Yemen’s Disaster Could Become al-Saud’s

Unrest has grown into civil war, and the Saudis are on the losing side

By Ola Wam

Ruling Yemen, said former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, is like “dancing on the heads of snakes”—an incessant balancing act between unruly tribes, ardent Islamists, and conniving kinsmen, all vying for power. These forces would eventually hijack the Arab Spring protests in 2011, toppling Saleh from power before turning against each other. Now, from out of the turmoil, one faction has taken control of western parts of the country.

Occupying the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden, Yemen has always been in Saudi Arabia’s zone of influence, and for years the Saudis had been playing both Saleh and his adversaries in an effort to keep Yemen not too strong, yet not too weak. With Saleh’s fall, the Arab Gulf States brokered an initiative to reinstall the traditional elite at the expense of democracy. This led the politically marginalized Houthi movement, representing the Zaydi Shi’a community, to militarize and capture large parts of Yemen in a bid for a place at the governing table. By January, the Houthis had taken the capital city, and in February, inspired by Iran’s Khomeini revolution, they declared their Revolutionary Committee the interim authority in Yemen.

The Houthis’ remarkable success has sent chills down the spines of Saudis who fear Iranian influence in their own backyard. Saudi Arabia is now launching a massive military operation to halt the Houthis and their allies, but in so doing, the Saudis run the risk of …

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