An outlier to the recent wave of Islamist violence, the Houthi uprisings in Yemen are particularly interesting as they provide a counterpoint to the global terrorist agendas that have come to be identified with Al Qaeda over the last three decades, and the Islamic State and Boko Haram more recently. They are as much a reactionary movement as they are fuelled by a nationalist sentiment for a Yemen controlled by Yemenis. And yet, as much as their agenda is driven by nationalism, the Houthi forces have also been mobilized as a geo-strategic satellite force to continue the eternal fight waged by Shi’i ideologues on the predominantly Sunni-governed socio-political order of the Gulf region, or so the mainstream argument goes.
The Saudi government believes Iran to be the source of Houthi funding, with reports claiming otherwise published far and few in between. However, amidst Iran’s recent nuclear negotiations with the US, and its attempt to re-join the international community after approximately 35 years of isolation, an ongoing relationship between Houthi rebels and Tehran seems unlikely. If the Houthis are indeed patrimonial clients of Tehran, the question remains, “why?”, and “what benefit would they serve each other”?
Last Wednesday, on April 8, 2015, in a televised PBS interview, Secretary of State John Kerry stated that Iran is “obviously” financially and militarily supporting Yemeni rebels. However, as of yet, no one has been able to present quantifiable evidence of such support, with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei going so far as to condemn the Saudis of genocide the subsequent Thursday, thereby putting the blame for the on-going conflict on Riyadh. On September 21, 2014, Houthi rebel forces conducted a coup d’état on President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who himself took power from President Ali Abdullah Saleh following a popular uprising in 2012. The rebels formed a Revolutionary Committee composed of 15 senior Houthi leaders and a General People’s Congress, in the style of the Iranian legislative structure. Since March 26, the Saudis have conducted over 1,200 airstrikes killing 385 civilians and wounding 342 others. In total, the ongoing conflict has led to the deaths of over 540 people, of which 75 have been children, with a further casualty count of 1,700.
If indeed the Houthis are a patrimonial client of Tehran, the Houthi offensive in Yemen against the Yemeni government serves to extend the influence of Tehran in the region, undermining Saudi Arabia’s historic hegemonic role in the Gulf in the process. Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, tensions between the opposing political camps of the Shi’i-Sunni divide have remained high, with each side mobilizing sectarian politics for their own national ambitions.
In 1931, as the Ottoman Empire was nearing its death, the Saudi kingdom was established by the Saud dynasty on the principles of Wahabi’ism, which adopts a fundamentalist Sunni interpretation of Islam in the traditional sense of the term. The Saudi monarchy proclaimed itself the guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and in so doing replaced the Ottoman Empire as the centre of the Arab world. The 1979 Iranian revolution not only posed a threat to Saudi hegemony, but also challenged the Sunni political order which had, up until this point, been the dominant order. It is these religious and geo-strategic tensions which form the basis of the Houthi uprisings in Yemen.
The ongoing civil war in Yemen poses a serious threat to regional stability in the Gulf in particular, and the entire Greater Middle East region as an extension, due to the patrimonial nature of the conflict. On March 25, 2015, the UAE committed 30 fighter jets, with Kuwait and Bahrain committing 15 each, Qatar committing 10, and Jordan committing 6, to support the Yemeni government. Speaking on behalf of the Houthis, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif demanded an end to the Saudi-led offensive, claiming that it was a gross violation of Yemeni sovereignty. Since the Houthis’ takeover of Sana’a, Iran has boosted its relations with the rebels, establishing direct flights to the Yemeni capital and hosting a group of influential rebels for talks in Tehran. And so it continues.