Photo: Reuters
Houthi rebels in Yemen
Photo: Reuters

Gulf Sunnis opposing Iranian hegemony in Yemen war

Analysis: War for Yemen outlines regional interests with unusual clarity as Sunni, Shiite nations clash.

Even in an area as riddled with wars and conflicts as the Middle East, it seems some time has passed since there has been such a clear rift between two blocs like the one we are seeing in the Saudi-led operation launched in Yemen.



Sunni Saudia Arabia's declaration of war against the Shiite rebels who toppled Sunni rule in Yemen should be understood as an overt challenge to its major Shiite rival – Iran. From Turkey to Oman and from Pakistan to Morocco – the Iranian-Saudi rivalry springs from the region's sectarian lines. Sunnis against Shiites, that's the name of the game.


Sunni coalition members

Saudi Arabia – Leading Sunni power and rival of Shiite Iran. The two have competed for years over centers of influence between the Iran-dominated "Shiite Crescent" and the moderate Sunni axis led by the Saudis. The power struggle entails serious financial interests: the Houthis control of Yemen's south would give them control of the strategic Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. They could then block international shipping routes through the Suez Canal and Red Sea to Asia and east Africa.

Contributed: 100 fighter planes and 150,000 soldiers


Saudi defense minister in the coalition war room (Photo: AP)
Saudi defense minister in the coalition war room (Photo: AP)


Gulf Nations - The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar – Sunni principalities disturbed by Iranian-Shiite hegemony growing stronger in the region. The participation of two countries is particularly notable – Bahrain, where the Sunni royal house rules over its Shiite majority, and whose 2011 uprising by this Iran-backed majority was put down; and Qatar, considered the Persian Gulf's "problem child", and which has relatively strong channels of communication with Iran.

Contributed: UAE - 30 fighter planes; Kuwait and Bahrain - 15 fighter planes each; Qatar - 10 fighter planes.


Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt – Sunni states seen as traditional Saudi allies. Morocco and Egypt are participating despite the fact that the Houthi threat is far from a direct, immediate threat to them compared to the dangers of the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. They quickly agreed to Saudi Arabia's call to arms, and can be expected to reap benefits. Egypt and Jordan are depending heavily on the Gulf nations' assistance – only recently Egypt received billions of dollars from these countries in order to boost its sputtering economy.

Contributed: Morocco and Jordan – 6 fighter planes each; Egypt – expressed willingness to send fighter planes, moves ships to the Red Sea and agreed to provide land support if needed.


Fire near Aden (Photo: Reuters)
Fire near Aden (Photo: Reuters)


Sudan – the most intriguing member of the Saudi coalition. For years it was considered an important ally of Iran in Africa, and according to many media reports Israel has carried out multiple bombing operations in its borders to destroy Iranian weapons convoys making their way from the beaches of Sudan to the Gaza Strip. The last year saw a significant worsening of relations between Sudan and Iran, and Iran's cultural attaché was expelled from Khartoum because of "spreading Shiite ideology". Sudan's cooperation with the Saudis and Sunnis against Tehran's allies and Shiites is a dramatic statement of intent.

Contributed: Three fighter planes.


Aftermath of Saudi bombing in Yemen (Photo: AFP)
Aftermath of Saudi bombing in Yemen (Photo: AFP)

Pakistan – Taking part in the operation, but less actively. A nuclear-armed Sunni nation, lately gravitating increasingly to the Saudi axis. Recent months have seen discussion of possible nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia in light of Iran's nuclear program. The prime minister of Pakistan also met with the Saudi king not long ago.

Contributed: Expressed willingness to support with fighter planes and ships, and a ground invasion if necessary.


Turkey – Sunni nation, but despite this it seems that in recent years it has grown closer to Iran's Shiite regime. However, the two countries have fought and will always fight for regional hegemony, and now that a large Sunni coalition has been formed against Iran's allies, Turkey cannot stand by if it wishes to position itself as a regional power. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that Turkey may consider providing logistical support to the Sunni coalition in Yemen, and called on Iran and "terror organizations" to withdraw from Yemen.


The Palestinian Authority – close to Saudi Arabia and the Sunni axis, announced its support for the operation.


Saudi Arabia kicks Iran out of the area
Saudi Arabia kicks Iran out of the area


Opposed to coalition

Iran – Close ally of the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are members of the Zaidi sect affiliated with the Shiites. Since the Houthis took control of Yemen, Iran has signed agreements with them and had diplomatic exchanges. It sees the Houthis as its messengers spreading Shia Islam in Yemen – a strategically important country in the backyard of its large Sunni rival, Saudi Arabia.


Iraq – A Shiite-majority country ruled by a Shiite government. Significantly aided by Iran in the war against the Islamic State organization, which is Sunni. Tehran stands at the forefront of the battle against IS, which has conquered a third of Iraq, leading the fight with the Revolutionary Guards' elite Quds Force headed by Qasem Soleimani. Iraq has no interest in angering Iran and issued a statement Wednesday opposing military intervention in Yemen, which it said would "only complicate the situation further."


Yemen collapes
Yemen collapes


Lebanon – Opinions differ in a country that has seen its own strife between Sunnis and Shiites in recent years against the background of Shiite Hezbollah's fighting against Sunni organizations in Syria. Hezbollah was quick to condemn the Yemen operation and called it "American-Saudi aggression". Its interest is clear: As many Shiite affiliates as possible should be supported in order to spread Shia and strengthen Iran, its main patron. Against them stands the Sunni camp headed by Saad Hariri, which has enthusiastically supported the operation.


Algeria – Usually disinclined to get involved in regional crises, but at a Wednesday meeting of the Arab League it opposed military action in Yemen.


Oman – The neighbor of Saudi Arabia and Yemen stayed outside the alliance and decided to be neutral in the hopes of acting as a mediator. Oman is considered closer to the Iranians compared to other Gulf nations. Lately it played a significant role in the US-Iranian thaw that allowed nuclear talks to advance.


פרסום ראשון: 03.27.15, 10:57
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