How Iran succeeded in Yemen while Saudi Arabia failed

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Armed Yemeni Houthi anti-government protesters shout slogans during a tribal gathering at an anti-government protest camp in the northern outskirts of Sanaa on September 11, 2014. (Photo: AFP-Mohammed Huwais)

By: Mona Safwan

Published Friday, September 12, 2014

You cannot run a country with only money. Had Saudi Arabia learned this lesson, it would have avoided its resounding failure in Yemen. The kingdom could not protect its rear from the south as a result of its mistaken policies in the small country. Whereas the geographically distant Iran knew how to manage its policies in Yemen by using “reason,” rather than money. The result is that Iran surpassed Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

Yemen appears weak and fragmented right at the border of an expansive kingdom situated in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi policy in Yemen has contributed for decades to weakening the tribal country with a ubiquitous arms culture.

All Saudi Arabia does in Yemen is pay money to groups and individuals that are loyal to it. This has been its modus operandi for decades, leaving the country in the grip of rivalries, assassinations and war. It does not plan or create strategies, it does not have an in-depth impact, it does not address issues or discuss policies; it just doles out money.

This is why matters have become more complicated and imbalanced. Saudi’s regional projects and relationships have failed, including its political project in Yemen, its Gulf Initiative and National Dialogue Conference. The failure of the political process in Yemen exacerbates Saudi fears of exporting the crisis as Saudi security is directly linked to its next-door neighbor. Yemen has been deeply affected by the presence of al-Qaeda, the Saada wars, the rise of a new political class and the collapse of the central state. All this makes Saudi Arabia’s southern border a source of terrorism, drugs, immigrants and weapons.

That is why it appears that Saudi Arabia has no clear strategy towards Yemen and no long-term plan. It relies on short-term policies and thinks that buying loyalty means a quiet southern front. It does not see that Yemen can be extremely volatile which forces the kingdom to look back and pay attention because it has not secured its border.

Saudi Arabia believed things in Yemen will move forward as long as it was pumping in billions and sponsoring lavish conferences. But that was not the case. Saudi Arabia lost its chance to pull Yemen out of the quagmire of regional and international competition. It could have benefited from Yemen in the face of all the Gulf, Arab and regional crises surrounding it. But Saudi Arabia operates without allies and without partners in the decision-making process. If it does not secure its Yemeni borders, it cannot move far ahead as a major power.

The significance of being a major power is your ability to make strong allies out of smaller countries. Weakening these countries destabilizes your position. For example, the US could not have waged its wars around the world without the support of smaller countries. That is why, Saudi Arabia’s biggest mistake is to have weakened the only country that could have secured its southern border and become a strong ally. There is no doubt that weakening Yemen will hasten the end of Saudi Arabia.

The internal conflict, division and general chaos in Yemen cannot guarantee a stable kingdom. Gulf countries are aware of that. They know that the national security of the Gulf starts at the southern gate, that is, with Yemen’s stability. But the Gulf states left the Yemeni issue in the hands of Saudi Arabia which has spent millions of riyals on a political project without a clear plan.

You cannot run a country with only money, especially if it is money not linked to a strategy. Saudi Arabia could have won all parties to its side, including the Houthis, especially since they all agreed to participate in the Saudi-sponsored National Dialogue Conference. But it squandered its political interests because it chose to strengthen parties that are ideologically affiliated with it, such as the Salafis, who support their extremism. This has led to the implosion of Yemen.

Saudi Arabia’s bankruptcy allowed Iran to play a role

Saudi Arabia is Yemen’s biggest sponsor, or it should have been so without the interference of the United Nations and the United States. This UN/US intervention means interfering in Saudi Arabia’s agenda and national security. As if the notion of national security has been absent from Saudi and other Gulf states’ calculations so far because they play the role of the intermediary, not the partner. The Gulf envoy speaks as a loving ambassador to Yemen, not as an ally taking part in everything that happens.

Winning over the Houthis would have been the first step, which did not happen, and then the rest of the parties. But even its relationship to the Islamist al-Islah party has recently deteriorated. Did Riyadh have to classify al-Islah as a terrorist organization like the Houthis because of its proximity to the Muslim Brotherhood?

Why did Saudi Arabia prefer this complicated way in dealing with the conflict in Yemen. Namely, excluding important players on the Yemeni scene, refusing to deal with them, describing them as terrorists and trying to impose its supporters among the Salafis as the only force on the political scene.

These parties now are escalating the situation in Yemen and increasing the tensions and there is no local or regional mediator that could be charged with the task of pacifying the situation. Cutting off ties is not in anyone’s interest. In contrast to this Saudi insensibility appears Iran – its biggest competitor strategically, with long-term policies and very little money paid – as a strong and influential player on the Yemeni scene.

It appears that Iran’s way has “bankrupted” Saudi Arabia in Yemen. He who buys you today with money, will sell you tomorrow for money.

That is why it is not surprising to learn that major sheikhs and elderly figures who were “Saudi Arabia’s men” in Yemen have been conducting secret negotiations with Iran for a while. Or that the Brotherhood in Yemen is willing to build good relations with the Islamic country that runs its affairs based on a political logic and not an ideological or sectarian one.

Iran wasted Saudi money in Yemen

In this crisis, Iran called for self-restraint but it has no say in Yemen in the sense that it is not one of the 10 countries sponsoring the initiative and political transition. Saudi Arabia purposefully excluded Iran from participating in the process of political transition, even though it is closer to Yemen than the US and it is known that Yemen has no chance at peace and stability without good relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In relation to Yemen, Iran insists on communicating with all parties without exception and assumes the role of the concerned advisor who draws everyone’s attention to the more serious dangers, dangers that are national in character. It is even willing to establish closer relations to Saudi Arabia to achieve this goal.

Iran is able to play a role in Saudi Arabia’s backyard because its policies in the region are based on major long-term objectives. It does not seek momentary pacification but looks at 50 years from now, devises strategies and works accordingly. The fundamental difference between Saudi Arabia and Iran is that the latter does not pay huge sums of money to compete with Saudi money. Rather, it gains loyalty by establishing deeper alliances and mutual long term goals.

That is why Iran realized that it is not in its interest to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) from the Yemeni political scene. It wants the group to lose ground and to diminish its role but it does not want to exclude it as Saudi Arabia did in Egypt. It wants the MB as allies, but second-class allies. That does not mean that it considers the Houthis part of it either. It also views them as allies with whom differences are possible at any moment. There is, after all, a doctrinal and a dogmatic disagreement with the Houthis that cannot be bypassed, which makes it hard for the armed group to be part of the Iranian entity. Even the Houthi way of managing the conflict differs from the Iranian style. But cooperation, communication and drawing common goals are ongoing between Iran and Ansar Allah (supporters of God), as the Houthis are sometimes called.

Iran is not happy with the Houthis’ military obsession but the group did override the Islamic Republic’s decision, arguing that they know better how things are done in Yemen. Iran knows that total exclusion is a risk. That is why it works on strengthening its allies in a way that ensures their strong participation and secures an appropriate political and military role for them.

Saudi Arabia only weakens its allies and turns them into lackeys. At the same time, it has no clear strategy that its supporters can follow. Saudi Arabia itself does not know where the kingdom is going to be in 50 years from now, or even five years from now.

All it cares about is for the king not to die and have to face a succession problem. The House of Saud is the basis for the kingdom’s cohesion. The disintegration of the royal family means total collapse because there are no other factors that guarantee the survival of the kingdom for decades to come.

Iran knows what it is doing. It knows that the real danger stems from the Salafis, who are supported by Saudi Arabia, and that the Muslim Brotherhood is their strongest competitor because they hail from the same ideological school. The Muslim Brotherhood are the sponge that can absorb Salafi influence. That is what happened in Yemen since the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, al-Islah, was established based on an alliance between the tribes, the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Islah is the smartest Islamist movement in the region as it has ensured a social support base, political presence and ideological basis. Iran itself showed support and cooperation with this party, which represents a political project that can cooperate and ally itself with any of the states in the region, from Qatar and Saudi Arabia to Iran.

This relationship between Iran and al-Islah party emerged years earlier as the tribal reformist sheikh, Hamid al-Ahmar, was the head of the al-Quds Association funded by Iran and he had a good relationship with the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah and others among al-Islah leaders did too. But the events in Syria changed the agenda even though the revolution in Yemen in 2011 did not create any disagreements between al-Islah and Iran, which supported the revolution while Saudi Arabia opposed it.

Yemen is absent in its international relations

The path of the relationship between Yemen and Iran and Yemen and Saudi Arabia is always in the hands of the other party, not in Yemen’s hands. In these relationships, Yemen seems absent and not in control. It behaves as a passive party waiting for what the other side is going to do, whether it is going to pull the strings or loosen them.

The Yemeni government, for instance, attacked Iran and accused it of supporting the Houthis. At the same time, it did not try to approach this “danger” or establish a normal relationship with Iran thus preempting Tehran’s support for the Houthis and efforts to use the group as a threat to the state. On the other hand, Yemen’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is restricted to receiving support and cashing checks. Yemen did not provide a clear plan and ask Saudi Arabia to support it. What’s been said about the government is also true for all the local parties that are always suspicious of other parties and do not take on an active role in these relationships. Yemen acts as others intend for it to act, as a weak and unstable state. Despite that, its relationships are completely dysfunctional and no one supports or protects it.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Let us not forget thats Iran has always had a secret ideological sympathy with the Moslem Brotherhood. It supported Morsi and was about to re-establish diplomatic relation with Egypt. It has also supported Hamas, a Moslem Brotherhood branch.
Iran somehow considered that a tamed Moslem Brotherhood could be the Sunni version of Hezbollah. Anti-Israel, moderate Moslems, pious and with priority to the poor.
Another reason Iran sympathizes with the Moslem Brotherhood is that it is the enemy of Saudi Arabia whose ideology is at the antipodes of Iran.

Unfortunately the Moslem Brotherhood failed to show that they could be a moderate Islamist rulers. They fell into all the traps that their opponents setup for them. They showed that they lack strong and intelligent leaders and that they are prone to be easily intoxicated by power and the money

Therefore it is no surprise that Iran supports the Moslem Brotherhood in Yemen as well as it supports the Shia Houtis. Yemen is a laboratory of the possibility of Shia and Moslem Brotherhood to cohabitate in harmony while excluding the Wahhabis.
Of course Saudi Arabia is worried about that possible association ( that included Turkey and Qatar) and has put all its effort to crush the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya by funding the Islamist extremists.
In Syria, Iran may want to try such experimentation, as the Syrian 'moderate rebels' actually follow the Moslem Brotherhood ideology. Ideally the Alawites would keep the power but they will share it with a tamed Moslem Brotherhood thus again excluding Saudi Arabia.
It is quite possible that a victory over a common enemy ISIS ( supported by Saudi Arabia) may open the door for the unusual reconciliation and alliance of the 'moderate rebels' and the Alawites. The pending issue is that the Syrian moderate rebels have not yet found strong, intelligent and courageous leaders who could start the reconciliation process.
Therefore the time has not come to the end of the war in Syria.

Question: How Iran succeeded in Yemen while Saudi Arabia failed?

Answer: Very simple reason, Iran is Islamic whereas Saudi Arab is SAHYOUNI (Zionist ) Arab.

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