by Helen Lackner

This memo was presented part of a workshop organised by the LSE Middle East Centre looking at the Saudi–Iran rivalry in the region on 7 May 2018. 

Saudi armoured column on the Yemeni border. Source: Ahmed Farwan, Flickr.

Of the regional states affected by the Iran–Saudi rivalry, Yemen is the most remote; until recently it was also the least significant. While Saudi Arabia has been deeply involved in Yemen for decades, Iran remained marginal. In 2018, in the context of the internationalisation of the Yemeni crisis on the one hand, and the US and Saudi focus on attributing all problems in the region to Iranian evil doing, this situation has changed and is likely to worsen in the near future. Following US abandonment of the Iran Nuclear Deal (or JCPOA), it is likely that additional regional anti-Iranian actions may well increase Iran’s currently limited intervention in Yemeni affairs with further unfortunate consequences for Yemenis.

Yemen–Iran relations before 2015

Relations between the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY, 1967–90) and Iran changed dramatically from hostility until the downfall of the Shah to cordiality with economic links after the 1979 Iranian revolution. The Yemen Arab Republic (YAR, 1962–90), by contrast, due to President Saleh’s closeness to Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime, had tense relations with Iran most of the time, despite the fact that both regimes shared a common trend of Islam: both are Shi’a though Yemeni ‘Fiver’ Zaydism is, in its rituals, closer to Sunnism than Iranian ‘Twelver’ Shi’ism.

In its early years, the Republic of Yemen, under Saleh, maintained good relations with Iran: President Khatami made an official visit to Sana’a in 2003 where numerous cooperation agreements were signed. A Sana’a street was named ‘Iran street’ and an Iranian hospital was opened. However, after 2004, as part of his search for Saudi and US support in his anti-Huthi wars, Saleh unsuccessfully did his best to persuade the world that the Iranian regime was deeply involved in supporting the Huthi movement. Relations between the two states deteriorated and both the Iranian and the Yemeni regimes engaged in petty actions designed to irritate the other.

During the transitional regime which followed the 2011 popular uprisings, and while the Hadi regime cooperated with both the Huthi movement and Saleh’s General People’s Congress, the issue of Iranian involvement with the Huthi movement was in abeyance. By contrast, during this period, Iran gave both financial and media support to some Southern separatists.

Saudi Arabia and Yemen before 2015

Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s immediate neighbour to the north, has played a prominent role in Yemeni affairs since the state’s creation in 1932. During the Civil War in the YAR (1962–70), the Saudi regime actively supported the Zaydi Imam against the Sunni republican movement supported by Nasser, demonstrating yet again that politics supersede sectarianism, even in the strongly sectarian Salafi Saudi regime. Among its many interventions, then and in following years, the Saudi regime financed the major northern tribes [again Zaydis] strengthening their position relative to the central state; later, once the republican movement had been emasculated and Nasserist influence removed, it also financed the YAR state, to maintain its desired balance of keeping Yemen both weak enough and strong enough to prevent it becoming a threat.

By contrast, Saudi Arabia remained hostile to the PDRY throughout that state’s existence, though hostility weakened over time but did not disappear: mutual diplomatic recognition in 1976 failed to bring about the financial and economic support hoped for in Aden. As the Saudi regime was less than enthusiastic about Yemeni unity, in 1994, it encouraged its former enemies in the Yemeni Socialist Party to secede by promising diplomatic recognition to the independent regime. It then abandoned the secessionists to their fate when it failed to provide this recognition.

King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz negotiated a final border agreement between the Republic of Yemen and Saudi Arabia in 2000. This was quite favourable to the Yemeni regime giving it potentially oil- bearing desert areas in exchange for permanent recognition of Saudi control over Jizan, Asir and Najran provinces, which the Imamate had lost in the war of 1934 as discussed by Ash Rossiter. Yemen’s continued dependence on Saudi Arabia for financial support jeopardised the state’s ability to develop independent policies, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia and other GCC states were compelled to accept the presence of a formal republic within the peninsula.

Yemen in the Saudi–Iranian Rivalry

In March 2015, when launched, Decisive Storm was described as having a single aim ‘to restore the legitimate government of President Hadi from takeover by Huthi militias’. Mohammed bin Salman, then Minister of Defence, certainly expected to improve his political clout within the Kingdom through the rapid victory of his air force equipped with advanced expensive US and other western craft and weaponry. But, as his military coalition sank into the quagmire now in its fourth year, Iran’s role is now the dominant discourse while the ‘legitimate’ Yemeni government is rarely mentioned. While other important aspects of this rivalry are discussed in detail in other papers, one of the reasons for this changed explanation is the need to justify the coalition’s failure to achieve its military aims despite modern equipment, troops from many nationalities, air strikes and international diplomatic and technical support.

While Iran widely publicises its political support for the Huthis, its practical involvement is far more debatable, particularly with respect to training and the supply of ballistic missiles which the Huthis are increasingly frequently launching against targets in Saudi Arabia. Alongside ground incursions on Yemen’s north-west border with Saudi Arabia, these missiles are the Huthis’ military retaliation against the more than 16,000 coalition air strikes which have caused massive destruction in Yemen, let alone the air and naval blockade responsible for the disastrous humanitarian situation. Iran’s limited support is trivial by comparison with the claims made by the Saudi-led coalition and its western backers which now assert that the Huthis are nothing more than Iranian proxies, neglecting Huthi demonstrated independence from Iran when they ignored Iranian advice to stay out of Sana’a and avoid attacking Aden. The missiles themselves are pretty unsophisticated, little more than improved old Soviet scuds. A sober assessment of Iranian involvement and use of the Yemen issue in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia also presents Iranian internal debate about Yemen and the Huthis. This diversity of views is currently absent in Saudi Arabia, where Mohammed bin Salman allows no alternative views to his own.

Many questions deserve further discussion: given the importance of the Saudi–Iran rivalry in each of these states’ internal politics, is there any prospect for a peaceful settlement in Yemen in such a ‘proxy war’ context? To what extent might concessions in Yemen be used to avoid escalation of conflict between the two shores of the Gulf? Is the current US administration interested in solutions, rather than escalation? What ‘deals’ might be made in the overall context of Saudi Arabia’s interventions elsewhere, Qatar, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria? And plenty more…

Helen Lackner is Research Associate, at the London Middle East Institute, SOAS University of London. She worked as a consultant in social aspects of rural development for four decades in over thirty countries, mostly in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. She has been involved in Yemen since the early 1970s where she lived in all three Yemeni states for over 15 years.         


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