While the al-Houthi movement struggles to manage multiple regional challenges in northern Yemen, its rise to power is a setback for Saudi Arabia. After the fall of the Yemeni government, Riyadh will have to capitalize on the al-Houthis' need for political and financial support to re-establish its influence in the country. But because Iran is trying to fill that support gap, too, Yemen has become another battlefront for the two sectarian rivals.
Since Yemen's president was driven from the capital of Sanaa in September, Yemen's government has been at war with itself. President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi issued a statement March 19 denouncing the airstrikes on his compound in the southern port city of Aden as an attempted military coup by forces loyal to his predecessor and onetime ally, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Earlier that day, soldiers and militiamen loyal to Hadi battled their way into Aden's airport and stormed a nearby military base, both of which were under the control of Gen. Abdel-Hafez al-Saqqaf, a Saleh loyalist.
The al-Houthis represent a change in the balance of power in Yemen that has opened the door for Iran to become a major player in what was the exclusive domain of Saudi Arabia not long ago. While Saudi Arabia has long meddled in Yemen, Riyadh lost sight of developments in the country while focusing on other regional fights. It was not that Saudi Arabia was not paying attention to Yemen, it just was not expecting Iran to gain ground on its southern frontier via a movement that is not traditionally Shiite and, in fact, is theologically closer to Sunni Islam.
The Saudis see the al-Houthis as a possible threat from Iran. How the Saudis engage with the group and try to distance it from Iran will be a key factor to watch. Meanwhile, Yemen's deteriorating security situation has created another Saudi-Iranian geopolitical struggle that will last into the foreseeable future.