Located at a strategic trade and territorial nexus, Yemen has become a major flashpoint for Saudi and Iranian proxy warfare, with both sides vying for ideological, political and geographical hegemony amidst ongoing sectarian conflict. Saudi-Iranian relations have worsened significantly in recent years. This is largely due to upheavals during the Second Gulf War and Arab Spring, which removed three of five major powers in the Arab political order (Iraq, Syria and Egypt), polarising regional dynamics between the two remaining stalwarts (Iran and Saudi Arabia). Tensions came to a head in June 2017, when several states cut ties with Qatar at the behest of Riyadh, seemingly to pressure Doha into distancing itself from Tehran. This development revealed the gravity of emergent diplomatic, economic and ideological divisions.
Yemen is feeling the brunt of this hegemonic clash. Since 2010, the situation has steadily deteriorated. Natural resources dried up. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) set up shop. Tribal divisions became increasingly violent. Then came the Arab Winter, where popular uprisings gave way to protracted civil war, separatist movements gained momentum and longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was forced to step down. The subsequent political transition failed, leading to worsened civil unrest, geopolitical jostling, Saudi-led military intervention and the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
Armed violence, severe food shortages and a cholera epidemic have created a vicious cycle of insecurity. This is perpetuated by ongoing conflict between government, coalition, Houthi and Islamist forces, which has left 80% of Yemen's 27.5 million citizens in need of aid—10.3 million of whom require immediate lifesaving assistance. As of July 2017, the cholera outbreak has continued to spread at an average rate of 7000 new cases each day. The World Health Organisation attributes the epidemic to the ongoing conflict, which has allowed the disease to increase from 50,000 cases in May to more than 300,000 in July. An estimated three million Yemenis have been displaced, while 10,000 have been killed—predominantly by Saudi coalition airstrikes.
For Saudi Arabia, Yemen and its coastal ports provide a vital link to the global oil market, while proximity to the Saudi southern border provides impetus to establish stable and friendly governance. This is further motivated by a drive to counter Iranian backed forces (in a traditionally Sunni sphere of influence) and protect its border against infiltration from state actors, rebel groups and extremist operatives.
Since 2015, the Saudi coalition has imposed a blockade on all major air, sea and land ports in a widespread attempt to stymie opposition capabilities. Over the first year of intervention, the coalition pushed Houthi forces out of the southern provinces. In June 2017, the coalition dislodged AQAP from its southern coastal strongholds in Mukalla, Zinjibar and Mansoura. This loss of territory, combined with the elimination of senior leadership by US airstrikes, has significantly weakened the al-Qaeda franchise. As proven by the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the group has attack capabilities and will no doubt continue to encourage violent action.
For Iran, supporting Houthi forces to gain a foothold on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep could provide a bargaining chip in the wider region. Bolstering a strong Houthi administration would shift the regional balance of power and offer significant leverage, as with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Additionally, Iranian influence in Yemen could discourage Saudi encroachments in Syria, paving the way for Iranian allies to secure additional territory. This could facilitate gains in eastern Syria and allow Iran to secure a “Shia Crescent” of influence from Tehran to Beirut, providing a direct link to its allies in Lebanon.
Although Houthi forces have lost territory along the southern and eastern fronts since 2015, they remain the steadfast power in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, and throughout the northwestern highlands. This includes control of judicial courts, which in March 2017 sentenced President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to death for ‘high treason’. Hadi is yet to be detained in government-controlled Aden, but developments such as this indicate increasing barriers to reconciliation.
At this stage, conflict is concentrated in the western half of the country. Territory has been carved out by Houthis in the northwest, by AQAP through the central coast and by the Hadi government in Aden, as well as in the central and eastern belts. Saudi Arabia’s brash projections of power have instigated diplomatic rifts, increased regional tensions and exacerbated the civil conflict. Iran’s provision of military advisors and advanced weaponry has undoubtedly increased Houthi resilience to Saudi confrontation.
Overall, escalating tensions in Yemen and across the region have weakened Saudi Arabia’s political clout and benefited Iran’s strategic positioning in the proxy power play. It appears unlikely that Yemen will stabilise any time soon, and if tensions continue to rise, it’s feasible that proxy warfare may escalate to direct military confrontation.
Remy Tanner is the International Security Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.