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Fighting in Yemen reflects growing Saudi-Iran tensions

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A hot war has erupted against the Houthis of northern Yemen. Saudi and Yemeni military forces have engaged with the minority rebels, marking a new and bloody phase that has now drawn at least one regional power into the five year-old conflict between the Shia Houthis and the Sunni central government.

"We are not going to stop the bombing until the Houthis retreat tens of kilometres inside their border," Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the Saudi deputy defence minister said shortly after Saudi Arabia mobilized its military almost two weeks ago.

The Yemen Times reports that, "confrontations between Saudi troops and Houthis began when [Houthis] accused [Saudi Arabia] of allowing the Yemeni army to establish a military base in the Dukhan Mountain to assault them, which is why they resorted to attacking the base and taking control of the mountain that is part of the Saudi territory."

The Saudi Kingdom has assaulted northern Yemen with aerial bombardments and artillery strikes. The Kingdom plans to build a 1,500 km barrier across its southern border in order to control crossings between the two countries. Saudi Arabia is concerned that Shia activism just across its southern border could stir its own restive Shia groups near to the Yemeni border.

Both Yemen and Saudi Arabia accuse Iran of supporting the Houthis, and the latter has engaged in a naval blockade off the coast of Yemen in order to prevent possible arms shipments. Iran has denied any involvement, and its foreign minister last week stated that "countries of the region must seriously hold back from intervening in Yemen's internal affairs."

The latest developments may well lead to deepening of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Over the years a string of proxy contests have taken place between these two regional rivals: in Lebanon between the Saudi-backed Future Party and the Iran-backed Hezbollah, in Iraq between various Sunni and Shia camps, in occupied Palestine between the Palestinian Authority (Saudi-backed) and Hamas (Iran-backed). Iran has even accused Saudi Arabia of funding Jundallah, a rebel group that operates in both Pakistan and Iran. Jundallah has struck targets in southeastern Iran, killing civilians and military personnel. More recently, there appears to be an increasingly successful move by Saudi Arabia to strike a new bargain with Syria over Lebanon.

Al Jazeera provides the following background:

"In 1962, a revolution in Yemen ended over 1,000 years of rule by Zaydi Hashemites, who claimed descendance from the Prophet Mohammed.

"Zaydism is a branch of Shia Islam, though its practices often appear closer to Sunni Islam than traditional Shia belief.

"Saada, in the north, was their main stonghold and since their fall from power the region was largely ignored economically and remains underdeveloped.

"The Zaydis complain the government has subsequently allowed [Saudi-backed] Wahhabis too strong a voice in Yemen."

M.K. Bhadrakumar, a former Indian career diplomat, has written the following in Asia Times:

"Whereas the Saudis are on the offensive in Afghanistan and Iraq, they are very much on the defensive in Yemen. Like Iraq and Afghanistan, Yemen, too, has become a safe haven for al-Qaeda elements. But here the table is turned against the Saudis. The al-Qaeda elements use Yemen to make incursions into Saudi Arabia. The rebellion by the Shi'ite Houthi clan in mountainous northwest Yemen has also made the Saudi Arabia-Yemen border highly volatile. (To compound matters, there are Yemeni-Saudi border disputes waiting to be reopened.)

"The Houthis lack modern weaponry, but they are strong in numbers, highly motivated and are reportedly skilled in the use of land mines. The Saudis see in the Houthi militia a potential Hezbollah-like movement based on egalitarian ideals of political justice and equity, with a highly disciplined and trained cadre that may come to inhabit Saudi borders. There is virtual paranoia in Riyadh as to how to deal with the rising specter of a Yemenese-style Hezbollah right on its borders.

"The archetypal Saudi fear - which is scrupulously left unspoken due to its extreme sensitivity - is that the Houthi-dominated region of northern Yemen also borders Saudi Arabia's restive eastern province, which is Shi'ite (and oil-rich) and seething with resentment over Wahhabi intolerance."

Saudi Arabia is not only concerned with a possible erosion of its influence, as the republic of of Yemen resists a contest on two fronts: Houthis in the north, and a secessionist movement in its south. The bulk of Saudi oil lies in its eastern provinces, where a restive Shia population strains against persistent discrimination. In February of 2009, tensions erupted into open demonstrations and activity by the Shia population. Saudi Arabia is worried that the Houthi resistance in north Yemen could inspire its own minority population to take more active measures in opposing the government, if it were to identify with the Yemeni rebels.

The haj, the most important pilgrimage for Muslims, is set to begin on November 25. Hundreds of thousands from around the world will converge on Mecca for the annual rite. Security will likely be tight and it is possible that the event could be politicized if pilgrims from majority Shia Iran see tough measures set against their entry. Iran has already warned that it will take as a serious offense any significant difficulties or harassment faced by its nationals traveling into Mecca.



A short profile of Yemen

Population: 23 million, estimated. The median age is just under 17 years. Close to half of the population is under 15 years-old.

Government: Republic, with an elected president as the head of state and a prime minister selected by the President and approved by the legislature. The legislature is bicameral, with an elected House of Representatives and an appointed Shura Council. North and South Yemen unified into the current republic in 1990.

Economy: Between 2000 and 2006, 17.5% of the population lived on less than US$1.25 per day. The bulk of the economy depends on oil exports. Exports are plummeting and the World Bank estimates that supplies may run out by 2017.

Literacy: By estimates, half of the population is literate – 70.5% of men and 30% of women.

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