Yemen Rebels Take Presidential Palace, What’s At Stake for Saudi Arabia? (1/3)

Madawi Al-Rasheed says the Saudis want to prove their military prowess as defenders of Sunni Muslims and to install a pro-Saudi government in Yemen

Yemen Buildings

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

In Yemen, Houthi rebels and their allies in Yemen have stormed the presidential palace in Aden, following heavy clashes, officials say. The rebels pushed through to the heart of the port city using tanks and armored vehicles, despite air strikes by a Saudi-led coalition. According to AFP, at least 44 people have been killed, including 18 civilians.

Now joining us from London is Madawi al-Rasheed. Madawi is a visiting professor at the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She’s also an OSI foundation fellow.

Thanks for joining us, Madawi.

MADAWI AL-RASHEED, PROF. MIDDLE EAST CENTER, LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS: Thank you for having me.

JAY: What is at stake here? In a broad way for the Saudis, and in particular what does the storming of the palace mean in terms of the potential actual ground incursion by this Saudi-led alliance?

AL-RASHEED: Well, this is a conflict that is brewing for a long time, and I think Yemen is now the battlefield. The conflict is between Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other side. The two countries had maintained a serious, tense, and hostile relationship with accusations and further accusations that they are supporting enemies of the other country.

And in Yemen we see that a situation developed where a northern community known as the Houthis, and they are Shias , they are in collaboration with the deposed President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who controls quite a lot of the army units. They cooperated and went further down to Sana’a and expelled the elected President of Yemen, Abd Rabbah Mansur Hadi, and continued their march to the South, to Aden. And we saw today that they have stormed the presidential palace in Aden despite seven days of constant bombardment by Saudi Arabia.

In fact, this Yemeni conflict seems to me as a local conflict between multiple actors. The Houthis are one. The ex- or deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the new president, who has fled to Saudi Arabia. Plus there are other forces in southern Yemen, and they are all trying to figure out how to rule their country. But they have resorted to arms, and now there is a rebellion going on that Saudi Arabia decided that is a threat to its national interest.

Saudi Arabia interfered in Yemen since the 1930s. And one of the major conflicts that broke out in the region was in the 1960s, when Nasser, the president of Egypt, supported the republicans who wanted to overthrow the Zaydis. They were known as the Zaydi Imams. Saudi Arabia, together with the United States, sided with the monarchy, which happened to be Zaydi like the Houthis, who are causing the uprising in Yemen. That conflict lead to deposing the sort of, kind of Imamate, or the monarchy in Yemen, and the members of that ruling clan fled to Saudi Arabia, where they took refuge.

And now, we come to this type of conflict that is ongoing, and Saudi Arabia accuses Iran that is sponsoring and patronizing the Houthis, which allows them to march to the South. But I think there is a big question mark on how much Iran is sponsoring the Houthis. The Houthis existed in Yemen for a very long time, and they had been trying to share power or gain some kind of power in their area and in central government without any success.

This is not the first time that the central government of Yemen clashes with the Houthis. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the ex-President of Yemen, who is now siding with the Houthi, bombarded the Houthis at least six times, and there had been wars between the northern part of Yemen where the Houthis are and the central government of Yemen.

Now, Saudi Arabia enters this volatile context of Yemen, and the problem with Saudi Arabia is it has enormous wealth, and it has a very, very poor country on its southwestern border. Saudi Arabia dealt with Yemen in terms of finding clients. Such as, for example, tribal leaders, or the president himself, Ali Abdullah Saleh. And Saudi Arabia pours money on those people in order for them to remain loyal to Saudi Arabia, and not challenge its authority or cause any problems on its southern borders.

There has never been serious development projects in Yemen paid for by Saudi Arabia. If Saudi Arabia wants to help Yemen. It has always maintained a patron-client relationship with Yemen. And of course, Yemeni actors are independent agencies, and they want to capitalize on Saudi sponsorship and money, but at the same time, pursue their own interest.

JAY: Now, what we keep hearing in the western press — most loudly of course from Netanyahu from Israel, but we hear it from a lot of the American politicians, particularly the neocons — that Yemen’s an example of Iran, quote, gobbling up country after country in the Middle East.

You kind of started to get at this. But is this primarily a domestic movement and a domestic dispute, with a kind of subordinate role played with some Iranian support? Or is this Iran trying to, quote-unquote, gobble up Yemen?

AL-RASHEED: Well, in any kind of foreign intervention you have two sides. You have local actors who are ready, who are probably fighting a local domestic power struggle, and then you have a [whole cash] regional power like both Saudi Arabia and Iraq, who try to patronize these kind of actors in their struggle against their fellow citizens or competitors, or rivals in their own country.

So it is not possible for a foreign country just simply to walk in and create puppets. There had to be a kind of local constituency ready for that. And because Yemen is poor and the stakes are very high in that country, Saudi Arabia itself had sponsored some Yemeni actors and Iran had sponsored some Yemeni actors. So the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is fought today in Yemen.

Now, to what extent Iran is sponsoring and pushing the Houthis, that’s a matter of degree, I think. Yes, there is great support, but we don’t know how great it is until the fog of war clears, and we know exactly who was sponsoring who and who was giving what to these local actors.

However, what is important is the more interventions from both Iran and Saudi Arabia take place in Yemen, the less likely that those actors will come to the negotiation table. As long as there are arms, and as long as they want to resolve their differences by military action, now compounded by the Saudi intervention and the air strikes on Yemen, it is becoming very, very difficult to see the end of this conflict.

JAY: So for the Saudis this is about having a pro-Saudi regime on their southern flank.

AL-RASHEED: Yeah. Well, there are multiple reasons why Saudi Arabia decided at this particular moment in time to intervene militarily in Yemen.

First, there is this kind of Saudi reputation in the Arab and Muslim world. Saudi Arabia had been sitting, watching the erosion of its hegemony and influence in multiple countries. Lebanon, Syria, Iraq. They tried very hard to depose Bashar al-Assad, for example, by sponsoring rebels. But at the same time, they have not got their result they wanted. In Lebanon, they’ve been kicked out from Lebanon by Hezbollah, who is a Shiite militia also patronized by Iran. They have not achieved great success in the Arab world apart from toppling the elected Egyptian president Morsi, and making his successor, the Sisi government, stronger by keeping the aid flowing from Saudi Arabia to Egypt.

So the reputation of Saudi Arabia is at stake at the moment. And they needed this war to prove to the Arabs and to the Muslim world that they can defend the so-called Sunni Muslims. And this is a long dream of Saudi Arabia, that it wants to be seen as the leader of the Sunni world, and maybe there is someone in Riyadh who thinks that by launching this war on the poorest Arab country, Saudi Arabia could score a victory and could actually claim to be the undisputed leader of the Muslim world.

So that’s the Arab regional side.

JAY: And the Saudis, the Saudis are now the second and sometimes first largest importer of arms in the world. It’s something like $90 billion of arms purchased over the last four years.

AL-RASHEED: Yes. There is an increasing militarization in the Arabian Peninsula as a whole. And I mean here Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries. The Gulf Cooperation Council countries. These countries spend a huge amount, or proportion, of their GDP on weapons. And there is always the excuse that these weapons are to protect them against the Iranian danger, or the Iranian threat or expansion.

But at the same time, they feel that they need to use these weapons. And we have seen since the Arab uprising in 2011, there had been a pushing for military intervention in different parts of the Arab world. For example in Lybia, in Syria, in Iraq, and now in Yemen. Saudi Arabia also, let’s not forget, moved its troops to Bahrain in 2011 to obviously push the democracy movement in that country.

So there is a hyper sort of military appetite for foreign interventions. And finally I must say that there is also a domestic scene. Saudis themselves are watching how Saudi Arabia hasn’t been able to remove Bashar al-Assad, because it claimed that this is the objective of its sponsorship of the various Syrian rebels. Some of them are quite unsavory. But this continued support for the Syrian uprising — which is actually unlike the Saudi position in Egypt when it supported the counterrevolutionary forces — the inability to score a victory and remove Bashar, the expansion of Iran in Iraq, and in Syria in addition to Lebanon, had made Saudi publics weary of their leadership.

JAY: Okay. Madawi, in our next series of interviews — we’re going to do a few today — we’re going to talk about the domestic situation in Saudi Arabia, and the nature of the political struggle. So please join us for part two of our series of interviews with Madawi al-Rasheed on the Real News Network.

End

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