Recent incidents along the Saudi-Yemeni border involving the Yemen-based Shiite insurgent group al-Houthi have been too close for comfort for Riyadh, which has responded with aggressive military action. Such a move means that Saudi Arabia is drawing a line in the sand — and sending a message to Iran that it will do whatever it can to counter Iran's influence in the region.
Abdul Malik al-Houthi, the Yemeni field commander of the insurgent group al-Houthi, urged Saudi Arabia Nov. 11 to cease its "aggression" against the Shiite Houthi rebels. Riyadh has been engaged in a military offensive against the Iranian-backed insurgents from northern Yemen, and the Houthis claim to have captured more territory on the border with Saudi Arabia, specifically the Qatabar region in Saada province. Saudi Arabia has warned the rebels to retreat and continues a naval blockade on Yemen's Red Sea coast that it began Nov. 10 in an effort to prevent weapons from reaching the insurgents. These developments on the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia represent the latest proxy battle between the Persian and Arab powers in their ongoing geopolitical competition over the Middle East. But these latest incidents have occurred too close to Saudi territory for the kingdom's comfort, and Riyadh has responded by showing for the first time that it is willing to project military power beyond its borders. (click image to enlarge) Saudi Arabia's escalation in its military activity against the Houthis reflects the government's obsession with maintaining stability within the kingdom. Saudi Arabia is afraid of any spillover from the Houthi rebellion into its territory, particularly after the assassination attempt on its deputy interior minister. While Riyadh has a good relationship with the Yemeni government, its southern neighbor is dealing with myriad problems, including a secessionist movement in the south, the Houthi rebels in the north and a wider jihadist insurgency spread across the country. The Yemeni government is increasingly strained and does not have the same financial resources to deal with these problems that the oil-rich Saudis do, so Sanaa has enlisted Riyadh's help in tackling the Houthi rebellion. The clash between Saudi Arabia and Houthi insurgents is not a new development. The Saudis have long viewed the rebel group as an ethno-sectarian problem, since the Saudis practice an ultraconservative form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism while the Houthi are of the Zaydi sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, which the Wahhabis consider heretical. In addition to the ethnic and religious divide, the Houthi are located in the northwest Yemeni province of Saada, which borders the Saudi province of Najran. Najran is home to the Ismaili sect, also an offshoot of Shiite Islam, placing a Shiite minority both along the border and within Saudi Arabia, long a source of conflict and tension. But tensions have intensified in recent months, with the Houthi rebels involved in skirmishes with Saudi troops and border guards while expanding their activity and reportedly gaining territory inside Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have claimed — and this has been verified by Riyadh — that they have seized territory in the Mount Dukhan region, a strategic mountain range that straddles the border. Riyadh has responded aggressively over the past few months, sending army units to the border and frequently conducting air strikes on border towns and deeper into Yemen in an attempt to dismantle the rebel strongholds. The Houthis claim the Saudis are trying to create a "military buffer zone" inside Yemen. While Riyadh has been known to exert influence throughout the region through financial, religious and intelligence means, the kingdom had been extremely hesitant to project power militarily beyond its borders. But the increasingly assertive actions of Shiite Iran, the kingdom's regional rival, in exploiting the Houthi rebellion have prompted Riyadh to take matters into its own hands. Saudi Arabia has grown extremely concerned about the increasing clout Iran has developed across the Middle East, from its ties to Hezbollah in Lebanon to its ability to exploit the Palestinian conflict to its own advantage through Hamas. Moreover, from the Saudi point of view, the strategic leverage over Iraq — a key battleground between Sunnis and Shiites — has tilted largely toward the Iranians. Now, the Iranians have increased their support of the Houthi rebels right on the kingdom's doorstep, providing the Shiite sect with weapons, intelligence and money. According to STRATFOR sources, there are rumors that Hezbollah operatives are in Yemen supporting the Houthis with training and resources, perhaps even fighting alongside them (though the veracity of the rumors is unclear, and they have been downplayed by the Yemeni government). Iran's involvement in Yemen would be very much in keeping with its overall method of expanding influence in the region. It has done this by cultivating and supporting insurgents in places where a traditional military solution is extremely difficult to impose. This way, the fighting will eventually morph into some sort of political settlement, one in which Iran gets substantial say. Tehran has successfully done this in Lebanon and Iraq and is now pursuing a similar strategy in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Arab states — Kuwait and Morocco have voiced their support for the Saudi cause — have realized this, and Riyadh is now responding aggressively to make sure Iran does not establish such a precedent on the Arabian Peninsula. Riyadh is therefore drawing a line in the sand with its military actions and sending a message to Tehran that it will do whatever it takes to prevent Iran's growing influence from reaching Saudi territory. It remains to be seen how successful the Saudis will be in repelling Iranian influence on the Arabian Peninsula. But the Arabs are not the only ones concerned about Tehran's latest moves. While the security situation in Yemen is typically not a major issue to the United States, the atmosphere has changed. In the context of the ongoing U.S.-led negotiations between the West and Iran over the latter's nuclear program, any assertive move that Iran makes is watched by many eyes — particularly those of the United States and Israel. Indeed, on the same day that Saudi Arabia began its naval blockade, the United States and Yemen signed a military cooperation deal to increase their collaboration on counterterrorism efforts. The Iranians have proved to be quite effective at exploiting situations in the region to their advantage. But the pressure against Tehran, brought on by the Arabs, the United States and Israel, could be growing.