The Houthi rebellion (II): the high geostrategic value of Yemen

Monday, 22 June 2015 21:30
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by Lorenzo Giuseppe Siggillino (EPOS)
EPOS Insights


The Shia advance in Yemen generated a polarization within the society, making possible to schematise national actors in a system with two variables: pro/against the government; Sunni/Shia Muslims. The civil war is complicated by regional implications and international interests. The Yemeni context is deeply enshrined in and influenced by the global confrontation between Shias and Sunnis, between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia and Iran struggle for the political and religious leadership of Islamic countries. The Houthis represent a serius threat for the Saud’s kingdom at both the domestic and international levels. Saudi Arabia responded the menace by directly intervening in the conflict, taking side with the internationally recognised President Hadi. Riyadh is guiding a Sunni regional coalition commited to fight the Houthis and protect the legal president. The military forces are composed of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. Pakistan, which initially had opened up to a participation, rejected by means of a parliamentary vote. Saudi Arabia plays a crucial role in the coalition, steering military operations against the Zaidi rebels.

The intervention is based on air strikes aiming at Houthi positions and infrastructures which could be used for supplies delivery. Looking at the percentage of military means mobilised, the Saudi predominance within the coalition is clear: King Salman deployed the same number of aircrafts as all its allies together. Why Yemen is so important for Saudi Arabia and its coalition? Which is the Yemeni geostrategic value?

The regional rivalry

Saudi Arabia acts as the bastion of the Sunni world, committed to fight Shia forces. Riyadh wants to avoid Iran to enlarge its sphere of influence and obviously can not allow this to happen in a bordering state. Hezbollah Shia militia in Lebanon exerts a high degree of territorial control and the consents obtained in the South allowed it to expand its authority and become a legitimate force within the national political framework. In Iraq, after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, the power of the Shia majority considerably increased.

The Saud’s Kingdom is committed to prevent Iran to extend its sway and, when conditions are met, intervenes to avoid this scenario.

A suitable example is provided by the Bahraini Arab Spring. Bahrain is inhabited by a Shia majority but it is governed by a Sunni monarchy. In 2011 Bahrain experienced a mass uprising and the ruling family, the al-Khalifas, were forced to request a Saudi military intervention. Riyadh, in that occasion, smashed mass protests, being able to guarantee the regime survival. If Saudi Arabia engaged in fighting the Shia advance in 2011, now it is reasonable to think King Salman is even more worried about the power of its regional rival. An agreement between Iran and the US about nuclear programmes would lead to the elimination of sanctions, deteriorating the Saudi position in the confrontation with Tehran: the Islamic Republic in that case would be able to modernize its energy sector and come back strongly on oil global markets. Iran at the moment is focused on negotiations on the nuclear agreement and it is reasonable to think it does not want to destabilize the talks, preventing a clear involvement in the Yemeni conflict.

Although the connection between the Houthis and Iran might seem obvious, internal sources do not stress such an indisputable relation. In many interviews, Houthi activists declare to receive only moral support from Tehran, as from other armed groups and nations. In any case Shia rebels in northern Yemen have been repeatedly engaged in conflicts against the central government and against its neighbour, Saudi Arabia. The wars undertaken by the Zaidi group certainly required military equipments and regular sources of supply. According to the most reliable theory, Iran equipped the Houthis with weapons by means of vessels and aircrafts unloading in appropriate harbours and airports.

The Saudi Shia community

Furthermore it is important to consider the Saudi internal politics, which plays a fundamental role in the struggle against Yemeni rebels. Although Saudi Arabia is governed by a Sunni monarchy which represents the guiding light of Sunni Islam, Shia minorities are scattered throughout the territory (some of them are settled in oil-rich regions) and often protest against the monarchy in order to gain autonomy and recognition for their different culture and tradition.

For the Saudis, as regards Houthi rebels, international politics is highly connected to internal affairs. The Zaidi group is located in the northern part of Yemen, close to the Saudi border. On the other side of the boundary, the Saudi territory is inhabited by a Shia community, which has the same ethnic origin of the Houthis but belongs to the Ismaili sect. These two Shia areas were both included in Yemen, but the Treaty of Taif (1934) and then the Treaty of Jeddah (2000) established the Saudi control on part of those territories. If the Houthis reach power in Yemen, Saudi Arabia would lose ground in the regional confrontation with Iran and probably King Salman would have to face a wave of unrests among the Shias settled in the South.

Bab el-Mandeb

The international community is further worried about Yemeni political stability because of the importance of the Bab el-Mandeb strait. This waterway divides the Horn of Africa and the Middle East and it is a strategic connection between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. It is located between Yemen, Djibouti and Eritrea, it links the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea.

In 2013, 3.8 million barrels of oil and "refined petroleum products" passed through Bab el-Mandeb each day, directed to Europe, Asia, and the US, making it a critical oil transit checkpoint (US Energy Information Administration, EIA). Bab el-Mandeb controls access to multiple oil terminals and to the SUMED (Suez-Mediterranean) pipeline, which is co-owned by state companies from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

Most exports from the Persian Gulf that transit the Suez Canal and SUMED Pipeline also pass through Bab el-Mandeb. The strait is fundamental for the exportations of Saudi Arabia, Yemen itself, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait. Riyadh does not want Shia Muslims to control this waterway, as the most important maritime oil checkpoint (the Strait of Hormuz) is already subject to Iranian influence.

Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula

The US is interested in securing oil shipments and the navy has already increased its presence near the Yemeni coasts. Washington is also committed to fight AQAP in Yemen, in cooperation with Saudi Arabia. The terrorist group is exploiting the conflict between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition to gain ground in the national territory.

Although now Riyadh is focused on opposing Shia rebels, AQAP still represents a threat. Adel al-Jubeir, now Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, declared on April 15: “We are fighting Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and all around us. We’ve had many of our security officers killed by terrorists and we have had our citizens murdered by terrorists. Nobody should doubt our resolve, nor should anyone doubt the resolve of the United States in going after AQAP in Yemen”.

The international community does not seem too worried about the Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen, Iran does not want to get openly involved in the conflict. Thus, Saudi Arabia has the possibility to prevent the Houthis to reach definitively power and to secure the oil flow through Bab el-Mandeb, but the war in Yemen would probably result in a reinforcement and spread of another Saudi enemy: Al-Qaeda.



DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect EPOS WorldView’s


Last modified on Thursday, 25 June 2015 21:58
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