Robert F Worth writes: There is a scene in Safa al Ahmad’s remarkable BBC documentary, Yemen: The Rise of the Houthis [watch below], when a spokesman for the Houthi movement escorts her to a remote and unguarded section of the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. It is nothing more than a half-trampled barbed-wire fence, in a golden-brown landscape of dry hills and scattered acacia trees. “This means nothing, it represents nothing,” he says of the border. The Houthis, a once-obscure band of insurgents from the mountains of northern Yemen who adhere to the Zaydi branch of Shia Islam, have over the past few months taken over much of the country. “We cannot be defined by sect or confined by borders,” the spokesman says. “We will help oppressed people all over the world.” Then, flourishing a confident smile, he predicts the imminent demise of the House of Saud.
That moment of hubris, filmed late last year, acquired a sinister new meaning last week when Saudi Arabia launched a campaign of airstrikes on Yemen. The Saudis said their strikes — carried out with eight allied Arab and Muslim states — were meant to push back the Houthis. But the Saudis clearly intended their blitzkrieg as a blunt message to Iran, their great nemesis and rival, which has provoked the Saudis for several years now by providing money and weaponry to the Houthis.
Yemen, in other words, has become the latest proxy battleground in the sectarian struggle now playing out across the Middle East. It did not have to be this way. The Houthis, unlike Hezbollah and other Shiite movements, do not take directions from Tehran, and have received relatively small amounts of aid. (In the film, Houthi officials flatly deny any Iranian support, claiming they were equally close to Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez.) Their Zaydi faith is doctrinally closer to Sunnism than to the Shiite Islam practiced in Iran. But the rulers of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states are feeling a profound defensiveness about Iranian power, which is on display every day in the wars in Syria and Iraq. They want to lay down a marker.
This chest-beating gesture could backfire catastrophically, even if it succeeds in weakening the Houthis. The Saudi airstrikes quickly destroyed most of Yemen’s military arsenal, including hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of American equipment. It will be all the more difficult now for any one faction to control the country. Militias of all kinds are sure to proliferate, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen and which has tried several times to detonate bombs on US-bound commercial airliners, will have more room to maneuver. All this could have terrifying consequences for ordinary people: Yemen is the Arab world’s poorest country, and is rapidly running out of water. Getting food and water to 25 million people who are surrounded by a crazy-quilt of battling militias and jihadis could be almost impossible. [Continue reading…]