Saudi Arabia and Iran’s Proxy Wars: What are They Doing to Yemen?

This article was originally published on July 4, 2020.

Yemen, an Arab country located in the Middle East, is currently the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, plagued by years of suffering as a result of extreme political turmoil and as a result of being the stage of a proxy war. But how did Yemen fall from grace so drastically, from serving as one of the world’s most important trade hubs to being designated as a failed state, with 80% of its people lacking basic needs?

In order to understand what is happening in Yemen today, we have to understand the unofficial “Cold War” between Saudia Arabia and Iran, two of the Middle East’s most influential powers.

Origins of Saudi Arabia

Saudia Arabia was formed after World War I and the Ottoman Empire’s subsequent collapse. Since the Ottomans controlled much of what is present-day Saudi Arabia, the collapse of their empire left unclaimed land for Ibn Saud and his devout Saudi clan, who already controlled Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Ibn Saud and his followers were devout Sunni Muslims; they belonged to the larger of the two main branches of Islam. From 1921 to 1925, the Saudis fought and took control of the regions in which Mecca and Medina, two of the holiest Muslim cities, were located, among the other regions and lands that currently make up the country of Saudi Arabia.

Finally, come 1932, Ibn Saud had completed his conquest and officially united his lands, declaring them the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and crowning himself king of Saudi Arabia. Massive oil reserves were discovered in Saudi Arabia only 6 years later, making the Saudi royal family into millionaires overnight. The next few decades were marked by relative peace, at least relative peace, compared to another drastically different Muslim country that was developing across the Middle East.

Origins of Iran

Iran was another Muslim country with massive oil reserves like Saudi Arabia, but its development was constantly being stunted by foreign invasions by the British and Russians. They each invaded twice, the Russians in the 1800s, during the Russo-Persian War, the British in 1907, during the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, and both the Russians and British invaded in the Anglo-Soviet Invasion and occupation of Iran in 1941. In 1953, the U.S. CIA staged a coup d’etat that removed popular prime minister Mohammed Mosaddegh. Mosaddegh was replaced by Reza Shah, a politician who sought to westernize Iran and turn it into a secular country. However, Reza Shah was a corrupt tyrant who terrorized the people with his secret police and modernized Iran when most of its people didn’t see the modernization as necessary. They instead saw it as the defamation of Islam, preferring a more orthodox, religious government.

The tipping point to all this unrest within the country was 1979, the year of the Iranian Revolution, led by devout clergyman Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini took power later that same year, effectively chasing Reza Shah out of the country, satisfying the Iranian people. However, while the Iranian people were satisfied for the time being, the revolution increased tensions with Saudi Arabia.

Tensions Increase Between Saudi Arabia and Iran

The Saudis were incredibly anxious following the Iranian Revolution for many reasons. For one, the Saudi government was a monarchy, similar to the one the Iranian Revolution overthrew, which increased fears that the Iranians would be able to export their revolution across the Middle East. The Saudis were afraid that the Iranian Revolution would inspire their people and other people across the Middle East to rise up against their monarchies. Since Saudi Arabia held a lot of influence and alliances in the Middle East, the idea of a revolution would actively threaten both their country and their influence over the region politically.

In addition to this, the Saudis also faced the prospect of their religious influence over the world being taken from them by Iran. For decades, Saudi Arabia had control of the important holy sites Mecca and Medina, making them the de facto leader of the Muslim world. However, they faced a threat when Iran started claiming that they were the ultimate Muslim state since they had a larger Muslim population than Saudi Arabia and because they had a new, religious, non-secular government. This threatened the Saudis immensely. In addition, the majority of Saudi Arabian people were Sunni Muslims, who belonged to the larger of the two main branches of Islam, while Iran was a country with a Shia Muslim majority, Shias being the smaller of the two main branches. This became another divide between the two countries.

A major catalyst for the proxy wars was a certain CIA report published in 1980, titled “Iran: Exporting the Revolution” in which U.S. intelligence claimed that Iran was supporting and proxying Shia rebel groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and supporting dissidents in other small Gulf states. This report only served to further convince the Saudis that Iran was, indeed, a radical opposing force that they felt needed to be stopped. In response to this new information, they strengthened relations with the U.S. and formed the Gulf Cooperation Council to take measures against Iran’s growing influence in the area.

Iraq: The First Proxy

In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, beginning the Iraq-Iran War. Iraq soon became the scene of the first proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran was winning the war until the Saudis stepped in to help Iraq. Saudi Arabia provided military, logistical support, and money to Iraq because they viewed Iraq as a buffer zone between them and Iran since Iraq was the only country preventing Iran’s revolution from spilling over to the rest of the Middle East. With the Saudis getting involved and using the Iraqi military and people to fight against Iran, the Iraq-Iran War became the first proxy in the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It was disastrous, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths until the conflict finally ended in a stalemate in 1988. This also increased tensions and set the stage for the Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy conflict.

However, there was a shaky peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran until the Iraq War in 2003 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The invasion destabilized Iraq and removed the peaceful buffer zone between Iran and Saudi Arabia, increasing hostility between the two countries. The U.S. struggle to replace Saddam Hussein and eventual pulling out of Iraq in 2011 created a power vacuum that many Sunni and Shia militias tried to fill. Some of these militias were extremist groups such as ISIS, Hezbollah, and Al-Qaeda. Saudi Arabia backed Sunni militias while Iran backed Shia militias, turning them into proxies in Iraq, which further destabilized the country since countries can’t function when larger countries are pulling all the strings in the affairs. Iraq became a failing state and the conflict only escalated once the Arab Spring began in 2011, leading to more violence both in Iraq and across the Middle East. Armed conflicts continue to spring up across the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia and Iran back their Sunni and Shia militias, respectively, engaging in more proxies like Iraq. One of their many proxies is Yemen.

The Yemen Crisis: Another Proxy Gone Wrong

The conflict in Yemen first began in 2011, when the Yemeni people, inspired by the Tunisian Revolution and the ensuing Arab Spring, took to the streets to protest against their tyrannical and corrupt president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had embezzled billions of dollars while acting as Yemen’s president. At the time of his presidency, Yemen was one of the poorest countries in the world, and about 13% were unemployed, with constant inflation plaguing the people.

Protests began in late January 2011 and resulted in a lot of violence and deaths. There were many rebel groups who engaged in protests with civilians; among them were the Houthis, a Shia rebel group hailing from Northern Yemen. They had a history of rebelling against the Yemeni government since they felt they were being ignored and treated as insignificant, as a Shia minority in a majorly Sunni state. The Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia, further enabled this idea by excluding the Houthis, Saleh, and Saleh’s allies in their negotiations and plan to remove Saleh from power. Following the 2011 G.C.C. intervention, Saleh peacefully stepped down in 2012 and ceded the presidency to his former vice president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

However, the people were displeased with Hadi and the G.C.C., as Hadi was an ineffectual elite who did not change anything and was a pawn that benefited the G.C.C. more than the people. Among the displeased groups were Saleh himself, and the Houthis, who had both been ignored by the G.C.C. during the drafting of the political transition proposal. As a result, Saleh and his allies joined forces with the Houthis, who were also angry about not being considered in the new government, in order to topple the new government. In addition to Saleh and his military allies, Iran also entered the playing field, providing support to the rebellious Houthis from as early as 2012, since the Houthis were a Shia minority and since Saudi Arabia and the G.C.C. backed the Yemeni government.

With the newfound military and logistical support of Iran and Saleh, the Houthis were able to take Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, in 2014. This was a major power move, as taking Sana’a caused President Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia, which created a power vacuum that the Houthis would be able to fill if not obstructed.

After Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states of Egypt, Morocco, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Sudan, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Senegal formed a coalition to intervene in Yemen in 2015. They sought to take Yemen back from the Iranian-backed Houthis, squash the Houthi revolution, and restore their pawn Hadi back to power so that Yemen would have a Saudi-favoring government rather than an Iranian-favoring government.

The Saudi-led coalition functioned mainly through airstrikes on Yemeni land, while the Houthis were a rebel group that functioned from the ground. The Saudi airstrikes were frequent and devastating, totaling about 20,000 airstrikes from 2015 to the end of 2019, averaging about 12 airstrikes a day. Despite claims that they were only targeting Houthi settlements and activity hubs, human rights groups have found evidence that Saudi Arabia is also targeting hospitals, schools, markets, mosques, and many harmless public gathering places. The Houthis are equally responsible for the devastation and destruction in Yemen, planting many lethal landmines across western Yemen, which have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians.

The constant fighting and political turmoil are causing many problems, but during this power struggle, even humanitarian aid is being weaponized and exploited. In 2015, the Saudi-led coalition created a land, air, and sea blockade around Yemen to prevent humanitarian aid and weapon shipments from entering the country and aiding the Houthis. The Houthis are also blocking, stealing, and destroying aid coming into the country, which is massively contributing to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, since the civilians are unable to receive aid while in the middle of airstrikes, landmines, and extreme violence.

The lack of aid is causing the huge humanitarian crisis in Yemen, leaving more than 80%, or 24 million, of Yemeni people impoverished and in dire need of humanitarian assistance. 20 million Yemenis are in need of food, while 10 million are on the brink of famine. Since 2015, nearly 18,000 civilians have been killed, many due to errant Saudi airstrikes. Since 2014, about 3,000 children have been unethically recruited into the military, while 11 million children suffer from a lack of humanitarian aid. In addition to this, sexual violence against women and children has increased by 63% since the beginning of the conflict, making Yemen extremely unsafe for women and children, since there is no minimum marriage age in Yemen.

It has become extremely difficult for Yemen to function since the beginning of the proxy war and violence. Since there are so many groups involved in the Yemen crisis, and since such huge countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran are pulling the strings behind the conflicts in Yemen and are using the fighting to further each of their own interests, rather than to look out for Yemen’s best interests, Yemen cannot function. Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting over the influence of the area, and are destroying Yemen in the process, causing this humanitarian crisis.

Until Saudi Arabia and Iran can make peace with each other, Yemen will remain a failing state, and so will the other proxies being staged all across the Middle East.

In order to educate yourself more on the Yemen crisis and to discover ways to help, you can visit the following website: