Yemen: A proxy ground for Saudi-Iran battle

The Yemen civil war has its roots in the unstable transition of political power. The widespread Arab Spring-inspired protests against the longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh led to the signing of an agreement to transfer his executive powers to Yemen’s vice president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. In 2012, Hadi was sworn in as the president of Yemen. But, the Yemeni government’s troubles with Houthis continued who demanded greater political representation in the country’s governance. After the United Nations-brokered peace deal of 2014 failed, the country went into a full-blown civil war with two main groups, the Houthis rebels and Saudi Arabia allied forces supporting Hadi’s Yemeni government. Eventually, in early 2015, the capital city of Sanaa fell to Houthis with the support of forces loyal to former President Saleh.

In a recent interview to PBS US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “…Iran continues to fund the Houthis. If you want to know who’s causing the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, you need to look no further than the Islamic Republic of Iran.” It is believed by Saudi Arabia led allied forces that Houthi rebels are militarily and politically supported by Iran. This narrative is based on Iran’s strategic thinking of having influence over the Shia populations in various middle east countries. In the case of Yemen, there is around 30 per cent of Zaidi Muslims mostly distributed in the south of the country. This is the same region which has been the stronghold of Houthi rebels for the past 4 years. Since 2015, the bloody intervention by Saudi-led coalition air strikes has caused over half of the casualties in Yemen. While similar casualties have been caused by Houthi rebels in the country. Further, there are threats emanating from Al-Qaeda or Islamic State affiliates which have consistently attacked both Houthi rebels and Yemeni government along with the local population. This has made the conflict even more complicated and multi-dimensional.

Then there is a counter-narrative which is based on Houthi movement. The Houthi movement began as a counter to increasing Wahabbi and Salafi extremism in Yemen. This movement has always disassociated itself from being portrayed as Iranian proxies. Several international on ground commentators have reported that Houthis haven’t got any huge military support from Iran but political support may have provided. It is rather the heavy Saudi military operation in the country which has aligned with Iranian strategy to keep Saudi Arabia engaged in regional fights. So, the Saudi led allies are deeply involved in the conflict rather than Iranians.

Last Sunday, Yemeni government and Houthi rebels have agreed to pull back their forces from the port city of Hodeida where 50,000 tonnes of World Food Programme is kept. Since 2015, this is a positive development in a country which has been marred in one of the most bloody civil wars in the world. This has led the country into a widespread humanitarian crisis which includes cholera outbreak and severe food deprivation. In Dec 2018, the terms of the ceasefire were brokered by the United Nations (UN) between warring parties in Sweden. The motive was an immediate solution to provide humanitarian assistance to the severely affected population in Yemen.

The gravity of the situation can be understood by the fact that Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Lise Grande says, “Seventy per cent of the entire population is food insecure…including any disruption in their ability to access food on a regular basis will bring them to the brink of death.”The UN Envoy to Yemen is determined that the Yemeni humanitarian crisis would be over by the end of this year. Whatever will be the outcome, the regional power struggle between two powerful nations Saudi Arabia and Iran is never-ending. The paranoia surrounding these countries leaders to have a greater influence in the region has led to this Yemeni crisis.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Utkal Tripathy

Utkal Tripathy is a Former Research Intern at The Kootneeti. (Feb - March 2019). He can be reached at

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