On 15 May 2023, the ACRPS Iranian Studies Unit hosted a panel titled “Iran, Yemen, and the Changing Regional Order.” The panel included Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a Nonresident Scholar at the Middle East Institute and a Fellow at the Center on Armed Groups, and Thomas Juneau, Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. The event was moderated by Mehran Kamrava, Head of the ISU and Professor of Government at Georgetown University Qatar.
Nadwa Al-Dawsari began by discussing the current state of affairs in Yemen and the truce that Saudi Arabia and the Houthis were able to negotiate in April 2022 as a consequence of their ongoing talks. The Hodeida port opened up as a result of the ceasefire, and Sanaa airport flying restrictions were eased. Since the start of the truce and the Saudi-Houthi talks, the Houthis have expanded their production of weapons, recruited more militants, sought to advance into Ma’rib and Shabwah, and launched drone attacks against Yemini forces. Al-Dawsari also addressed Yemen’s humanitarian situation, stating that 70 percent of the Yemeni population requires humanitarian assistance, and four million people are displaced and living in dire conditions with no help from the international community.
Thomas Juneau examined whether the recent Saudi-Iran agreement would have any impact on Yemen. “The rapprochement has provided some breathing room for Saudi-Houthi talks. These negotiations are not about peace; they are about Saudi Arabia withdrawing from Yemen and legitimizing the Houthis.” Saudis failed to achieve their goals of restoring the Hadi administration and limiting Iranian influence in Yemen. According to Juneau, these goals have not only failed, but have had the opposite effect. Saudi Arabia is attempting to reduce the cost of its defeat. The issue is that Saudi currently has no leverage and the Houthis are the dominant player in Yemen. As a result, these negotiations are not intended to benefit Yemen in any way. Juneau stated that Iran, which has made relatively less investment in Yemen compared to other countries such as Lebanon and Syria, is also interested in these negotiations. This limited investment, however, has paid off, since the Houthis have defeated the Saudis.
Concerning the UAE’s position in Yemen and its relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, Al-Dawsari stated that Saudi-Emirati tensions have persisted in the south, with Saudis attempting to establish their own proxies and the UAE supporting the southern transitional council, which has begun its own talks in response to the exclusion of other factions from Saudi-Houthi negotiations.
Al-Dawsari further elaborated on the nature of Iran-Houthi relations. She concurred with Juneau that despite Iran’s small investment, it had been instrumental in arming and training the Houthis since the 1980s. The Houthis are fiercely devoted to the Islamic Republic’s ideology and are a part of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance”. However, Al-Dawsari noted that they have autonomy and are not under Iran’s control.
Al-Dawsari claimed that the Houthis manufacture weapons inside Yemen with the assistance of the IRGC and Hezbollah commanders, who also assist them with military campaigns, recruitment, and spread of sectarian ideologies through school curricula. Juneau added that what we are witnessing now is the institutionalization of Yemen as a “fragmented state”. He agreed that the Houthis will try to expand further and will face opposition from other armed factions. Juneau also sees no viable path in which southerners agree to simply rejoin and reintegrate in Yemeni national politics. “The fragmentation of the country’s politics with multiple regional and political interests are not going to be reconciled simply because Saudi Arabia withdraws,” Juneau said.
In discussing the role of sectarianism in Yemen, Al-Dawsari stated that in the north, the Houthis are attempting to indoctrinate the population with sectarian ideology. Summer camps, for example, are aimed at the younger generation. For their part, the Saudis and the Emiratis have militarized the Salafis in the south. Yemen, according to Al-Dawsari, has always been a country with few sectarian differences, but this is no longer the case due to the rise of sectarianism.
When looking at the issue of sectarianism, Juneau identified three dimensions: regional, international, and domestic. On the regional and international levels, according to Juneau, sectarianism is used as a mobilizing tool when the interests of the actors involved are aligned. “What initially drew Iran to identify the Houthis as a potential partner was not the religious dimension, but shared ideological affinity and pragmatic calculation,” Juneau explained. Domestically, Juneau agreed with Al-Dawsari that the Houthis are establishing a repressive state, adding that “the society and state that the Houthis are looking to build inside Yemen is not one that seeks reconciliation and is open to power sharing.”
Al-Dawsari argued that the next conflict in Yemen will be a civil war between the Houthis and the rest of Yemen. Another dimension of the conflict, according to Juneau, is Saudi-UAE rivalry. While initially the UAE was a member of the coalition, it soon emerged that it is pursuing different objectives by supporting the separatists in the south, which is in contradiction with the coalition’s objective of reinstating the internationally recognized government. Although it is difficult to predict what will happen in Yemen, Al-Dawsari stated that the Houthis will not be able to control the country and that their brutal use of force will be met with resistance, further destabilizing the country. Al-Dawsari claimed that “no negotiations will bring peace to Yemen as long as the Houthis are militarily strong”. Juneau predicted that the humanitarian crisis would worsen, and that Yemen’s various factions would remain divided. Most importantly, Juneau believes that unity within the Houthis is something to watch in future.
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