Saudi Arabia may balk at an Iran-backed actor gaining legitimacy through talks but it has little choice in the long run.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to lead a 10-country coalition of Arab states into military action in Yemen is a defining moment for King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, only two months into his post. In conjunction with the GCC and a host of western countries pledging support, Saudi Arabia has forecefully played its hand against the Houthi rebels which have overrun Yemen and who have received the backing of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In the ongoing struggle for regional supremacy between the Saudi Arabia-led GCC and Iran, it is tempting to see every conflict in which the two countries are engaged as a winner-takes-all sectarian struggle between Shia and Sunni Islam. Conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the deep political unrest that has blighted Bahrain, and the bubbling unrest in Lebanon display deep layers of sectarian fuelled violence which has blighted communities that lived peacefully side by side for generations.
Given that the avowedly religious Houthis are a minority sect of Shia Islam, and operate in direct opposition to the majority Sunni-led government backed by Saudi Arabia and the GCC, there is a tendency to view what is happening in Yemen in the same light as conflicts further north.
Resource driven conflict
And while it is true the Iran has clearly shown its support for the Houthis, and deeply opposes any Saudi military action against them, this grossly undermines any deeper analysis of what is happening in Yemen today.
The conflict between the Houthis and the central authorities did not start as a sectarian struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. To explain some of the problems that exist in Yemen involves understanding that Yemen is a country riven with resource driven conflict and regional factionalism above and beyond any notion of Sunni and Shia divisions.
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The Houthis hold long standing grievances with the government concerning its relatively poor treatment of regions around Saada (the Houthis nominal capital), and issues of socio-economic distribution of wealth were primarily the causes of the mutual enmity which slowly built up between the Houthis and the selectively generous state. The trigger for this particular round of Houthi-Government violence (and there have been many since 2004) leading to President
Hadi’s ouster was in fact the Houthis’ displeasure with the government plans to cut fuel subsidies in August last year.
Nevertheless, the instability in Yemen now occurs at a time when the Gulf states view Iran’s shadow looming ever more over the affairs of the region. A dominating Iranian role in the battles to retake towns and cities from ISIL in Iraq has led to a fierce backlash in public opinion in the Gulf which believes that Iraq has been handed to Iran and its proxy militias.
This at the same time when Iran may be sealing a deal with the US over its nuclear enrichment programme, only serving to convince the Gulf states that Iranian power is growing exponentially.
Last GCC bastion
The recent push south toward the city of Aden by Houthi forces backed by Yemen army units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh threatened the last bastion of GCC influence where their preferred choice, President Hadi resided until yesterday.
As such, the GCC collectively took the decision to use force to prevent the Houthis gaining almost total control of the country’s major urban centres.
But the Houthis are not hugely popular outside of their traditional constituencies, the reaction of Yemenis in Taiz and Sanaa has been decidedly mixed, with pro-Houthi propaganda frequently being torn off walls or defaced by irate residents.
Protests against Houthi rule have also broken out in numerous towns to the south of the capital and it is unlikely that a Houthi-dominated state could ever work in the long run, particularly in the south where a cosmopolitan population is deeply hostile to notions of northern control.
Whether Iran supports the Houthis or not, their domination of Yemen is unlikely to prove successful, and this may open the door for a diplomatic solution.
The Saudis for their part would be deeply uneasy at the prospect of sending in ground forces, 70 years of history have not been kind to those Saudi monarchs which decided upon military intervention to enforce their will on their troubled southern neighbour.
Prospect for ground forces
Yemen’s mountainous border regions and rugged terrain make invasion an arduous task and would be sure to result in heavy casualties. Although the coalition of 10 Arab states may talk tough, their militaries cannot sustain any sort of long term military operation on Yemeni soil.
Long term external deployment for any nation is a difficult business, let alone a deployment in Yemen, and despite western promises of logistical support it would be too great a stretch for the West to countenance backing an open-ended conflict, especially when ISIL in Iraq and Syria are still the main focus.
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More likely will be the use of Arab coalition airpower and possibly a very short ground war to grind down the Houthis and force them out of the south and back to the negotiating table with President
Hadi, albeit in a far weaker position than they have held in recent months. The position of the Houthis is presently defiant, but it is unlikely to remain so provided a package to recognise at least some of their ideas for constitutional amendments are met.
Without a political agreement that moves beyond the GCC agreements of 2011 there can be no peace in Yemen. Saudi may chafe at an Iranian-backed actor gaining legitimacy through multiparty negotiations but it has little choice in the long run but to accept that the Houthis are here to stay. Saudi cannot bomb them out of existence, much as the Houthis cannot hope to forcibly crackdown on the many Yemenis who oppose their newly gained control.
But in the short term at least the future does not bode well, and although still unlikely a full scale Saudi invasion could occur the outcome of which will be disastrous for all sides.
Michael Stephens is a research fellow for Middle East studies and head of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in Qatar.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.