as a tolerable presence in the north, Riyadh began to see them as a concrete threat to its own interests. It therefore stepped into action through mobilizing an international coalition to reclaim Yemen and by extension, its own influence in the Gulf. The backing of Sunni-majority countries like Pakistan as well as Western countries like the United States and France of the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis is giving Riyadh a significant morale boost.
Defeating the Houthis is something that Riyadh seems confident about, particularly with the participation of forces from the multinational coalition taking part in Operation Decisive Storm. Because the relationship between the Houthis and Iran is not deep, and because the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia is an all-out war against them, the Houthis have little chance of withstanding this assault. Iran’s relationship with the Houthis is more pragmatic than ideological, which means that Tehran is likely to drop the Houthis once it sees that their position is weakened. Iran has more important battles to fight, at the top of them being the negotiations over the nuclear file and the situation in Syria. It can sacrifice Yemen for the sake of higher returns in the Levant.
Yemen here becomes one of several battlegrounds for the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. But Saudi’s likely gain in Yemen is more than just about winning this one battle. If Saudi Arabia asserts its control over Yemen, it will have restored its influence in the Gulf in a more comprehensive way than before. It has already overcome the uprising in Bahrain and brokered the installing of a British naval base in the country that sends a strong signal to Iranian ambitions in the area. This also comes after Riyadh’s quelling of Qatar’s own political ambitions and after rallying other Gulf countries to its side in the campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi’s consolidation of its power in the Gulf is the springboard for wider influence in the Arab world. For a while Saudi Arabia was talking publicly about the desire to establish a Gulf Union, and later a joint Gulf security strategy. But now it has achieved an even higher aim through the Arab League’s announcement of the establishment of a joint Arab military force at the recommendation of Riyadh.
All this means that when the dust settles in Yemen with the defeat of the Houthis, Saudi Arabia can rely on the support of Arab Sunni-majority countries to counter the spread of Iranian influence, particularly in Iraq and Syria. Although Iranian presence remains strong in the latter, the Assad regime is incurring more losses than before, and Saudi coordination with rebels on the ground as well as with other regional partners has played no small role in this scenario. The more clout Saudi Arabia can gather prior to the inevitable negotiations about Syria’s future, the higher its chances of achieving a deal to end the conflict that panders to its interests. While Iran will not agree to a solution in Syria that does not retain its own goal of keeping Syria as a thoroughfare for Hezbollah weapons, it is likely to use the Yemen “sacrifice” to ask for a political compromise on Syria based on a power sharing deal between elements of the current regime and the opposition. Saudi Arabia in turn is likely to accept a degree of Iranian influence in the Levant in return for Saudi control in the Gulf.
The current race by Saudi Arabia and Iran that is manifesting itself in Yemen is therefore not about the Saudi-Iranian rivalry being played out so that one entity eliminates its opponent, but about each player aiming to tip the balance of regional influence in their favor. Although for a while Iran seemed to be gaining more in this game, mainly as a result of Saudi Arabia’s retreat, the tides are now turning and Saudi Arabia is once again asserting itself as the power and security trendsetter in the Middle East.