No sooner had the Iran deal been announced than the House of Saud started making its moves to counter Iranian influence and support in Yemen.
The Iran deal is not something that the House of Saud could welcome. For Saudi Arabia, it is something that must be resisted in one way or the other for a stronger Iran means a stronger ‘Shia block’ and a stronger ‘Shia block’ means weak ‘Sunni block’ in the Middle East.
As such, instead of trying to end the war, the House of Saud is ready to intensify it. Just when the deal was being finalized, the tide of Yemen war had already started to turn to the Arab States’ favor with the conquest of the port of Aden.
However, this conquest in itself means little for the Arab coalition as long as Iran is there to support the “rebel Houthis”– a rural tribe professing Shia creed that had already come into prominence before the ‘Arab invasion’ started.
As a matter of fact, it was the ‘Houthi ascendance’ that had prompted the House of Saud to get directly involved in Yemen. War in Yemen has since then been a story of ups and downs for one party or the other.
To seal victory in Yemen against Iran and to stamp its own hegemony, the Arab coalition, making a very surprising move, is secretly engaged in talks with Yemen’s former President and powerful politician Ali Abdullah Saleh who certainly commands loyalty of number of army units — the country’s toughest fighting force.
It should be remembered that Saudi Arabia and its allies had plotted against Saleh in 2012 to stem the tide of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’.
It is also important to note that Saleh and Houthis were allies until the Saudis started making “generous offers” to him. Diplomats and politicians from Yemen are reported to have said that diplomats from the UAE and other Arab states are certainly negotiating with representatives of Ali Saleh.
An alliance with Saleh is the Arab States’ new tactic to tackle Tehran in Yemen. If pro-Iran forces are defeated in Yemen, it will help the Arab States re-store balance of power, which they perceive has tilted in favour of Iran after the recent deal, to their own advantage.
There is no denying the fact that the Arab States see Yemen as a proving ground to confront Tehran and hurt its prestige as the leader of Shia block in the ‘Muslim world.’
An important question to consider here is: why is Saleh now willing to engage in talks with Arab coalition? He had rejected an alliance with Saudi Arabia just a few months ago, and had also strongly denied any possibility of abandoning the Houthis.
He was then reported to have held Yemen’s “national unity” as the supreme objective that no offer of “millions of dollars” could change.
However, things seem to have changed, and so have his objective and priorities. But what has caused this change?
Although details of these talks and conditions surrounding it have not yet been made public, there is considerable circumstantial evidence available to speculate possible conflict between the Houthis and Saleh.
According to some reports, the reason for the conflict between Saleh and Houthis is not ideological. Rather, it is political and owes its existence to the question of Yemen’s future with or without Saleh as president.
The Houthis are, in no way, ready to install Saleh or his son as Yemen’s president. Their mutual distrust and rivalry date back to Saleh’s rule. The Houthis, despite making up the country’s 35 percent population, were under-represented and they started an anti-Saleh movement in 2004.
Between 2004 and the uprisings in 2011, the Houthis fought six wars against the regime’s forces, with terrible humanitarian consequences in the Houthis northern stronghold of Saada.
Fresh clashes have already started between the Houthis and forces loyal to Saleh. In June, violent clashes erupted in south-western Yemen in what rebel sources said was the result of a dispute over oil supplies. Other sources said the dispute arose due to losses in lives and ammunition they suffered against pro-Arab forces in the Al-Dalea province in June.
As a politician, Saleh often tends to ally with actor(s) capable of giving him something in turn.
Until the ‘Arab conquest’ of the port of Aden, the Houthis were the only force on the rise in Yemen who were capable enough to install him as president. However, with the loss of the port of Aden, the Houthis’ position has considerably altered, and so has changed Saleh’s own position vis-à-vis them.
Mekhlafi, Saleh’s former ally, said “the Saleh alliance with the Houthis will end only if he gets a better political option on the table” by the Arab coalition.
Considering the prospects of strong Arab position in Yemen, Saleh is likely to soften his stance towards Saudi Arabia, his former ally.
It must be remembered that Saleh was a Saudi ally until 2011-2012 when he was forced by Saudi Arabia — which hoped to quell the uprising by replacing him with Hadi — to step down from presidency.
By responding to Saudi call, Saleh is again trying to create a situation that he can use to his personal advantage.
For Saudi Arabia, an alliance with Saleh is essential for consolidating and expanding their gains at the port of Aden. It is quite obvious that the Arab coalition was able to secure the port of Aden as Saleh’s forces were reportedly not fighting along the Houthis.
As such, it is important for Saudi Arabia and its allies to keep the Houthis and Saleh in a state of dispute. It is only through this tactic that the Arab coalition can keep the port of Aden under its control.
Given the strategic importance of the port of Aden, it is most likely to be used as a base for future expansion of Arab coalition’s ground campaign in Yemen.
Following Iran’s nuclear deal, victory in Yemen has become all the more important for Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies in the Middle East.
This objective was clearly expressed by Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, a UAE based pro-Saudi political scientist.
“If America and Iran are now on good terms … this is a show of things to come. We are ready to defend our own turf,” he said.
The Iran deal is, therefore, not going to leave any positive impact on the Mid-Eastern geo-political landscape. If it is going to do anything, it will intensify the Sunni-Shia rivalry. The writing was on the wall. Prospects of Arab alliance with Saleh only confirms it.
On the other hand, the prospects of the lifting of sanctions on Iran would also allow it to play its role even more openly and aggressively. Hence, the war in Yemen drags on.
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