Rockets over Riyadh: A reminder of why Tehran must be confronted in Yemen
The launch of Iranian rockets targeting Saudi Arabia’s capital makes it obvious in the bluntest manner possible what is at stake: Iranian encirclement tightens the noose around Arabian Peninsula states — a region that is of fundamental importance to energy security, and whose destabilization would have dire global consequences.
Firing an Iranian-manufactured missile toward a Saudi royal palace (as admitted by the Houthis themselves) is a brazen challenge to Saudi sovereignty and security. Sophisticated heavy weaponry and the training required to use it did not magically drop into the hands of rag-tag Houthi fighters. These attacks against Riyadh demonstrate that Tehran views the Yemeni arena as a sideshow for its onslaught against Arabian states.
Along with dozens of civilian deaths from hundreds of rockets and shells fired into Saudi Arabia, missiles fired toward Jeddah and the holy city of Makkah in 2016 make a laughing stock of the Islamic Republic’s pretentions to be a defender of the Muslim faith.
A Western foreign minister recently stressed to me the necessity of Saudi Arabia separating the Houthis from their Iranian paymasters, through addressing local grievances, arriving at a power-sharing formula, and ensuring sufficient compensation and localized investment to make future ties with Tehran undesirable. This approach appears remarkably sensible, and is in line with proposals and principles circulated in previous negotiations. The Houthis are pawns in this conflict and given that their home territories are directly adjacent to the Saudi border, they must coexist with Riyadh long after the Islamic Republic of Iran has been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Historically, the minority Houthis were a thorn in the flesh of the Sanaa leadership, but never an existential threat to Yemen itself. Only massive Iranian funding and weaponry allowed bands of Houthi tribesmen to capture Sanaa and advance into Sunni heartlands. Emirati, Bahraini and Saudi military leaders stress that the Houthis are not the underlying problem: Iran occupied Emirati islands, sought to claim Bahrain as its “14th province” and is now seeking to dominate Yemen.
Bankrolling of militancy in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon cost the Islamic Republic billions of dollars. However, as Yemen descended into chaos during 2012, Tehran saw a relatively cheap opportunity to destabilize the rear gateway into Saudi Arabia. Iranian politicians and generals noisily boast of their expanding influence, paying scant attention to the humanitarian apocalypse they have left in their wake.
My recent visit to Saudi islands next to the Yemen border made it vividly clear how fundamental this conflict is to regional security. From these islands it is a short distance to the Mandib Strait, one of the world’s most crucial shipping lanes, which Iranian proxies have repeatedly menaced with missiles, explosive-laden boats and even anti-shipping mines. Given Iran’s threats to block the Straits of Hormuz, and its encroachment into the eastern Mediterranean through Syria and Lebanon, there is remarkable international complacency about Tehran’s stranglehold over these crucial choke points for global trade and oil. However, senior Gulf-based Western military personnel I’ve spoken to are gravely concerned about the failure to counter these strategic threats.
Sophisticated heavy weaponry and the training required to use it did not magically drop into the hands of rag-tag Houthi fighters. These attacks demonstrate that Tehran views the Yemeni arena as a sideshow for its onslaught against Arabian states.
The humanitarian situation is most acute in areas controlled by the Houthis, who have habitually obstructed aid distribution. Saudi Arabia and the UAE meanwhile are two of the largest humanitarian donors, having already pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to alleviate the bleak humanitarian situation. In recent days, Saudi Arabia has taken action to facilitate humanitarian access to the Houthi-held port city of Hodeida; a move that has been widely commended by the international community
One of Saudi Arabia’s shortcomings has been not communicating its military objectives and humanitarian efforts to the outside world, particularly when compared with ceaseless propaganda from pro-Iranian media sources and suspiciously well-funded information campaigns by Houthi spokespeople.
The Houthis were jubilant about purging their former allies under Ali Abdullah Saleh, who they murdered for the crime of expressing readiness to negotiate peace terms with the Saudis. Saleh’s assassination dangerously narrows the Houthi support base, severing any connections with the majority-Sunni citizens in areas under their increasingly fragile control.
The Houthis are just one modest component of Yemen’s society, and a tiny element within the complex fabric of the Arabian Peninsula. The only conceivable future for citizens in Houthi areas is through peaceful coexistence with their neighbors, distancing themselves from foreign powers hostile to Yemeni nationhood.
For Gulf Cooperation Council states this is a war of necessity, fought to protect their sovereignty and prevent Iranian encirclement. With vast resources at their disposal, anything short of a decisive halt to Tehran’s ambitions in Yemen cannot be countenanced.
Houthi insurgents may feel jubilant at benefiting from Iranian patronage to expand beyond their wildest dreams, at appalling cost to Yemeni citizens. But if the Houthis believe that the support of an isolated and fickle Persian paymaster will allow them to endlessly maintain control of a hostile population and hold back Yemen’s armed forces and the GCC coalition — then ultimately they stand to lose everything.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.