After forcing concessions from Yemen’s government last month, Shiite Muslim rebels ignored pleas to pull out of the capital, flaunting an ascendancy that has alarmed the country’s Gulf Arab neighbors.
The Houthi fighters, with scimitars hanging from their waists, now guard key ministries and the central bank in Sana’a. Outside the capital, they have fought their way into Yemen’s second-largest port on the Red Sea and seized a crossing post on the Saudi border.
For Saudi Arabia, it’s the perception of an Iranian hand that makes the advance a threat. The Houthis, who follow a branch of Shiite Islam called Zaidi, have pushed aside a government installed three years ago as part of a peace plan backed by the Saudis and their Sunni allies. Yemen, which shares a 1,100-mile border with the world’s biggest oil supplier, threatens to become another arena for the Saudi-Iranian antagonism that underlies many of the region’s crises.
“Gulf states have put a great deal of importance on areas that may be prone to Iranian influence,” James Fallon, senior Middle East analyst at Control Risks in Dubai, said by phone. “Iran has voiced support for the Houthis, though it’s hard to say if Iran has been a primary driver for the group’s rise.”
Saudi Arabia has Shiite militias to its north and south. Militias in Iraq fired three mortars at the border area in July. In Yemen, Houthi gains will weaken Saudi Arabia’s influence over the impoverished country led by Gulf Cooperation Council-backed President Abdurabu Mansur Hadi.
The Houthis, named after the group’s founder Hussein al-Houthi, have said in the past that they face discrimination from Yemen’s central authorities, and accuse Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States of meddling in the country’s internal affairs. Gulf governments and the U.S. use sectarianism to foment conflict in the region, according to Abdulmalik al-Ejri, a Houthi official.
The group targeted a Saudi-backed Salafi school in Damaj in north Yemen last year, forcing it to close after a bloody gunfight, and it took control of the conservative Sunni Muslim al-Eman University in Sana’a after moving into the capital.
“We aren’t a tool in the hands of Iran,” Hasan al-Saadi, a senior Houthi leader, said in phone interview on Oct. 17. “We respect Iranian resistance and the movement of Ayatollah Khomeini, but we don’t follow their religious thought.”
The rebels fought a six-year war with the central government from 2004, and the conflict spread briefly into Saudi Arabia five years ago when the Houthis seized territory across the border. More than 100 Saudi soldiers were killed while driving them out. After the latest Houthi gains, Saudi authorities boosted security and warned that any breach would be met with force.
“What is happening in Yemen should worry Saudi Arabia,” Faris al-Saqqaf, an adviser to President Hadi, said in a phone interview on Oct. 17. “Iranian ambition will not stop at Yemen.”
Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni monarchies of the GCC are alert to what they see as Iranian influence on the Arabian peninsula. They blamed Iran for the unrest among Shiites in Bahrain in 2011. A Saudi-led GCC force helped the ruling Al Khalifa family suppress those protests in a violent crackdown.
Iran is interfering “most recently and dramatically” in Yemen with its “inherently sectarian” policies, Anwar Gargash, the United Arab Emirates’ minister of state for foreign affairs, said on Oct. 19. A week earlier, his Saudi counterpart Saud al-Faisal said that Iran should “withdraw its forces fighting in Syria, Yemen and Iraq” to ease regional tensions, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.
“It’s reasonable to assume that there’s definitely some level of Iranian support and influence and guidance” for the Houthis, said Danya Greenfield, a Yemen specialist at the Atlantic Council in Washington. Meanwhile the Saudis, alongside conventional diplomacy, are sending money and collaborating with tribal leaders to counter the Houthis, she said.
Saudi-Iranian rivalry intensified after the Islamic revolution of 1979, which mobilized the masses in a form of street politics that’s anathema to Saudi Arabia’s monarchy. Saudi Arabia backs Sunni rebels seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian ally.
“Yemen is significantly complicating the relationship” between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Paul Sullivan, a Middle East specialist at Georgetown University in Washington, said in response to e-mailed question.
In areas of Yemen controlled by the Houthis, the words “Death to America, Death to Israel” can be seen painted on buildings or cars. It’s a slogan used in Iran and by Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Lebanon.
Iran has expressed support for the Houthis. Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Oct. 18 the rebels are engaged in a “righteous fight.” Velayati said he hoped that the Houthis play the same role in Yemen as Hezbollah does in Lebanon.
Al-Saqqaf, the Yemeni presidential adviser, also makes that comparison, as a warning to the Saudis. The Houthis have used the “weakness and division” of the government and army to strengthen its position in Yemen, much as Hezbollah did in Lebanon, he said.
After fighting their way into Sana’a in September, the Houthis have become the most powerful group in the capital. They rejected Hadi’s first nominee for prime minister, then welcomed the appointment of Khaled Bahah, previously the country’s UN ambassador, who’s in the process of forming a government.
The rebels gave President Hadi a 10-day ultimatum to form the government on Oct. 31, saying they would appoint a council themselves to establish a government. A day later, political groups signed an agreement authorizing the president and prime minister to form a so-called competence government, UN envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, said.
Sectarian tensions have escalated as the Houthis cemented gains. A group of Sunni tribes in central Yemen are now fighting with militants against the Houthis, while an al-Qaeda bomb attack on a gathering of Houthis in Sana’a killed 50 people earlier this month.
“If the Houthis’ expansion continues, this will drive the country into an all-out civil war,” Muhssein Khasroof, a retired Yemeni military officer, said by phone.
The Houthi advance in recent weeks has been driven by a desire to stabilize the country, not to maximize their own influence, said al-Saadi, the senior leader. “People have lost faith in the government and the army,” he said. “Had we done nothing the country would have collapsed.
The weakness of Yemen’s central government had already seen the country used by al-Qaeda as a base for attacks, including some against Saudi targets. Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister, was almost killed by a suicide attack in 2009 that al-Qaeda said was planned in Yemen.
The conflict in Yemen was not sectarian in nature to begin with, the Atlantic Council’s Greenfield said.
Yet, Saudi and Iranian involvement means that ‘‘local actors will be able to utilize sectarian tensions as a way to mobilize supporters,” she said. “Once it’s out of the bottle how do you put it back?”