It has become increasingly clear that the effects of the Arab Spring are still reverberating across the Middle East four years after the wave of uprisings first swept across the region. One of the most dynamic, complicated, and violent examples of post-Arab Spring situations can be found in Yemen. What began as a civil war has turned into a messy, proxy conflict, as Iran and Saudi Arabia each try to establish themselves, through actions in Yemen, as a prominent regional power.
The events that have led to the current civil war are complicated, but any analysis must examine the power dynamics of Yemen, where tribal confederations and their leaders hold enormous amounts of political sway. A clear understanding of such politics begins with the Yemeni Arab Spring, which arose out of massive civilian protests against authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh, a close ally of Saudi Arabia. The conflict escalated as Saleh simultaneously began a smokescreen peace negotiation process in order to buy time while his regime responded to civilian protests more and more violently. When Saleh refused a political transition agreement, one major tribal confederation, the Hashid, abandoned Saleh and threw their immense wealth and military force behind Saleh’s opposition. Until his death in 2007, Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar had ruled the Hashid, bringing the confederation to prominence despite their size by allying with President Saleh and Saudi Arabia. It was a desirable alliance for all involved: Saudi Arabia traded money and supplies for influence over the Yemeni government and guaranteed their interests would be protected by a major faction: The president received steadfast and meaningful support: And the otherwise relatively unimportant Hashid gained political access and power. This arrangement worked while Abdullah al-Ahmar was alive, but his children, notably Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, have substantially damaged the symbiosis. When Sadiq al-Ahmar led the Hashid alliance against Saleh’s forces along with the rest of the rebels, Saleh lost his grip over the country. He fled to Saudi Arabia, where he has worked very effectively to undercut his old allies. Saleh’s flight left Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi in charge of a country in conflict. In 2012, as the country tried to move on from the war, Hadi won 99.8 percent of the vote in a one-man election to become president in Saleh’s place.
After Hadi’s accession to the presidency, the Hashid have largely been weakened and fragmented, though fewer tribes from the alliance remain supportive of Hadi. President Saleh, although exiled, is reported to have allied himself with the Houthis. This minority Shiite clan with a militant history is now the face of the most recent iteration of rebellion, which began as a fight for more representation in the new Yemeni legislature and higher fuel subsidies. Saleh’s influence, combined with Saudi money drying up, has ended up pulling allied tribes away from the Ahmar family and the Hashid confederation to the Houthi cause. The once-erstwhile ally of Saudi Arabia was routed from their own main base in early 2014.
An expanded Houthi tribal alliance gained control of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, in late 2014, and President Hadi was captured and put under house arrest. A Revolutionary Committee led by Mohammed Ali al-Houthi was established to rule Yemen. Hadi escaped house arrest in early 2015 and set up a provisional capital in Aden, from which he has continued to fight for control of the country alongside the military support of a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and several other Middle Eastern states.
A Sunni-led Saudi Arabian government has a substantial interest in not only stopping the conflict quickly, but also in ensuring that the Shiite Houthis are kept out of power. As long as the fighting continues, instability may bleed across their shared border, especially as members of al-Qaeda operating in the Arab Peninsula have started to take advantage of the war and develop in the ensuing chaos. There have even been allegations that Hadi is supporting al-Qaeda’s presence in the peninsula in an attempt to weaken the Houthi by forcing them into a two-front war. From the perspective of Saudi Arabia, the prospect of a two-state solution, or worse, total Houthi political control, is untenable. Not only would Riyadh lack influence in a Houthi-dominated government, but the religious rift between Shiite and Sunni would always stand as a hindrance to relations. Worse, a victory for the Houthi just south of their border would make Saudi Arabia appear as if it were losing its grip on regional power and control. On the other hand, a Houthi victory would be ultimately beneficial for Iran in the long-standing power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
If Iran had its way, the Houthis would take control of Yemen entirely and restore a Zaydi (a branch of the Shia faith) imamate of the sort that ruled Yemen until 1962. Such leadership would be ideologically allied with Iran. Although there is not a great likelihood that the Iranians could singlehandedly force a Houthi victory in the face of broad regional support for President Hadi, the mere existence of conflict destabilizes the region, diminishes Saudi control, and serves an important role in affecting larger geopolitical tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran sees the control of buffer states like Syria and Iraq as vital to protecting its interests in a Middle East that is majority Sunni, and while Saudi Arabia tends to test such control, the nation would likely be less aggressive if there was the possibility of escalating conflict on its own borders.
Subverting Saudi political control has long been Iran’s goal, but the crumbling dominance of Saudi allies in Yemen has allowed for the rapid growth of the Houthis, a prospect on which Iran has greatly capitalized. It has sent Iranian Royal Guard and Hezbollah troops to Yemen for training and combat, provided funding, and shipped arms and other resources in huge quantities. The only factor likely preventing a certified proxy war in Yemen is simply the fact that Tehran does not exert the degree of control over the Houthis that Riyadh once did over the Hashid.
For the people of Yemen, the conflict has been nothing but disastrous. On the one side, there is the indiscriminate violence perpetrated by an aggressive minority; on the other, the similarly indiscriminate violence of a powerful state looking to suppress conflict at all costs. Half the country is already below the poverty line, and a drought and tropical cyclone have weakened an already struggling Yemeni public. The most important insight to be realized from the struggle for dominance between Saudi Arabia and Iran powers is that such violence has been incredibly harmful to the people of Yemen. As these two powers continue to play out a power struggle in the Arab peninsula, it is ultimately the people of Yemen who lose the most. Until the two countries can reach a clear conclusion and end their decades-long conflict of interest, Yemen may be only the first of locally sponsored pseudo-proxy wars raging in the Middle East.