Saudi Arabia, Supporters Brave Varied Geopolitical Forces In Yemen
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
For the past two weeks, Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen, its neighbor to the South. Those airstrikes are targeted at Houthi rebels who have steadily advanced, seizing territory and forcing the Yemeni president to flee. There are broad geopolitical forces at work in this conflict. Saudi Arabia is backed by several nations in the region and by the United States, which is supplying weapons and intelligence. The Houthis are backed by Saudi rival, Iran. Simon Henderson has been writing about the wider impact of this conflict. He's with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and joins me here in the studio. Welcome.
SIMON HENDERSON: Thank you.
BLOCK: The Saudis obviously are trying to defeat the Houthi rebels, but you say there's much more to it than that. You call it Saudi paranoia. What do you consider to be at the root of that paranoia?
HENDERSON: You have to look at the map. Imagine the Arabian Peninsula, which is mostly Saudi Arabia, and the bit in the bottom left-hand corner is Yemen. Yemen has only a little oil and gas, and Saudi Arabia has huge amounts of hydrocarbons. It's a false comparison, apparently, that Saudi Arabia - big Saudi Arabia is scared of little Yemen.
BLOCK: Yeah, it doesn't make sense.
HENDERSON: But it's absolutely valid. It goes back in history because there roughly the same number of Yemenis as there are Saudis, and the Saudis fear that the Yemenis are going to head north where they see riches and wealth and take their share of it. There's an anecdote which is told about the founder of Saudi Arabia. He is supposedly said on his deathbed of Yemen - which was divided at the time into North Yemen and South Yemen - never let Yemen be United. And, of course, lo and behold in the late 1980s, Yemen was united. This is an anecdote which is constantly being retold these days because it catches something of that paranoia.
BLOCK: How much of the Saudis fear here is not a fear of Yemen or of the Houthi rebels but a fear of their sponsor - of Iran?
HENDERSON: I think perhaps that's a little too strong. They've certainly been getting verbal support from Iran and some equipment as well, but the idea that the Houthis are proxies for Iran, to my mind, is a bit of a stretch. My judgment, at least at the moment, is that Tehran has been looking on in wonder. They've given a little bit of support, and their side is winning. And so potentially, they're going to get a strategic victory for very little effort.
BLOCK: The Saudis have said that their goal is to restore the ousted Yemeni president, President Hadi, to power. Do you see any reasonable path where that actually happens?
HENDERSON: In their dreams. Mr. Hadi is a failed politician. Hadi had his moment, didn't grasp it, and I think even ordinary Yemenis would prefer to see an alternative leader come forward now.
BLOCK: Let's talk a bit about the U.S. role here. The U.S. is providing intelligence, refueling of Saudi planes among other things. How far do you expect the U.S. will go in backing Saudi Arabia in this campaign in Yemen?
HENDERSON: It's an excellent question, and I'm sure there are people in the White House who are debating the issue of how far we should go. And Saudi Arabia is heavily dependent on U.S. military equipment anyway. But it's not going to continue endlessly because the military action, as it is at the moment, doesn't appear to be heading in a positive direction. If anything, the Houthis are persisting. And if Saudi Arabia which, at least on paper, has one of the strongest militaries in the Middle East can't achieve a clear victory, this is a setback not only for Saudi Arabia but for Saudis' allies.
BLOCK: Given the chaos in Yemen right now, one other aspect we should talk about is that Yemen has been a fertile ground for the branch of al-Qaida, AQAP, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. How does this fighting influence al-Qaida and its role in the region?
HENDERSON: Al-Qaida's been on a back foot because of the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, but down in Yemen, al-Qaida is the terrorist force that we are most concerned about. Indeed, even after the U.S. embassy in Sana'a was evacuated, there were U.S. special forces who remained in order to conduct operations against al-Qaida. In the end, they had to be evacuated as well because al-Qaida was approaching their base installation. And so this is a world international danger. It's one thing if there's just a mess in Yemen and it's a lawless place. It's another thing if that lawlessness allows a safe haven for an international terrorist organization whose targets include Europe and the United States.
BLOCK: Simon Henderson, thanks very much for coming in.
HENDERSON: Thank you.
BLOCK: Simon Henderson directs the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.