Analysis: Suddenly, the Arab World Wakes Up to Yemen’s RebellionDecember 20, 2009
The 30th summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council, meeting in Kuwait this week, expressed its solidarity with Saudi Arabia in its fight with the Shi’ite Houthi rebels in northern Yemen. The Kuwaiti emir noted that Saudi Arabia is facing “flagrant aggression that targets its sovereignty and security by those who have infiltrated its territory.”
The formerly little-noticed conflict between the Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government is now taking on the coloration of an additional hot front in an ongoing region-wide cold war. The conflict in northern Yemen reveals the ongoing Iranian regional effort to convert Shi’ite populations into assets enabling it to apply pressure on neighbors and rivals.
The Arab response, meanwhile, shows the very great trepidation felt by the Gulf Arabs in the face of Iranian regional ambitions and expansion.
The term “Houthi rebels” refers to members of the Houthi clan, who have been engaged in an insurrection against the government of Yemen in the Saada district in the north of the country since 2004. The Houthis are members of the Zaidi Shi’ite sect of Islam. (Zaidi Shi’ites venerate the first four Imams of Islam, in contrast to the Twelver Shi’ites dominant in Iran). Led by Abd al-Malik el-Houthi, the rebels are fighting to bring down the government of President Ali Abdallah Saleh, which they regard as too pro-Western.
Thousands on both sides have died in the rebellion. The fighting includes the use by both sides of tanks and armored personnel carriers. It has resulted in the displacement of around 150,000 people.
The situation escalated in November, when Houthi rebels clashed with Saudi forces in the Jabal Dukhan territory straddling the border. In the ensuing firefight two Saudi border guards were killed and another 10 were wounded. The Saudis responded in force. Saudi aircraft and helicopter gunships carried out a series of attacks on rebel held areas of northern Yemen in the following days, killing around 40 rebels. Saudi forces remain on high alert.
Riyadh identifies the hand of Iran behind the Houthi Shi’ite rebels. Saudi media outlets in the last month – including the Al-Watan and Asharq Al-Awsat newspapers and the Al-Arabiya television network – have repeatedly made the connection. They assert that Iran is seeking to develop the Houthis along the lines of Hizbullah – turning north Yemen into a pro-Iranian enclave on the Saudi border, with the intention of placing pressure on the Saudis. Saudi media outlets now regularly place the Houthis alongside Hizbullah, Hamas and Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq when listing Iran’s clients in subversion across the region. The Iranians deny these claims. But considerable evidence exists to support them.
Regarding the ideological and propaganda level – the Bint Jbeil Web site, maintained by Hizbullah, maintains a forum for what it refers to as the “supporters of truth from Yemen.” The forum includes details and pictures of successful operations carried out by the Houthis, pictures of Houthi leaders and policy statements reflecting the movement’s Shi’ite Islamist outlook.
Regarding direct Iranian military links to the Houthis: the generally reliable Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the last days quoted unnamed intelligence sources who described a meeting by a Revolutionary Guards official, Hizbullah officers and representatives of the Houthis on the Saudi-Yemeni border last month. The story was carried also by Al-Arabiya. The intention of the meeting was to coordinate the escalation of the insurgency.
Yemen, meanwhile, claims in the last months to have thwarted several attempts by Iranian-commissioned ships to transport weaponry and other equipment to the rebels. The Texas-based private intelligence company Stratfor, which last year revealed the existence of an Iranian network to supply arms to Hamas via Sudan three months before the network became public knowledge, has produced details of what it claims is a similar Iranian supply line to the Houthis.
According to the group, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps have been running a network purchasing arms in Eritrea and Somalia. The arms are then transported from the Asab harbor in Eritrea, across the Red Sea to Salif on the Yemeni coast. From there, they are taken to Hajjah and Huth in northern Yemen, before finally reaching the Saada province, where the Houthi insurgency is taking place.
Because of the Saudi dispatch of three warships to the Red Sea Coast last month, this route has now been augmented by an additional route from Asab to Shaqra on the southern Yemen coast, and then across land to Saada.
Iran’s efforts in Yemen indicate the unfortunate fate of weak states in times of regional cold war. Yemen has poorly-developed institutions and a divided populace. This has made it particularly vulnerable to penetration by its neighbors and by global jihadi forces.
In the 1960s, under very different circumstances, Yemen became an arena for the “Arab Cold War” of that time, as Saudi Arabia and Egypt backed rival sides in the Yemeni civil war. Today, in the context of a new cold war, the Iranians are using the country to build up the latest recruit to the region-wide Revolutionary Guards franchise of armed clients.
As in Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait, Egypt and among the Palestinians, local grievances are to be utilized to intimidate neighbors and increase the sum total of Iranian influence. In the mountainous, inhospitable terrain of the Saada province, proxy war has returned to Yemen.
Dr. Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Herzliya, Israel