Contrasting perspectives on Yemen
The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington Thursday hosted a panel discussion on “The Conflict in Yemen: Searching for the Endgame.” Panelists included Fahad Nazer, a political analyst with the intelligence consulting firm JTG and formerly at the Saudi Arabian embassy in DC, as well as Abdul-Ghani Al-Iryani, the president of TAWQ (a democracy organization), the vice president of the Khobara Center (a Sana’a-based think tank), and an advisor for Human Rights Watch. The discussion was moderated by Ambassador Stephen Seche, Executive Vice President of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen from 2007-2010.
Fahad Nazer and Abdul-Ghani Al-Iryani presented different perspectives on the conflict. Nazer emphasized the Saudi view that the Houthis represent Iranian encroachment into Saudi Arabia’s backyard, while Al-Iryani expressed the view that the Houthis’ concerns are mainly domestic and that links between Iran and the Houthis are tenuous.
Nazer detailed Saudi Arabia’s history of conflict mediation in both Yemen and the Lebanese Civil War. The Kingdom has historically been reluctant militarily intervene in Yemen for fear of a repeat of Gamel Abdel Nasser’s disastrous decision to commit Egyptian ground troops there in the 1960s. The Arab Spring, Nazer asserted, caught Saudi Arabia by surprise. The fall of Mubarak, one of the Saudis’ closest allies, coupled with President Obama’s reluctance to intervene in Syria and increased Iranian influence in the Arab world, compelled the Saudis to take a more proactive foreign policy stance.
The combination of an unraveling Yemeni state, Zaidi militants in the north and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the south made Saudi military intervention in Yemen inevitable. Nazer does not view Saudi Arabia’s recent foreign policy shift as a product of Saudi Arabia’s new leadership, but argued instead that the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has been more gradual. He cited Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the Bahraini uprising of 2011 as foreshadowing the shift.
Al-Iryani detailed three factors that had prevented Yemen from descending into civil war between 2011 and 2014: the legitimacy of President Hadi’s regime, the balance of power between opposing forces in Yemen, and the international consensus that Yemen’s stability must be preserved. In a national dialogue that occurred from March 2013 to January 2014, Hadi only offered the Zaidis control over limited resource-poor territory. In Al-Iryani’s view, offering so little to the Zaidis, who comprised Yemen’s ruling elite for centuries, was a grave mistake. Unified and led by the Houthis, Zaidis took up arms against President Hadi, whose legitimacy was undermined. Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh capitalized on the situation by allying himself with the Houthis.
According to Al-Iryani, the Saudi military intervention could have had the positive effect of restoring the balance of power in Yemen and bringing the Houthis to the negotiating table. But it has gone on too long. Yemenis increasingly resent the Saudi intervention. The conflict in Yemen is not wholly sectarian like most other regional conflicts, because some Sunnis aligned with Saleh are fighting alongside the Houthis. If the conflict continues, it could take on an explicitly sectarian dimension.
Al-Iryani believes that the Saudis should stop their military intervention as soon as possible and enter into negotaitions with the Houthis. The Houthis would settle for dominance in the historic Zaidi strongholds of North Yemen. Their domestic demands can be accommodated through negotiations.
According to Al-Iryani, Iranian support for the Houthis is marginal and limited to intelligence sharing and the presence of some Houthi students in Qom. A Houthi delegation sent to Tehran to discuss economic assistance came back nearly empty-handed. The Saudi view that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy is exaggerated. This view damages the previous international consensus that preserving Yemen’s stability is paramount.
Nazer, by contrast, disputed Al-Iryani’s assertion that the Houthis would be willing to settle for control over the historic Zaidi lands. The Houthis are firing rockets into southern Saudi Arabia. According to Nazer, this fact–combined with bellicose Hezbollah-type rhetoric on the part of the Houthis–justifies the suspicions of the Saudi media that the Houthis are not interested in a power-sharing arrangement. Nazer also cited the presence of Iranian and Hezbollah personnel in Yemen as evidence of more substantial Iranian meddling in the conflict.