From Saudi Arabia’s perspective, Iran is a large Persian country sitting at the easternmost edge of the Middle East, from where it projects power across the Arab world by manipulating and exploiting the region’s Shiite communities and other minorities. The Saudis are mostly members of the Salafist movement (a subset of the Sunni branch that is highly sectarian), which only increases their suspicions about Tehran’s overall intent. Quite simply, the Saudis see the Shia as deviants trying to undermine Islam.
Saudi Arabia hoped that the civil war in Syria would strike a critical blow against Iranian influence in the region. Instead, the conflict has created more problems for Riyadh. Similarly, the expectation that the emergence of the Islamic State would undermine Iranian influence in Iraq and the Levant has proven false. Instead, the group has threatened the Saudis, who have already been had to deal with al Qaeda’s influence on the domestic and regional front.
With the Saudis focused on battling the Shia, the Muslim Brotherhood and now the Islamic State, an important development has taken place in Yemen, to Saudi Arabia’s immediate south. The Iranian-backed al-Houthi movement is no longer a regional rebel subset of the Zaidi sect; it has become a mainstream national player, seizing the Yemeni capital city of Sanaa in mid-September and continuing to expand.
The Saudis were caught off-guard by the al-Houthi surge in Yemen, a country that has been beholden to Riyadh for decades. The phenomenal rise of the al-Houthis was possible because the Saudis lost influence with the Yemeni tribes and because the old ruling elite in Sanaa had been badly fragmented by the fall of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Saudis feel that while they were negotiating with the Iranians on regional security, Tehran double-crossed them by quietly supporting the al-Houthis, enabling them to impose their will on Sanaa and beyond.
Dr. Ufuk Cerrah-KAFKASSAM Uzmanı