Foreign Policy Blogs

Yemen: Another Proxy State

Looks like a conflict that started out as a local civil war in the Northern Yemen is now turning to a full proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The feud involves the Shiite Houthi clan supported by Iran and the Sunni Yemeni government backed by Saudi Arabia. In October, Yemeni officials supposedly seized an Iranian ship loaded with weaponry including antitank weapons bound for the Houthi rebels. Similarly, Houthi rebels have displayed ammunition seized from the Yemeni army bearing Saudi Arabian markings.

The conflict escalated recently, when on November 2nd the Saudi Air Force launched air strikes against rebels who, according to Saudi officials, had crossed the border into Saudi Arabia and killed several Saudis. Saudi naval forces have also imposed a naval blockade in the Red Sea which they say is aimed at stopping the flow of weapons to rebels. Saudi officials have said that its military offensive will continue until the Houthi rebels withdraw from the two countries’ border.

The Iranian officials, in turn, have warned Yemen’s neighbors to stay out of Yemen’s internal affairs. Iran’s foreign minister was quoted as saying that regional nations should “seriously hold back from intervening in Yemen’s internal affairs”. “Those who pour oil on the fire must know that they will not be spared from the smoke that billows,” he said.

The antipathetic relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran is nothing new. Their feud about political power and influence in the region dates back to the days of Shah.  The rise of Iran as an economic and military power coupled with the Shiite revival threatens the status quo in the region, where Saudi Arabia, as the birthplace of Islam, has always played a leading role. One of the ways that Saudi Arabia has tried to diminish influence of Iran is by stoking the Shia- Sunni schism.  The New York Time’s article, In Public View, Saudis Counter Iran in Region, aired these accusations:

The kingdom has been accused of stoking sectarian tensions as a way to drain popular support from Iran and its proxies, like Hezbollah — a charge officials here deny but for which there is some evidence.

In an interview on Jan. 27 that appeared in the daily Saudi newspaper Al Seyassa, King Abdullah was asked about widespread rumors that Shiites were trying to convert Sunnis. Iranian officials have dismissed such reports as a disinformation campaign aimed at inciting sectarian tensions.

”We are following up this matter and are aware of the Shiite proselytism and what point it has reached,” the king was quoted as saying. ”This majority will not abandon its beliefs. At the end of the day it is the decision of the majority of Muslims that counts. Other creeds do not appear able to infiltrate the Sunni majority or undermine its historical authority.”



Sahar Zubairy

Sahar Zubairy recently graduated from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas- Austin with Masters in Global Policy Studies. She graduated from Texas A&M University with Phi Beta Kappa honors in May 2006 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics. In Summer 2008, she was the Southwest Asia/Gulf Intern at the Henry L. Stimson Center, where she researched Iran and the Persian Gulf. She was also a member of a research team that helped develop a website investigating the possible effects of closure of the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf by Iran.

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