For decades, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been locked in a feud over religious differences and a desire to rule over the entire region. In recent years, this decades-old feud has spilled over into what could eventually become one of the region’s worst proxy wars in Yemen.
Since 2011, Yemen has been locked in a devastating civil war. What started as innocent protests spiraled into two outside countries trying to battle it out for control of the country. The bottom line is that sectarian issues, which have always been an issue in the region, have managed to create a proxy war of epic proportions that could have detrimental effects if it spirals into an actual war.
The relationship between the two countries has never been stagnant. The two powers have been at odds constantly, trying to strong-arm the other and gain control over the entire region. There are several reasons why the relationship went sour, but the basis is sectarian divisions.
On the one side sits Saudi Arabia, which is a Sunni majority country located in, and occupying most, of the Arabian Peninsula. On the other side sits Iran, which is a Shia majority country.
Tensions between the two powerhouses go back to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The Iranian Revolution saw the dissolution of the 2,500-year-old Persian monarchy as well as the Shah, only to be replaced by a theocratic Shia republic governed by Ayatollah Khomeini. In recent years, there have been more flare-ups beginning with the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
In March 20th, 2003, the United States led an invasion of Iraq to dissolve Saddam Hussein’s government. The toppling of Hussein proved to be very beneficial for Iran as it “cleared the way for the rise of Iraq’s majority Shiites, who were kept on the margins by Hussein’s Sunni-led regime.”
The second recent flare-up came when the Arab Spring protests began popping up. Thousands took to the streets to protest in Syria, Bahrain, Tunisia, and others. The protests saw the successful overthrow of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia and the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. As these countries became consumed with constant protests, both Saudi Arabia and Iran became involved in the conflicts, backing strategic players.
The third recent flare-up occurred as a result of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the West. The deal forced Iran to agree to “limit its sensitive nuclear activities and allow in international inspectors in return for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions.” It caused extreme unease in Saudi Arabia, who feared “an end to Iran’s international isolation. As a result, Saudi Arabia has sought closer ties with Israel, a major foe of Iran.”
Tensions have increased again following the Houthi uprising in Yemen. Both countries are involved, and Yemen is the newest battleground of an extreme proxy war.
Since 2014, Yemen has been locked in one of the worst civil wars the region has ever witnessed. Since the war began, countless Yemenis have died. In September 2014, Houthis rebels took over Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, and began pushing south towards Aden. In response to the Houthis, a group of Arab states “launched a military campaign in 2015 to defeat the Houthis and restore Yemen’s government.” Unfortunately, for nearly four years Yemen has been serving as the battleground for a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The proxy war between the two nations is purely strategic, with both countries losing and gaining a lot with the fall of Yemen. Saudi Arabia has the most to lose if the Houthis win Yemen and Iran has the most to gain.
Saudi Arabia has the most to lose if they fail to grab Yemen, given the structure of the region. Saudi Arabia is a gulf nation that constitutes most of the Arabian Peninsula. Given its size and wealth, Saudi Arabia controls the entire peninsula. Yemen sits at the bottom of Saudi Arabia, making it extremely strategic. If Saudi Arabia loses control of Yemen, it shatters their power-grab of the Peninsula. As of now, Iran controls four Arab capitals- Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sana’a. Therefore, Saudi Arabia has been reaching its wealthy and long arms in the conflict, sending large sums of money to the Yemeni government as well as supplying arms. With the installation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017, the conflict has spun into all-or-nothing bombing campaign.
Iran has the most to gain if the Houthi rebels come out on top because they recognize the strategic importance of collecting another Arab capital. Given that a sizable population of Yemen is Shia, a “potentially friendly base of operations in Iran’s rivalry against Saudi Arabia.” Simply put, easy access to Yemen means easy access to Saudi Arabia. As a result, Iran is supplying Houthi rebels with massive number of weapons that they have been using on the people in Yemen.
Talks of a viable ceasefire have been up in the air since the UN-declared a ceasefire on November 19th that called for an “immediate truce in the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah and guarantees of safe delivery of food and medicine.” On December 3rd, it became public knowledge that Houthi rebel officials were traveling to Sweden to engage in peace talks. However, Saudi Arabia has continued its military attacks. In an effort to “get things in to maximize gains,” Saudi Arabia has been firing off missiles and bombing Yemen.
Since the creation of the Middle East as we know it today, sectarianism has always been the source of conflict. Sectarianism within nations has been the norm in the region, but never have we seen sectarianism in the form of a proxy war. What started as a simple uprising has evolved into two countries using and abusing one of the poorest countries in the region for their own gain. The proxy war in Yemen has the potential to turn into a direct war between the two powers, causing complete and utter destruction to the already war-torn region. If a ceasefire isn’t achieved soon and if Saudi Arabia refuses to back down, we will see the destruction of yet another Middle Eastern country and the dissolution of the region entirely.