Is Iran outmaneuvering Saudi Arabia in Yemen?

Mohammad Ali Shabani writes: The war in Yemen is increasingly being construed as a Saudi contest with Iran. To ascertain the veracity of this oft-repeated conception, two things need to be clarified: whether the conflict is driven by sectarian dynamics and what Iran seeks in Yemen.

Yemen has long been the Afghanistan of the Arab world. Most Yemenis live below the poverty rate. The country sits on multiple fault lines, in addition to a long-running border dispute with Saudi Arabia. Following Arab Spring protests, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi came to power through a Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered one-man election, as opposition groups seized on power vacuums. The Houthis have in past months seized major urban centers in collaboration with their old foe (and Hadi’s predecessor) Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Experts on Yemen contend that the Houthis emerged as a Zaydi revivalist movement in response to Saudi-funded Salafist proselytizing in the 1990s. Claims that the group is sectarian and linked to Iran are long-running. Robert Worth, a fellow at the Wilson Center and former New York Times Middle East correspondent, told Al-Monitor, “The Houthis have been accused of being Iranian stooges almost since they were first founded.” However, these accusations have not attracted much credence. Worth, who has been on the ground in Yemen and is working on a book on the legacy of the Arab uprisings, said, “When I started reporting on them in 2007, this accusation was ridiculed by almost everyone — even by Yemeni officials, off the record.” [Continue reading…]

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