THE LEVANT – By Alireza Rezakhah – Yemen, as part of the Arabian Peninsula, is of very high importance to its northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, for a variety of reasons. The country enjoys special geopolitical position by having good control over the strategic Gulf of Aden, while also overlooking the highly strategic Bab-el-Mandeb Strait as well as the sensitive waterway through the Red Sea. Yemen is also home to Jabal Marran (Marran Mountains), which extend from the Gulf of Aden and continue up to Taif region in southwest country. Another reason that has made Yemen very important to Saudi Arabia is its common borders with the Shia-dominated Jazan and Eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia. Perhaps, it is for these reasons that many analysts believe that Yemen constitutes an important axis for the establishment of security in Saudi Arabia. This is also why, when the rapid waves of Islamic Awakening were threatening the Saudi government, Riyadh reached an agreement with the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen. According to that agreement, Saudi Arabia chose for a political and security retreat and conceded to divide the political power in Yemen with the Islah Party, which represented the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen.
Now, after the lapse of a few years from the half-complete popular revolution in Yemen, the unrest has once more broken out in the country. The ongoing developments in Yemen can be analyzed at two domestic and foreign levels. At domestic level, the political developments in Yemen are driven by the competition among three major political currents. They include the Islah Party, which represents Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood; the political current headed by the incumbent President Abd Rabbuh Hadi Mansur, which represents the country’s former regime; and the third current, spearheaded by Ansarullah group, which is affiliated to the Houthi tribe and represents independent popular groups in the country. This triangle is based on a collection of tribal and ideological backdrops. At the foreign level, one may claim that Yemen has turned into a scene of political competition for three main currents in the Middle East, which are represented by Iran, Saudi Arabia and a coalition consisting of Qatar and Turkey. Saudi Arabia supports the political current that is affiliated to Hadi Mansur, while Iran supports the Houthis and the coalition of Qatar and Turkey supports the Muslim Brotherhood. However, as said before, Yemen is more important to Saudi Arabia than the other two players.
Analysts believe that Saudi Arabia has been trying to get along with the Houthi movement and has thus remained silent through the recent developments in Yemen, which practically brought the country’s capital city of Sana’a under control of Ansarullah group. This stands in stark contrast with Saudi Arabia’s previous approach, which was marked with staunch opposition to the Houthi movement. Riyadh even tried to get the United Nations Security Council to adopt a resolution against the Houthi movement in Yemen, in order to impart an international dimension to what was going on in its southern neighbor. When trying to justify Saudi Arabia’s new policy, one may point to the fact that after the wave of popular revolutions in Arab countries started to ebb, Saudis decided to make up for political and security retreats they had already made. The government of Saudi Arabia has always considered the Muslim Brotherhood as a potential rival. Therefore, their first step to make up for the past failures was to plot and support a coup d’état against the government of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which is also the homeland of the Muslim Brotherhood. The next step was to counter the offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood in various littoral countries of the Persian Gulf, especially in their main center in Qatar. The third step was to purge Yemen of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is why Riyadh has chosen to remain silent in the face of the strong protest launched by the Yemeni Houthis in order to provide grounds for the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Sana’a.
Despite the above facts, there is no doubt that Saudis are by no means willing to see Houthis grasp the power and substitute the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen. Riyadh considers Ansarullah movement as a potential rival which has been only given more latitude to act in order to dismiss another potential rival of Saudi Arabia from power in Yemen. Therefore, Riyadh’s silence can by no means be taken as a sign of its consent to what is going on in its southern neighbor. These days, Saudis are trying to implement a certain form of double containment in Yemen. On the one hand, they are trying to reestablish their past alliances with a number of tribal chieftains from Yemen’s Hashid tribe in order to prevent a powerful political current to come into being led by the Houthi tribe. On the other hand, they are trying to integrate the Houthi current into state institutions in order to prevent the movement from gaining a powerful independent identity as in the case of Hezbollah resistance group in Lebanon. Of course, Saudis never totally forget about a military option when it comes to Yemen. However, the existing realities in the region and the experience of past war with Houthis have, for the time being, reduced desirability of this option. Another scenario that Saudis have in mind for Yemen is to make an effort to control their both rivals; that is, the Islah Party and Ansarullah movement, by fanning the flames of a constant conflict between these two groups. Riyadh hopes that such a war of attrition would weaken both sides of the conflict. Of course, these are possible scenarios that may be implemented by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Therefore, this analysis by no means indicates that other political groups and currents will remain passive in the face of Saudi Arabia’s efforts. At present, Houthis have the upper hand, both with regard to actual realities on the ground and developments in the political scene of the country. We must wait for future developments to unravel. What is currently evident is that Saudi Arabia is content with what is going on in Yemen.