On March 26, Saudi Arabia went to war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. In doing so, Saudi leaders opened the latest chapter in a long history of meddling and influence over their southern neighbor.
Since Saudi Arabia was founded in the 1930s, its leaders have tried to keep a friendly regime in power in Yemen and to prevent it from posing a threat to Saudi interests. That often meant meddling in Yemen’s internal politics, keeping populist movements in check, using guest workers as leverage, buying off tribal leaders and occasional military interventions.
This time, the stakes are higher for both Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Saudi leaders claim that, along with a coalition of nine other countries, they launched air strikes and are blockading the Yemeni coast to drive back the Houthis and their allies in the Yemeni military, who have taken over much of the country in recent months. The Saudis and their Gulf Arab allies want to restore Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi into power.
The conflict in Yemen is complex, with a shifting set of alliances. Hadi and his supporters, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, are backed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. The Houthis, who belong to the Zaydi sect of Shiite Islam, are allies of Shiite-led Iran, the regional rival of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states. While the Saudis are quick to label the Houthis as Iranian proxies, it’s unclear how much support they actually receive from Tehran.
The Houthis are allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a long-time dictator who was ousted from power after the Arab uprisings of 2011 spread to Yemen. Once a Saudi ally, Saleh was replaced by Hadi in 2012 under a deal brokered by Riyadh. But Saleh still retains support among large segments of the Yemeni security forces and those troops helped the Houthis capture the capital, Sanaa, and move south toward Hadi’s stronghold of Aden.
With direct Saudi military intervention, Yemen has now been dragged into a regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This series of battles in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain have defined the Middle East since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. The proxy war is drawing in more regional actors. Hours after the start of the Saudi-led bombing campaign, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said in a statement that Egypt’s navy and air force would soon join the fight and that its army was ready to send ground troops to Yemen “if necessary.”
Yemen’s geography — and its web of tribal, regional and sectarian alliances — makes it a difficult and costly exploit for foreign invaders. Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt suffered significant losses during past military adventures in Yemen.
For centuries, Yemen was an autonomous province in the Ottoman Empire. With the empire’s collapse at the end of World War I, Yemen secured its independence as a kingdom in 1918 and its first ruler was Imam Yahya, who was leader of the Zaydi sect. (The Zaydis have always been a minority in Yemen and today they comprise about a third of the total population of 24 million).
But Imam Yahya faced pressure from Saudi Arabia throughout his rule. In 1934, two years after Ibn Saud established the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, he fought a short war against his southern neighbor. The Saudis seized the provinces of Asir and Najran from what Imam Yahya considered “historic Yemen.”
In the 1950s and early ’60s, the Arab world struggled to rid itself of the vestiges of colonial rule and hereditary monarchies. A group of Egyptian officers, led by the charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser, overthrew the British-backed King Farouk in 1952 and kindled the hope of Arab unity.
When Imam Yahya’s successor, Imam Ahmad, died in September 1962, his son and successor was overthrown within a week in a coup led by army officers. Inspired by Egypt’s Nasser, the officers declared the Yemen Arab Republic. The royal family resisted the coup and sought support from the House of Saud, which did not want a successful military-led republican regime next door.
The Yemeni revolution quickly devolved into a civil war and Yemen became the scene of a proxy battle between Egypt and Saudi Arabia — a struggle for the future of the Arab world, between the so-called “progressive” republican regimes and the “conservative” monarchies. By 1965, Nasser flooded Yemen with 70,000 Egyptian troops.
The Egyptian army was bogged down fighting tribal guerrillas on their home terrain. Over the five-year war, more than 10,000 Egyptian troops were killed and the Egyptians still failed to advance far beyond the capital city, Sanaa. Blinded by his fervor to promote revolution in the Arab world, the Yemen war became Nasser’s Vietnam. At the same time, the Saudis were funding the royalist opposition, providing arms and hiring foreign mercenaries. But the Saudis did not make the same mistake as Nasser of committing thousands of their own troops to the fight.
Yemen’s relationship with the Saudis remained tense until the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US. At that point, Saleh maneuvered himself as an ally of both the Saudis and Washington in fighting al-Qaeda. From 2004 until late 2009, Saleh’s government waged a series of six wars against the Houthi rebels based in the northern provinces of Yemen, near the Saudi border. The Saudis supported Saleh through all of these wars and the Saudi military was directly drawn into the last of these conflicts in 2009. Saudi forces suffered about 200 casualties over several months of fighting.
Today, Saudi Arabia has intervened more directly in Yemen than ever before. In light of this history, the Saudis are reluctant to send ground troops to fight the Houthis on Yemeni soil. But recent conflicts — in Iraq, Syria and Libya — show that air power alone is not enough to win a decisive victory. And the longer this conflict drags on, the more likely that the Houthis will gain wide popular support as the defenders of Yemen’s independence against an aggressive and meddling neighbor.
Mohamad Bazzi is a professor of journalism at New York University and a former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday.
This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman, a leading Turkish daily. Click here to go to the original.