Saudi Arabia and Yemen: A history intertwined

Saudi Arabia and Yemen: A history intertwined
Analysis: The two Arabian Peninsula countries share a border and several decades of history, with Saudi foreign policy oriented around preventing Yemen's troubles from crossing the border.
4 min read
26 March, 2015
The Saudi and Yemeni foreign ministers discuss war against the Houthis [Getty]
On March 12, Houthi rebels used the heavy weapons they had recently captured from the Yemeni army to conduct military exercises right on the border with Saudi Arabia.

By the early hours of today, Saudi Arabia was conducting unprecedented bombing raids on Houthi positions in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, and others in the Houthi stronghold in Sadah.

This act of direct Saudi military intervention in Yemen, markedly different to the use of proxies within Yemen over the past few years, shows the importance of Yemen to Riyadh, and how worried Saudi officials are about a Houthi - and in their eyes Iranian - takeover of the country.

Yemen is vital to Saudi Arabia's security, and, in turn, that of the al-Saud ruling family. The Saudi policy in Yemen is that of containment: prevent Yemen's troubles from crossing the border and ensure the country does not collapse - a scenario that would leave potentially millions of refugees heading for Saudi Arabia.

Balancing act

This leads to Saudi Arabia's two foreign policy goals when it comes to Yemen:

The first is preventing any foreign power from establishing a base of influence in Yemen. The Saudis regard Yemen as their backyard, and any foreign power attempting to throw their weight around there will be regarded as a threat to Saudi national security.

This goes back to Egyptian support, under the leadership of Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser, for a republican regime in the former North Yemen in the 1960s. It was actively opposed by the Saudis, who then supported the Zaydi Shia royalists out of fears of the potential destabilising influence a neighbouring Arab nationalist presence could have tapped within the kingdom.

Iranian power in Yemen is just the latest for the Saudis to rail against, after the perceived Egyptian and Marxist "threats" in the former South Yemen.

The other foreign policy goal is to prevent a strong Yemen emerging independent from Saudi hegemony. Yemen already has a population of around 26 million, roughly the same as Saudi Arabia's, and one that is expected to double in the coming decades.
     If enough influential people are on the payroll, Riyadh will be able to dictate their actions.

Couple that with a strong military and tribal culture in Yemen, and the Saudis' fear of their southern neighbour growing powerful in a region Riyadh dominates is within reason.

The pattern amid chaos

Saudi Arabia's balancing act of keeping Yemen weak but ensuring that it does not collapse has led to a number of apparently divergent policies over the years.

Take the economy. During the first Gulf War, Yemen found itself on the UN Security Council, and in a disastrous move, abstained from a vote on the resolution that sought to establish an international coalition to fight Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

That abstention was severely punished by the Saudis and other Gulf states, who moved to expel millions of Yemeni workers. With remittances from Yemeni workers accounting for around half of Yemen's economy, and the sudden presence of such a large number of unemployed people in Yemen, the country's economy effectively collapsed.

Yet, at the same time, the Saudis have stepped in to help the Yemeni economy. Over recent years the Saudis have injected billions of dollars into Yemen's national budget, paying civil servants, keeping fuel flowing into the country, and ensuring that the Yemeni riyal does not plummet.

Saudi largesse has also been kind to Yemen's tribes and various political figures. Numerous figures receive money from Riyadh - the Saudi policy has been that if enough influential people and groups are on the payroll, Riyadh will be able to dictate their actions and stop them from causing trouble.

This has backfired. Many tribes simply see the Saudis as a bank that they can tap into when they need, and these same Saudi allies have proven themselves weak and unreliable when called upon.

Weakened state

The funding of a variety of non-state actors has led to a weakening of an already vulnerable central Yemeni state. Although the tribal nature of Yemeni society is taken as a given, leaders such as President Ibrahim al-Hamdi in the 1970s were able to diminish the power of the tribes.

It was former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's patronage networks, along with the Saudis, that led to tribal leaders having the money to battle the authority of the state.

Saudi Arabia and Yemen are two countries whose history has been intertwined ever since the birth of the modern Saudi state in 1932.

On his death bed, Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, is purported to have told his progeny that they should keep Yemen weak. A myth perhaps, but considering the past 80 years of Saudi policy, one that has a ring of truth.