Some have characterised the Saudi incursion against the Shia Houthi insurgency as yet another manifestation of a region-wide war between Sunni and Shia Muslims. However, the drivers of the conflict do not slot so neatly into this narrative.
The incursion is just the latest act in a long-standing struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran over statist issues of conflicting national interest, security and regional hegemony – not religious ideology and identity.
The realist state
The modern Saudi state rarely steps outside its borders militarily unless it feels existentially threatened. Such action has historically been determined by what are effectively secular elites at the heart of the regime’s security and foreign policy apparatuses. In this, Saudi Arabia’s conservative Sunni identity plays little role.
Saudi experts like Gerd Nonneman have consistently highlighted that while the clerical establishment and religious ideology are important domestically, they exercise almost no influence in national security.
A brief overview of Saudi Arabia’s major foreign military forays highlights the pragmatic nature of its decision-making process in this regard.
Saudi forces first entered Yemen in 1934 when they fought a brief conflict with its neighbour, then a fellow monarchy, to stabilise its ill-defined southern border. This conflict also helped to establish Saudi Arabia’s position as the dominant state on the peninsula and assert a pecking order that more or less remains in place today.
Saudi Arabia returned to the territory of its southern neighbour in the 1960s. During the North Yemen civil war, the Saudis provided both logistical support and mercenaries to Muhammad al-Badr’s royalist forces in their fight against a Marxist uprising.
Al-Badr was seen as a bulwark against a trend towards republicanism that had emerged across the wider Middle East. The Saudis feared his fall could lead to the same dynamic emerging at home.
Importantly, support for the royalists also enabled the Saudis to push back against an increasingly assertive Egypt, which had landed large numbers of troops in Yemen to support the monarchy’s overthrow. While the Yemeni monarchy was eventually ousted, Saudi support helped turn the conflict into “Egypt’s Vietnam”.
The prime motivation for this was not sectarian – Egypt remains a majority Sunni state. Instead, it was consternation over the prospect of a revisionist, competitive power gaining a foothold on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep, which threatened the regime’s future.
In 2011, Riyadh intervened in Bahrain to bail out its ally, the al-Khalifa monarchy. Populist uprisings sparked by the Arab Spring appeared to be on the verge of ousting the royal family, and Saudi Arabia feared the prospect of Iranian interference on its periphery.
However, little evidence points to an Iranian orchestration of what continues to be a genuinely populist movement that cuts across sectarian lines. Saudi paranoia nevertheless interpreted the Shia presence in the protests as evidence of Iran’s involvement. As Middle East expert Jeremy Salt put it:
… [the] Shia were demonstrating as Bahrainis but as far as the Saudis were concerned this was a Shia uprising fomented by Iran.
The protests were crushed mercilessly, despite widespread international criticism. The Saudis had achieved their goal of shoring up the monarchy and pushing out any Iranian fifth columnists – regardless of whether they actually existed in the first place.
Although each of these cases have their unique context, they nevertheless share a key consistency. In each, Saudi Arabia launched a foreign military intervention with the objective of keeping in check the perceived threat of other states – not promoting a particular ideological or sectarian agenda.
The Gulf’s great game
Saudi Arabia has let Yemen simmer for more than a decade in a destructive conflict between the government, the Houthis, al-Qaeda and a complicated web of tribal actors. Until now, Saudi Arabia was content to militarise its southern border and simply contain the behaviour of its erratic cousin – seen as more a nuisance than an actual threat – while occasionally providing material support for the central government.
Occasional allegations of Iranian support for the Houthis emerged during this time, but little concrete evidence was shown to back such claims. The fallout of Yemen’s dysfunction was largely internal, not regional.
With Iran now exerting influence on states immediately adjacent to Saudi Arabia’s north and south, the Saudis no longer consider defensive containment as viable. As in previous instances, Saudi Arabia has calculated that drastic military action is necessary to ensure its own security and survival against a regional competitor.
For Iran’s part, support for the Houthis represents a cheap way to gain regional influence without having to commit large fiscally and politically expensive military forces. This is not the neo-Safavid empire-building many hysterical pundits are wailing about. However, it does grant Iran increasing clout in its pursuit for regional hegemony.
The Saudis are not launching their largest military operation in history to spread their own brand of conservatism Sunnism. Nor are they striking south to altruistically “save Yemen”. By the same token, Iranian actions aren’t motivated out of a deep love of their Zaidi Shia “brothers”. An image of sectarian solidarity may be useful for cultivating allies, but in the end, it is merely a tool used to achieve the ends of power politics.
The struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen is just the latest chapter of an ongoing realpolitik dance between two states that have long been natural rivals. While sectarian interpretation of this particular event, as well as the the wider antagonism between Saudi Arabia and Iran, provides a seductive narrative, it also disregards the same competition for power and influence existing, admittedly in more muted tones, under Iran’s secular government before 1979.
The tactics have altered to some degree on both sides to fit the times, but the overarching objective for both Iran and Saudi Arabia remains unchanged. Their mutual grappling will continue for the foreseeable future.