Reading Saudi Tea Leaves in Yemen

The international press reported on December 4 that Saudi Arabia had suspended most financial aid to Yemen as a result of the Houthi movement’s ongoing occupation of Sana’a. As the most overt Saudi policy move in Yemen since the northern Houthis captured the capital in mid-September, it set off a chain of worrying political and security developments with implications that extend beyond the country’s borders. Saudi Arabia, which has long played a heavy-handed role in Yemen’s affairs, has followed developments with a mix of concern and uncertainty. The Saudis have reason to be concerned about recent events: most acutely, they fear the weakening of their traditional allies in Sana’a, diminished political influence, and Iranian encirclement with the ascendency of the Shia-Zaydi movement. With no clearly stated Saudi policy in Yemen, observers are left to read the tea leaves of Saudi officials’ words and deeds to provide insight on how the kingdom will respond to the shifting power balance in Yemen and how it will ensure its interests are protected. Beyond ideological warfare with Iran, Saudi Arabia struggles to retain or expand its influence in Yemen and its leaders are taking concrete steps to bolster border security and ensure safe access to trade routes.

While Saudi Arabia cannot afford to ignore on-the-ground developments in Yemen, internal and regional challenges perhaps diverted its attention over the past year. But the recent Houthi successes have prompted a lot of Saudi official chatter, which sees the Houthi flexing as foreign encroachment along the kingdom’s southern border. Royal family members and government officials have cast the group’s rise in terms of Iranian interference that resonate at home and with the Gulf Cooperation Council states, most of whom also have sizeable Shia populations. Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal warned Houthi violence could “threaten stability and security on the regional and international arena” at the UN General Assembly in September. Putting Yemen in an international context, he told the Saudi Press Agency that if “Iran would like to contribute in solving the [region’s] problems, it should withdraw its forces fighting in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and other places.” An emergency meeting on Yemen held by the GCC interior ministers in Jeddah yielded a statement that “the GCC states will not stand idly by in the face of factional foreign intervention.”

Saudi newspapers have amplified this hand-wringing about the Iranian presence and have been even more outspoken in questioning the kingdom’s role. Asharq al-Awsat published an editorial in mid-October wondering whether responsibility fell to the Saudis to “save” Yemen from the future dangers caused by the Houthi coup. An editorial in Al Arabiya alleged that the Houthis conspired with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh “to deceive the Saudi leadership.” In Okaz, Rania al-Baz wrote that the Houthis have Tehran’s blessing, but “Iran is not seeking to win, but to prolong the days of conflict and instability in Yemen.” The general message of the press has echoed many Saudi officials, albeit in explicit terms: the Houthi ascendance, enabled by Saleh, is the product of Iranian meddling and will lead to long-term instability in Yemen that threatens the Kingdom.

The situation on the ground is more complicated than this rhetoric would suggest for several reasons. For one, the simplified Sunni-Shia narrative of Iranian influence is complicated by differences between the Houthis’ Zaydism, which has traditionally shared an amicable relationship with the country’s majority Shaf’i population, and Persian Twelver Shiism. Secondly, a lack of concrete evidence makes the real extent of Iranian influence unclear. There is broad consensus among Yemen’s political class—and a great deal of anecdotal evidence—that Iran supports the Houthi movement, but how extensively remains unclear. Is it just ideological support and nominal funding or is it more operational, including training, provision of weapons, political strategy, technical assistance, and strategic communications support? Tehran was indeed quick to applaud the Houthi capture of Sana’a and trumpet its own influence over another Arab capital. But while the Houthis have welcomed moral and material support, they strongly deny that they are Iranian agents or that they aspire to run the government. They seem largely content to bolster the country’s weak security apparatus with their own fighters while challenging al-Qaeda and tribal enemies in the center provinces.

Saudi actions have shown an understanding of this reality, demonstrating seemingly greater concern over threats to border security, trade route access, and limited political influence resulting from the Houthi movement’s rise. The Saudis worry about Houthi armed forces along their porous shared border, and have responded by boosting security. The governor of the Saudi Jazan province said in October that “all security agencies are ready to intervene in case of emergency.” Saudi wariness is born of experience. In 2010, the kingdom carried out air and ground campaigns against Houthi fighters on both sides of the border during their war with Saleh’s government. The Saudis also fear instability caused by violent responses to Houthi military movements could both open the door for al-Qaeda’s expansion in Yemen and threaten the Bab al-Mandab trade. Yemen has provided a base for not only Yemeni but also Saudi extremists and the kingdom is the preeminent target on the Arabian Peninsula for many militants. Additionally, 8 to 10 percent of global trade and 4 percent of the world’s oil flows through the Bab al-Mandab. The Saudis and their neighbors greatly fear trade disruption, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi noted that in October Egypt and Saudi Arabia had discussed a potential joint response to threats.

The Houthis’ success comes at the low ebb of Saudi influence in Yemen. Beyond these security actions, the kingdom is also trying to reinvigorate direct ties with tribal and political actors to bolster its diminished role in Yemen. Saudi Arabia distanced itself from the Islamist Islah party in early 2014, as part of its regional campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood. As an umbrella Islamist political force, Islah represents a strong Muslim Brotherhood cohort, but it also includes the al-Ahmar clan, traditional Saudi allies who head the powerful Hashid tribal confederation. The Saudis presented the al-Ahmars with an ultimatum to either fight the Brotherhood or lose funding last winter. Subsequent cuts weakened the clan and Islah. In February, the Houthis overran the Ahmar tribal headquarters in the north. By September, they had moved on to Sana’a and driven Brigadier General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, an Islah leader and powerful Saudi ally, from the country. Mohsen and key al-Ahmar leaders allegedly fled across the border, dealing a deadly blow to Islah and their allies. The defeat of this cohort places the Kingdom in a much weakened position, without the traditional network of tribal allies it had cultivated over decades.

The September 21 Peace and Partnership Agreement, signed by the Houthis and all the major political parties, provides a framework to end the violence and move the country forward with a new government now in place. It has also solidified the new political order, underscoring the reality that the Saudis lack trusted allies. Recent reports suggest that the Saudi royal family is trying to rectify this situation. Official sources claimed that King Abdullah himself commissioned the head of the Royal Diwan to establish ties with Hashid sheikhs in September against the Houthis; it is unclear whether the al-Ahmars are included. Yemeni newspapers also reported meetings between Southern Herak leaders and Saudi officials in Cairo in October. These reports suggest the Saudis have returned to familiar ways, cultivating relationships with southern separatists and northern tribes to weaken the central government and maximize their own influence as they have historically done. It is possible the kingdom may be temporarily putting Islamist concerns to the side to maintain its traditional pull in Yemen. At the same time, they must also be extremely concerned about how Houthi aggression may also be benefiting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), whose members are forging alliances with local tribesmen angry with Houthi overreach into their areas.

So what can be divined from the kingdom’s tea leaves? The Saudis say they are concerned with Iranian encirclement and instability caused by the Tehran-sponsored Houthis; their actions suggest they aim to reverse losses of influence and security brought on by the group’s rise. The kingdom’s policy going forward will reflect a mix of these concerns. The Saudis will likely seek to balance against Houthi expansion by sponsoring rival tribes, capitalizing on unpopular Houthi military occupation, maintaining ties with a range of actors, and trying to keep AQAP scattered. By reaching out to Hashid leadership, they may walk back their anti-Brotherhood stance or instead shift funds within the confederation away from the Ahmars toward more trustworthy sheikhs.

Despite the announced suspension in aid, it appears a Saudi commitment of $54 million in food aid will still be transmitted, but this is a pittance compared to what Yemen needs to feed its citizens and prevent further humanitarian catastrophe. The budget support and fuel transfers from Saudi Arabia have been absolutely essential in keeping Yemen afloat over the past few years; without this, Yemen faces a very near-term financial crisis. The Saudi leadership will likely maintain the suspension to pressure a Houthi withdrawal from Sana’a, but there is little assurance this maneuver will work, and it will be average Yemenis who suffer in the interim. If the Saudi royal family is truly concerned about instability in Yemen and securing its interests in the country, perhaps it should take a deeper look at its own role in fostering political divisions and the kind of grievances that gave rise to the Houthi movement’s popularity. Saudi leaders will likely raise Yemen’s situation in any discussion of regional security at the GCC summit meeting in Doha; perhaps now there is enough concern about Iranian influence in their backyard to galvanize the kind of broad political support and economic assistance that Yemen desperately needs to dig itself out of this current morass.

Danya Greenfield is the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. Owen Daniels is an intern with the Rafik Hariri Center focusing on Yemen’s transition.

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Image: Saudi soldiers stand guard in Jizan on the border with Yemen November 3, 2014. Gains by the Shi'ite Houthi rebel movement in Yemen are ringing alarm bells in Saudi Arabia, concerned for what it means for its vulnerable southern border, already the conduit for a constant flow of illicit activity. Picture taken November 3, 2014. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser