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Saudi Prince Delivering Yemen Right Into Arms of Iran

There is running joke in Yemen that casts Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman as an Iranian secret agent. This is because almost everything he has done in the last three years has aided—rather than hurt—Iranian interests. Chief among these is the young prince’s disastrous war in Yemen. Ironically, the brutal war is in danger of creating what Saudi Arabia fears most: a determined and capable Iranian influenced proto-state like Hezbollah on its southern border.

[1]For nearly 32 months, Saudi Arabia, backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and with the support of the United States, has tried to bomb and starve Yemen into submission. The unrelenting airstrikes and blockade of Yemen’s ports and airspace have devastated Yemen’s population of 26 million. More than 80 percent of its population is in dire need of aid [2] and cholera is sweeping across [3] the impoverished country. Yet the country’s Houthi rebels—who are aligned with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and much of the Yemeni military—remain defiant and fight on. Saudi Arabia’s intense aerial campaign has done little to diminish the Houthis’ and their allies’ military capabilities.

Saudi Arabia launched “Operation Decisive Storm” on March 26, 2015 with the intention of defeating the Houthis, which it views as Iranian proxies. The secondary objective of the campaign was to re-install Yemen’s already compromised and deeply unpopular president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The war has failed to achieve either of these objectives. Hadi and his government remain in exile and the Houthis and their allies are more capable than ever.

The war has helped solidify an unlikely and still fragile [4] alliance between the Houthis and their former enemy, Ali Abdulla Saleh, who still commands the loyalty of much of the Yemeni Army. As president, Saleh fought six vicious wars against the Houthis but the Houthis battled his forces to a standstill. While there is much bad blood between the Houthis and Saleh, the two have temporarily put aside their history to come together to fight the Saudis and their allies. The Saudi led war in Yemen is the glue that holds the alliance together. If Saudi Arabia were to end its war in Yemen, it is likely that this alliance would quickly fall apart.

The Houthis are admired in Yemen for one thing: their tenacity and courage as fighters. Beyond this, their popularity in northwest Yemen is limited and will wane without the persistent threat of Saudi Arabia and its motely mix of proxy forces. This is not to say that the Houthis will not continue to be a force in Yemen. They will. The Houthis will be a part of any political solution in Yemen and some of their leaders will demand at the very least token positions within any future Yemeni government. There is nothing Saudi Arabia can do to stop this. However, by ending its war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia can prevent the Houthis from becoming another Hezbollah. 

If the war continues in Yemen, the Houthis—who are currently not Iranian proxies—may well seek out closer ties with both Iran and Hezbollah. Given the fact that the war is draining Saudi Arabia’s treasury and taking a toll on its already ineffective armed forces, the Iranians will likely oblige. Aiding the Houthis and their allies will be an extremely cost effective way for Iran to counter Saudi Arabia’s own attempts to arm and train a host of militant Salafist forces across the Middle East. The difference, however, is that the Houthis are highly capable and becoming more so by the month.

This increasing capability is not—as Saudi Arabia would have the world believe—due to Iranian aid. There is little evidence that Iran or Hezbollah is directly aiding the Houthis. Long before the start of Operation Decisive Storm, the Houthis were already some of the world’s best guerrilla fighters. With limited numbers of men and few weapons, the Houthis bloodied Saudi forces in 2009-10 when Saudi Arabia sent a limited number of special forces troops into northern Yemen.

Now the Houthis are allied with the best trained and equipped parts of the Yemeni military, namely the Republican Guard. The Houthis have incorporated numerous well-trained field-grade officers into their ranks, many of whom were trained at staff colleges in the West and the former Soviet Union. As often happens during war and during times of deprivation, a fertile cross-pollination of conventional and guerrilla tactics is taking place in Yemen.


This cross-pollination extends beyond tactics to the development of re-engineered and modified military hardware like the missiles that the Houthis and their allies have launched toward Saudi Arabia. Before the war, Yemen possessed a considerable stockpile of short and medium range missiles that it had purchased from the former Soviet Union and North Korea. While most of these weapons systems are antiquated and many are in disrepair, the Yemeni Missile Brigades, which are the units within the army charged with maintaining and launching the missiles, possess a wealth of expertise with a wide variety of durable systems.

As with many other parts of the Yemeni Army, officers and NCOs are accustomed to improvising and re-engineering needed parts for weapons systems due to a persistent lack of funds and shortages. The engineers, NCOs, and officers within the Yemeni Missile Brigades are more than capable of re-engineering the kinds of missiles that are being used to target—though so far, none have hit their targets—Saudi Arabia. They do not require Iranian aid for this and if such aid were being rendered, it is unlikely that the missiles would be missing their targets. A recent leaked confidential UN report [5] dismisses the claims that the missiles are the work of Iran.

While the missiles that are being launched from Yemen toward Saudi Arabia have yet to hit their targets, the fact that the Houthis and their allies are able to re-engineer and launch such missiles points to the very real threat that Saudi Arabia faces if it continues its war. The longer the war continues the stronger the alliance between the Houthis, Saleh, and a considerable part of the Yemeni military becomes. The alliance between the Houthis and the military in particular will continue to spur development of an ever-more acute understanding of hybrid warfare. While up until now Iranian aid to the Houthis—if it exists at all—has been limited, this may change if Saudi Arabia becomes even more overt in its attempts to counter what it views as growing Iranian influence in the region.

Saudi Arabia can mitigate the threat posed by the Houthis by simply ending its war and reverting to its tried and true policy of buying influence in Yemen. For decades Saudi Arabia’s rulers kept hundreds of Yemeni tribal elites and political figures on its payroll. The Saudis were quite adept at keeping Yemen off balance just enough to ensure that it did not pose a threat to the Kingdom while not destabilizing the entire country. This policy was a reflection of the Kingdom’s overall approach to foreign policy: cautious, considered, and wherever possible, covert.

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has dispensed with this approach and replaced it with one that is overt, reckless, and dangerous. Nowhere is this more evident than in Yemen where the prince’s war may create what it most fears: a highly capable and determined proto-state on its border that is open to Iranian influence.

Michael Horton is a senior analyst for Arabian affairs at the Jamestown Foundation. He is a frequent contributor to Jane’s Intelligence Review and has written for numerous other publications including: The National Interest, The Economist, and West Point’s CTC Sentinel.

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Saudi Prince Delivering Yemen Right Into Arms of Iran"

#1 Comment By John On November 30, 2017 @ 10:44 pm

This will end when the Saudi regime collapses, maybe in 3 or 4 years.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 1, 2017 @ 12:01 am

There is another option. Stop fighting a conflict in which you have to occupy the territory to win, yet have no intention of ending in ground force.

Rebuild old relationships with whoever the leadership turns out to be, help rebuild the country etc.

The problem is that Middle Easterners apparently have long memories. And there was a time when Saudia Arabia employed more than a 1/3(?) of Yemens citizens. But those employed began protests in Saudia Arabia, interfering in the internal relation of any a state is a no no — rightfully so.

In response, Saudia Arabia fired the lot and sent Yemen’s financial fortunes tumbling. They have yet to recover. I think there is value in the idea of hindering Iranian ambitions – if they exist. I think they do.

You don’t have to import a million Yemenis to buffer Iran.

#3 Comment By Lenny On December 1, 2017 @ 1:33 am

Sure sure

They manufacture Ballistic missiles in Yemen much?

SA might be a vile Kingdom but let us stop pretending that Iran is not stirring troubles either

#4 Comment By Isaac On December 1, 2017 @ 9:20 am

This article’s denial of Iranian involvement is near delusional. There’s a vast wealth of reporting on Iranian involvement, including the presence of specific weapons systems known to be Iranian made.

See this article for example [6].

For example: “Recent transfers of arms and munitions have also included Iranian Ababil series UAVs (drones), fitted with high explosive warheads and used by Houthis to engage high-value targets, such as radar and Patriot missile batteries,” he said.

Kerry this about Iranian aid to Houthis in 2015: “There are obviously supplies that have been coming from Iran,” he said. “There are a number of flights every single week that have been flying in. We trace those flights, and we know this. We are well aware of the support that Iran has been giving to Yemen, and Iran needs to recognize that the United States is not going to stand by while the region is destabilized, or while people engage in overt warfare across lines — international boundaries of other countries.”


#5 Comment By PR Doucette On December 1, 2017 @ 12:32 pm

The need for a diplomatic resolution of the war in Yemen is, or should be, evident to anyone who has studied the history of Yemen and given consideration to the geography of the country. Pretending that this war is combating terrorism or limiting Iranian influence in the Middle East ignores the sad truth that the Saudi blockade of Yemen that is resulting in severe hardship for millions of civilians in Yemen is only more likely to foster even more resentment against not only the Saudis but also those who are supporting the Saudi war efforts.

#6 Comment By Northern Observer On December 1, 2017 @ 5:57 pm

Isaac if only your sources were credible.

#7 Comment By Mashdi On December 1, 2017 @ 8:53 pm

That this juvenile Saudi Prince, either wittingly or not, acts as an Iranian mole is in no serious doubt. Just like with his friend in Washington, all Iran and the other nations in the world need to do, is sit back and let MBS implode on his own. More than the Houthies, in a very short order, MBS will deliver the Sunni Muslims, and even probably his own Wahhabis, to Iran on a silver platter.

#8 Comment By TheSpruceMoose On December 2, 2017 @ 2:23 am


Iran is obviously doing what it can to cause pain to Saudi Arabia, but Michael’s article states that the likely source of the ballistic missiles was the former Soviet Union, and North Korea. You can read a report on the subject from Janes, which seems credible.


#9 Comment By Procivic On December 2, 2017 @ 3:12 am

The Saudis are too dense to realize that no country in the regon, least of all Iran, wants their regime to fall if only because a successor regime would likely resemble ISIS or worse.

#10 Comment By Thaomas On December 3, 2017 @ 11:32 am

What possible strategic interest could the US have in helping Saudi Arabia prevent an Iranian sympathetic government in Yemen? Saudi Arabia has spread more Islamist extremism around the world than Iran ever has. Saudi Arabia has tried to subvert the five Party deal Iran. My stomach turns every time I hear Saudi Arabia referred to as a US “ally.”

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 3, 2017 @ 2:22 pm

” . . .MBS will deliver the Sunni Muslims, and even probably his own Wahhabis, to Iran on a silver platter.”

if this should happen. It will not be the sole fault of the Saudis as they attempt to be the buffer or counter-balance once held by Iraq. The majority of fault will rest with the US and our deep err, in removing Pres Hussein and toppling the government of Iraq.

We had better hope that does not happen. We had better support our friends in the region — what friends we have left or resign the region to whatever befalls it and live with the wake.

#12 Comment By Annab On December 4, 2017 @ 9:40 am

If former President Saleh has just been killed after apparently switching sides from the Houthis to the Saudis, thereby maybe ending the war to save his starving people, one must wonder who under God’s green earth does not want the conflict in Yemen to end by assassinating Saleh? (Because by anything even supporting anything truthful, he was probably the only one who could have affected a turn in the tide against the starving baby population of Yemen!)

#13 Comment By Annab On December 4, 2017 @ 10:05 am

Ok, former President Saleh has been assassinated after very recently switching from the Houthis to the American-led Saudi side in the war for the hearts and minds of the Yemenis. Who profits from his assassination? Certainly not the starving population of Yemen, most of which are not adults.

#14 Comment By Annab On December 4, 2017 @ 10:28 am

Why are you awaiting moderation? Maybe because I reported Saleh’s assassination before you?

#15 Comment By Sid Finster On December 4, 2017 @ 1:18 pm

Isaac in 2003: I hear that Iraq is simply chock-a-block with WMD!

The NYT and the USA Today and every other MSM shill says so, and that’s good enough for me!

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 5, 2017 @ 3:19 pm

The roots of this,

“Saudi Arabia has spread more Islamist extremism around the world than Iran ever has. Saudi Arabia has tried to subvert the five Party deal Iran.”

lie in Egypt’s prisons, where Muslim leader Qtub pressed for violent force in response to the corrupt Muslim political governments, who he claimed had abandoned Islam and the calls for force are also part of the Islamic revolution.

#17 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 5, 2017 @ 3:24 pm

Note, it among the followers of Qtub, that Osama bin Laden and others shifted in their beliefs concerning Holy war.

It would be an error to see 9/11 as the result of Saudi Arabian government administration and shallow convenient thinking.

Abandoning our relations with Saudi Arabia is not going to change a single “terrorists” (used with caution)ideology.

#18 Comment By Thomas On December 11, 2017 @ 12:49 am

OMG & WTF… The WACKO Saudis are their own wurst enemas…