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Gulf countries losing their influence in Yemen

A boy is seen in front of a tent as civilians, who fled from the ongoing civil war where numerous civilian killed, are seen during their daily lives despite many difficulties at Al-Raqah refugee camp in Amran province of northern Sanaa, Yemen on 24 November 2019. [ Mohammed Hamoud - Anadolu Agency ]
A boy is seen at a refugee camp in Sanaa, Yemen on 24 November 2019 [ Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency ]

On Wednesday, the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG) held an emergency meeting in Jeddah. The subject of this meeting of interior ministers from Gulf countries – Bahrain, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – was the instability in Yemen, where Houthi rebels have captured the capital, Sanaa. The ministers concluded that events in Yemen were a threat to regional security.

"The CCASG states will not stand idly by in the face of factional foreign intervention as Yemen's security and the security of the CCASG states are one and the same," they said in a statement. "Yemeni and CCASG security are indivisible." They demanded the return of official buildings to state control and the return of all looted weapons, military equipment and money. The statement came just a week after Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal warned that if Yemen slid further towards violence, it would damage regional security.

Of course, it goes without saying that serious unrest in one country will cause anxiety amongst its neighbours. But, in this instance, the concern is not just about contagion but about the vying power balances in the region. The Gulf States – in particular Saudi Arabia – are profoundly concerned about the advance of the Houthi rebels for two main reasons. The first is that they fear the increasing influence of Iran, Saudi Arabia's long-time adversary, just across the border. The Yemeni government has directly accused Iran of funding the Houthis (a Shia rebel group). An accusation Iran denies. While the actual extent of cooperation is unclear, there has certainly been a long-standing connection between Iran and the Houthis; leading members of the group have been sent to Tehran for training, and their ideology borrows from that of the Iranian revolutionary.

Rulers in Saudi and other Gulf states are concerned that the Houthis could follow the example of another Iran-affiliated militant group – Hezbollah in Lebanon, which combines a powerful military presence with popular support from the Shia population to dominate politics and project Iran's influence.

The second is fear that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula could take advantage of the unrest to plot new attacks in the region. Yemen is an impoverished state made up largely of hostile terrain; mountains and desert. With a long history of turbulence, it has been a security black spot for years. It also stands in contrast to the oil-rich, monarchy-led, stable Gulf states that it neighbours. This perpetual instability is of the greatest concern for Saudi Arabia, which shares a 1,700 kilometre border with Yemen.

"The struggle in Yemen is a threat to neighbouring countries and Saudi Arabia should worry about this," Abdullah Al-Askar, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee said recently. "It could become another Taliban land."

Yet some analysts argue that the CCASG has only itself to blame for its declining influence in Yemen. The unstable state – the poor relation of the Arabian Peninsula – has been trying for years to join the CCASG, and had hoped to join by 2015. This renewed bout of political instability – in addition to major economic problems – makes this even more unlikely.

Despite the fact that Yemen has been kept out of the union for years, neighbouring states – particularly Saudi Arabia, which has long been a major aid donor – retained significant influence in the country. But ever since long-time dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh was ousted from power in Yemen's 2011 uprising, the monarchies in the CCASG have struggled to retain this influence.

Riyadh has traditionally held the most sway and remains a big aid donor – but these days, it has few trusted friends in power in Yemen. Anxiety about the Muslim Brotherhood caused Riyadh to withdraw funding from Yemen's moderate Islamist Islah party.

Writing in the Washington Post this week, political scientist Silvana Toska summarised the way in which these contesting regional interests compound the problem: "All parties must have recognised that a stable Yemen is entirely impossible as long as too many power centres compete with each other." But given Yemen's position next to Saudi Arabia and shipping routes in the Gulf of Aden, it seems unlikely that nearby states will remove this pressure anytime soon.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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