Why Saudi Arabia is Hammering Yemen
So when the Shiite Houthi rebels captured the Yemeni capital of Sana in late 2014, a shock was sent through the Middle East’s Sunni nervous system. It mattered little that the Houthis were schismatic Zaydi Shia out of step with Iran’s mainstream Twelver Shiism, or that the Iranians warned that Sana shouldn’t be seized, or that the Houthis aren’t an Iranian proxy in the same way that Hezbollah is. The Saudis immediately blamed Iran. They, along with many of the Sunni states, went to war, pulling their militaries away from the campaign against the Islamic State. Once again, fighting Salafist terrorism was dismissed as an American concern.
The problem for Saudi Arabia now is that its attempt to stymie the Shia awakening has backfired. After over a year of bombing, the Houthis still control Sana, and international sentiment has been roused against the war. The Saudi economy is treading water thanks to low oil prices, and while Iran is facing similar challenges, the nuclear deal has given the Iranians a boost in both revenue and credibility. When Saudi Arabia suddenly executed prominent Shia sheikh Nimr al-Nimr earlier this year, it was intended as a show of defiance, a message to Iran and the restive Shia in its own eastern provinces that the old paradigm of Sunni governance still had some stick. Instead, it brought more international condemnation and the torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
The Saudis are also contending with a freshly disputatious President Obama, who last month accused them of free riding off American security guarantees. Prince Turki al-Faisal quickly countered the free rider claim, and was followed by Prince Abdullah al-Saud who wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that defended the war in Yemen. The Saudis clearly perceive that they have a PR problem, that America is growing skeptical and that the Shia are gaining strength. Yet it’s their pushback against the Shia—their inhumane war in Yemen—that helped arouse the negative PR in the first place.
The question now is whether the Saudis can work through this briar patch of crises. But one thing is certain: the Shia are awake and they aren’t returning to sleep anytime soon. The Middle East as we know it has changed.
Matt Purple is the deputy editor of Rare Politics.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Almigdad Mojalli/VOA.