Why is Saudi Arabia more concerned with the Houthi Rebellion than with the Islamic State?, by Pedro Henrique Lima do Nascimento 

On March 26th, 2015, a Saudi-led coalition started an air campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The coalition is composed by nine other countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan, Sudan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (Reardon, 2015). This move comes as a surprise for two main reasons. The first one being that, not so long ago, many scholars – such as, for example, Barzegar (2010) – believed that Iran and the United States were the only states capable of conducting military operations in the region. The other is that, about a month ago, U.S. Senators have put Saudi Arabia’s commitment to the war against the Islamic State into question (Sanders, 2015). And they may be right (Cockburn, 2014). What has changed in the last few years? And why would Saudi Arabia choose to take a more prominent role against the Houthi rebellion, but not against the Islamic State?

Buckpassing – the act of getting other states to pay the heavy price of confronting an aggression (Mearsheimer, 1994/1995:31) – might be partially to blame. There are strong incentives for the kingdom to leave the burden of leading an operation against the Islamic State to the West, which would attack with or without Saudi help. The same statement cannot be done so surely regarding the Houthi rebellion. However, there are other elements which may be influencing the kingdom’s behavior, the most important of which is the historic Iranian-Saudi rivalry in the region.

The relation between the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian country were never at ease; however, tension escalated since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 (Carvalho Pinto, 2011:52). Being essentially anti-monarchist, republican, and revolutionary – and, just later, Islamic –, the insurgency deeply affected Arab monarchies of the Gulf, which perceived it as a threat to their own governments (Carvalho Pinto, 2011:52, Katouzian, 2010). Moreover, the new Iranian regime characterized itself as an Islamic Shi’i republic. The Arab monarchies, being all Sunni, were afraid that their own Shi’i minorities – or, in the case of Bahrain, majority – could get inspired by the Islamic Revolution and initiate their own (Carvalho Pinto, 2011:52). This is especially fearsome for Saudi Arabia as their Shi’i minority inhabits the oil-rich provinces (Matthiesen, 2012).

For this reason, Sunni leaders of the Middle East start to mention the possibility of Shi’i pro-Iranian parties within their own countries taking power in the region and alter the traditional balance of power between the two sects of Islam (Ma’oz, 2007:1). Although there is little to no evidence that the Shi’i community throughout the Middle East is secretly loyal to Iran and plan to enhance its power in the region, the myth is present on political statements and rhetoric under the name of “the Shi’i Crescent” (Ma’oz, 2007).

Iran’s major Islamic alliances that are strong since the 1980s include the Republic of Syria and Hezbollah. Syria is run by a political elite that confess the ‘Alawi faith, which is considered a branch of Shi’i Islam. The Al-Assad family, in power since 1970, has managed to profoundly alienate the Sunni majority from political power (Ma’oz, 2007:19). Hezbollah, for its part, is a militant Shi’i movement and political party in Lebanon. Since the end of the Lebanese Civil War, the group has participated in all parliamentary elections, gaining internal political power (Ma’oz, 2007:23-24). Rather than religious affinity, the Iranian alliances with Syria and Hezbollah are based on the actors’ coincident political enemies, namely Israel and the U.S. presence in the region (Ma’oz, 2007:8).

In addition to those traditional ties, Iran has managed to strengthen its position since the beginning of the War on Terror. Being actively opposed to Taliban since the 1980s, Iran has benefited from its overthrow from government following the 2001 U.S. invasion. Afghan-Iranian relations have improved significantly ever since (Lowe and Spencer, 2006:44). Even more importantly, Shi’i Islamists found themselves empowered in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. Invasion. The United States were initially distrustful towards those Islamists because of their close political links to Iran, preferring to negotiate with less popular secular Shi’i leaders. However, as the Islamists and their clericals seemed to be willing to cooperate with the U.S., they managed to maintain their power in their country (Ma’oz, 2007:15). Nonetheless, Iranian presence is keenly felt in many major Iraqi cities and virtually every Iraqi Shi’i party has strong connections with Tehran (Lowe and Spencer, 2006:19).

As Iranian influence seemed to be growing in the region, the rhetoric of the Shi’i Crescent became stronger and stronger. However, Saudi Arabia did not use its forces in foreign countries until the political turmoil known as the Arab Spring (Kamrava, 2012). When it started, the United States became ambiguous about their support of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, a historical ally for both Riyadh and Washington; and voiced their concern on human rights violations in Bahrain (Kamrava, 2012:98-99; Tomlinson, 2011). As a result, the Saudis decided that their traditional American alliance could not be fully counted on at all moments, which is why they decided to act by leading a military operation against the protesters in Bahrain, while, at the same time, blaming Iran of inciting the manifestations into  the Shi’i population of the archipelago (Carvalho Pinto, 2011:56; Kamrava, 2012:99).

It is with this regional background that conflicts in both Yemen and Syria started. In the case of the later, it started as a civilian revolt for democracy, which soon escalated to a war. Saudi Arabia saw on this conflict the perfect opportunity to reverse Tehran’s growth and influence both in Syria and Iraq, where the war had spilled over (Silva and others, 2014:82-83). That is why Riyadh soon became the main foreign actor in the conflict, financing both secular and jihadist anti-Shi’a groups while, at the same time, the revolt was taken over by the jihadists, mainly, the Islamic State (Cockburn, 2014; Silva and others, 2014:84).

More recently, this very same terrorist organization began to speak of the House of Saud as its next target, which made some political analysts label the Islamic State as the Frankenstein’s monster Saudi Arabia created and rapidly lost control (Cockburn, 2014). Nonetheless, it has seriously damaged Iranian allies in Syria and Iraq. With that taking into account, it seems that the perfect scenario for the Saudis is an Islamic State strong enough to deter Tehran’s influence in the region and, at the same time, weak enough to not pose a serious threat to the kingdom itself. This explains the Saudi unwillingness to lead or further contribute to an anti-IS military operation.

In Yemen, however, the situation is different. Arab Spring in Yemen led to the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, after more than 30 years in power. The Houthis, which are a Shi’i militia based on the northern part of the country, demanded more political power in the coalition government led by President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. Not being heard, the Houthis, then, started an offensive which was capable of capture the capital Sana’a and parts of Aden. This was when Saudi Arabia started to lead an air campaign against the rebel forces (Mullen, 2015).

Although the Houthis claim they are not being financed by Iran (“5 facts you”, 2015), Saudi officials have already made clear their fear that the revolt is being “backed by regional powers” aiming for hegemony in Yemen (Muellen, 2015). Saudi Arabia perceives the Houthi militia as a proxy force from Iran, pretty much like the Hezbollah in Lebanon, dangerously close to the southern part of its border (Muellen, 2015). This explains why the House of Saud seems to be so concerned with the Houthi Rebellion – and even considering a risky ground invasion (Saab, 2015) –, especially if compared to their reactions to the Islamic State threat.


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Pedro Henrique Lima do Nascimento é bacharel em Relações Internacionais pela Universidade de Brasília – UnB (pedrohenrique.ln@gmail.com)

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