Saudi Arabia, Iran and the ‘Great Game’ in Yemen

The Yemen card is a strategic bargaining chip that Iran may now be holding vis-a-vis the sudden rise of the Houthis.

Yemen could serve as a friendly base of operations in Iran's rivalry against Saudi Arabia, writes Reardon [EPA]

It would be an understatement to say that the internal power politics at play in Yemen are among the oldest, most complex and most dynamic in the Middle East.

What heretofore was a struggling and weak Sunni-led central government barely holding onto power while engaged in simultaneous and perpetual conflicts with a myriad of actors, has crumbled as of a week ago. Ongoing tribal disputes with no resolution in sight, secessionist movements in both the north and south, and being in the unfortunate position of serving as home base for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have all fed fuel to the fire. Two of those conflicts, however, one internal and the other external, are closely related, and have come to the forefront of both domestic and regional politics in light of recent events.

The first is the decade-long insurgency fought against the Houthi rebels, a Shia minority in the north who just last week toppled the central government and appear set, at least for now, to assume much greater power. However, many unanswered questions remain as to how the country will ultimately be governed, and by whom. The second, and more significant clash from a geopolitical standpoint involves two external actors, and has potentially far reaching regional repercussions that can alter the balance of power equation in the Middle East for years to come.

Strategic rivalry

Reminiscent of the “Great Game” played out in Afghanistan between Great Britain and Russia more than a hundred years ago, Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in their own decades-long strategic rivalry for power and influence in the Middle East, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf and Arabian Sea. It is built mostly along sectarian and ideological lines – Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, and Iran as the leader of the Shia Muslim world. 

While recent high-level discussions between the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers would suggest a possible thawing in their cold relations, the fact of the matter is, too much bad blood exists between them for any meaningful, long-term rapprochement, at least in the near-term. The more likely state of affairs is that they are simply reassessing their strategies, taking into account all the events in the region, and preparing their next moves on the Middle East chessboard.

Inside Story – Yemen: New balance of power?

In playing their Great Game, Saudi Arabia and Iran have engaged in a series of proxy wars to undermine each other, some hot and some cold, throughout the Middle East. In Lebanon, it’s the Iran-backed Hezbollah. In Syria, it’s the longtime Iran-backed Assad regime. In Iraq, it’s an Iran-backed Shia government which was, prior to the US invasion in 2003, solidly in the Sunni camp.

In Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, Iran works behind the scenes to undermine those governments through the Shia communities, a threat Saudi Arabia takes so seriously that they sent military forces into Bahrain in 2011 to help quell the Shia uprising there. And then there is Yemen. While it is debatable as to how involved they were in supporting the Houthi uprising, the sudden turn of events on the ground there does play favourably into Iran’s hand. But why?

Iran’s long-term strategic interest in Yemen is simple. Located on the southwestern tip of the Gulf peninsula, Yemen is a poorly governed, fractious country straddling Saudi Arabia’s southern border, which can be likened to a sieve in terms of ancient smuggling routes still used by those wanting to covertly enter the kingdom. And with a population that is 35 percent Shia, Yemen could serve as a potentially friendly base of operations in Iran’s rivalry against Saudi Arabia. For Iran, easier access to Yemen means easier access to Saudi Arabia. But is that really Iran’s intent?

Weapons smuggling

In a March 2012 article, The New York Times cited claims by unnamed US military and intelligence officials that the Quds Force, an elite arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IGRC) was smuggling significant quantities of AK-47, rocket propelled grenades, and other arms to Houthi rebels in Yemen. And in January 2013, a cache of weapons seized from a ship off the coast of Yemen was reported by CNN to have Iranian markings. It included surface-to-air missiles, C-4 explosives, and other weapons, all allegedly destined for the Houthis.

For Saudi Arabia, which shares a porous 1,770km southern border with Yemen, the stakes there are high. According to a November 2013 article by Middle East Voices, Saudi intelligence officials consider Yemen to be the weakest security link in the Gulf and “easy prey for Tehran to penetrate and manipulate”.

The Saudi-Yemen border also serves as the primary point of infiltration for AQAP, which is still considered the biggest terrorist threat to the kingdom. For both those very reasons, the Saudis have been providing significant financial and military support to Yemen’s central government, and even conducted their own ground and air strikes against the Houthis and AQAP on the Yemen side of the border. The Saudis are still reeling from the loss of their of long time ally, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced to step down as Yemen’s president in 2011. From the Saudi perspective, Yemen has been on a downward spiral ever since.

Last week, a New York Times article on the recent rebel gains in Yemen, quoted Ibrahim Sharqieh, a researcher at the Brookings Institute in Doha, as saying: “In the regional cold war, this has strengthened the position of the Iranians. For the Saudis, the Houthis arriving in Sanaa is definitely not good news.”

As an indication of Iran’s newfound influence in Yemen, Reuters reported last week that three IRGC and two Lebanese Hezbollah operatives held captive there had been released since the Houthis came to power. And just yesterday, Asharq Al-Awsat reported that IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah operatives are actively engaged with Houthi rebels to boost their control in Yemen’s capital city of Sanaa.

Line in the sand

So what does this mean? Is Yemen really that important to Saudi Arabia and Iran? The short answer is yes, and each side seems prepared to draw their proverbial line in the sand. For Saudi Arabia, what happens south of their border is a matter of grave national security, particularly now that the future of Yemen is in question. They cannot allow instability there to give Iran a solid foothold on the peninsula or AQAP free movement northwards.

Iran’s line in the sand is Iraq and Syria. Both those countries serve as buffers between Iran and the Sunni Middle East, so having stable and dependable Shia-led governments in each serves as a strategic objective that is non-negotiable for Iran. Which brings up the Yemen card, a strategic bargaining chip that Iran may now be holding vis-a-vis the sudden rise of the Houthis and anticipated domestic chaos that is sure to plague the country for the foreseeable future.

By playing it, Iran would seek to pressure the Saudis to tread lightly in Iraq and Syria or risk a concerted effort to further undermine them from their southern border. The question now is, will the Saudis make their stand in Yemen or blink? And so the Great Game goes on.

Martin Reardon is a Senior Vice President with The Soufan Group, a New York-based strategic security and intelligence consultancy, and Senior Director of Qatar International Academy for Security Studies. He is a 21-year veteran of the FBI, and specialised in counterterrorism operations.