Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen — although extremely unpopular internationally — has three basic elements that makes it different from the Russian intervention in Syria.
First, three UN security Council resolutions (2201, 2204, 2216) unequivocally support the legitimacy of the first elected president of Yemen Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and demand Houthi militia to unconditionally withdraw their forces from government institutions, including in the capital.
Second, the UN resolutions also disapprove of the efforts of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family for using the sectarian divide within the Yemeni military whose command allied with his son when he chose to support Houthi militia.
Third, the Security Council also calls on all member States to refrain from external interference and instead to support the political transition — an indirect reference to Iran whose official media had been using an entirely different vocabulary: “Fugitive former President” for Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi, “Yemeni army” for pro-Saleh rebels, “invasion” for the Saudi-led Arab military alliance.
Iranian recognition to the Houthi’s initial victories was so swift that the Houthi-led “Yemeni government” and Iran formally signed a MoU for civil aviation cooperation.
Yemen crisis since its start in 2011 after anti-Saleh protests started, political dialogues were initiated by the GCC countries and Saudi Arabia had hosted Ali Abdullah Saleh for a long period of time after he was injured in an attack. Interestingly, Iran’s traditional allies — Russia and China — do not share much understanding on the Yemeni crisis. The Iranian reaction to the current Yemeni crisis has been largely of a political nature, rather than legal.
Iran understands that the Houthi groups are not the same as Alwites in Syria or Shias in Iraq. Not all Zaidi community members are members of Houthi group Ansarallah, many secular Zaidis including former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and many of his colleagues shared power with Sunni tribes. Interestingly, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s love for Zaidi Shias or Houthi militias is only newly found and he had fiercely fought against Houthis in the past.
His efforts to return to power despite his failure to form a political alliance, has received support from Iran and Houthi militias which has made him more unpopular and unreliable. The newly-found romance between Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis is set to decline once Saudi Arabia and the Houthis start a direct dialogue.
Recent statements by Houthi leaders asking Iran to not intervene in Yemeni affairs came to light after news appeared that a Houthi delegation led by Mohammed Abdel Salem had started held negotiations in Saudi Arabia. The dramatic shift in Houthi position should be seen in the context of increasing loss of their militant cadre and loss of entry points for arm supplies, since all Yemeni ports are effectively controlled by the Arab alliance force.
Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family members are going to be the biggest losers if the current confidence building between Saudis and Houthis succeeds. The only difference Saudi-led airstrikes have made is that they has given the GCC council and the Arab League an upper hand over Iran. The Saudis have conveniently used the opportunity to isolate Houthis to force them to join the Saudi side. With Houthis in Saudi confidence, Saudi Arabia can handle sectarian divide in the region. The way most Arab states have supported Saudi-led action, Iranians found it difficult to use the Syrian strategy in Yemen.
If Syria has proven the reach of Iranian power, Yemen has proved Saudi Arabia's ability to forge a broader Arab military alliance isolating Iran from the Arab security architecture — something not many Iranians would have liked. This could be more visible in securing Russia's absence and China's support in UNSC voting on Yemen-related resolutions since 2015. A Russian invitation has been handed over to the Yemeni vice-president to visit Moscow in near future. Similarly, in the Chinese president Xi Jinping's recent visit to Saudi Arabia, he recognised Abdo Rabbo Hadi Mansour as the legitimate President of Yemen.
Saudi-led airstrikes have contained the Houthi advance and reclaimed many cities, but the real test still remains where a lasting peace has to be brought about. If the Saudis fail to have an end game, the Yemen crisis will destabilise the Gulf monarchies. The real test for the Saudi leadership is its ability to reach out to all possible stakeholders of the Yemeni crisis and bring them to the table for a final takeoff to a negotiated resolution.
The real challenge to an enduring peace and stability in Yemen is the return of the old template of power in which interests of common citizens and their representation was articulated only through tribal and sectarian politics. Notwithstanding his repressive rule, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh is the recipient of nostalgic reverence, because he conveniently shifted his identity as a secular leader to a member of Zaidi sect.
The return of Ali Abdullah Saleh or his family members to power will worsen conditions as he will have to rely on external support from Saudi Arabia or Iran. By allowing Houthis directly to share power may help Yemen to write a new social contract — more inclusive to all sects and tribes. For Saudi Arabia and the GCC leadership, any leader and group that keeps Iran away from Yemen will be acceptable. It all depends on who that will be between the Houthis and Saleh, who are moving fast to prove their anti-Iran credentials to the GCC leadership.
The author holds a PhD in Middle East Studies and is a research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs. Views expressed are personal.