Yemen has the dubious distinction of sucking foreign powers in its internal crises. The present civil war that has been raging for over two years now has sucked Saudi Arabia, Iran and the US into it. Often the crises are of Yemen’s own making, other powers jump into the fray depending upon the geopolitical tensions in the region at a particular time.
These days the Arab world is riven by the battle cry of sectarian conflict in which Saudi Arabia and Iran are leading the Sunni and Shi’a camps, respectively. The coup in Yemen has been given a sectarian colour as well. As the rebels are Shi’a Houthis so Iran is alleged to be providing them overt political while covert financial and military assistance. Saudi Arabia being the regional hegemon can’t tolerate such dangerous Iranian flirtation in its Yemeni backyard so it has welcomed the ousted Yemeni president and has launched a bloody blitzkrieg which is likely to continue till the Saudis wipe out all resistance and restore the ousted ruler to his due place. The Americans are standing right behind their Saudi ally, providing them vital intelligence and weapons to wage this war to fruition.
What will be the drop scene of this conflict can be anybody’s guess but those who have interest in the Middle Eastern power politics know that there exists a fascinating historical parallel, when, as a result of a coup in Yemen in 1962, Saudi Arabia with the backing of American governments of JF Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson fought a six year war in Yemen that at times spilled into the Saudi territories against the ambitious Pan–Arab Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Abdallah al-Sallal, the republican military officer who led that coup, swore friendship to Nasser and hatred towards Saudi Arabia, and in his first communique, not only vowed to overthrow all the monarchs of Arabia but also promised to transform the whole of the Arabian Peninsula into a single republic. That was music to Nasser’s ears, who immediately dispatched Egyptian troops to support the republican revolution, raising the reinforcements from 3,000 in 1962 to 70,000 in 1967 but Yemen proved to be a hard nut to crack as King Faisal of Saudi Arabia took him head on, thus giving birth to a joke in Egypt that said that Egypt sent a battalion to help the Yemen revolution and then two divisions to support that battalion. The Saudi king jumped into the conflict because he feared that the Egyptian president’s target was not Yemen but Saudi Arabia and conveyed his anxiety to the US State Department in a crucial telephonic call: “I am certain that Nasser intended Yemen to be a stepping stone toward taking over Saudi Arabia directly or by proxy forces within the country. Will the United States really stand by the kingdom against imminent sabotage from within as well as attacks from abroad? I would like a very specific answer,” and instantaneously, the US Assistant Secretary of State Phillips Talbot assured Faisal that the US would resist any internal or external threat notwithstanding the fact that Kennedy did not want to sour America’s recently improved relations with Nasser just for the sake of Yemen, nonetheless, writes Faisal’s biographer Alexei Vassiliev, Nasser was “given to understand that the US would not tolerate Egypt’s attempts to seize Saudi Arabia or take any serious action against it.” In addition, the US government deputed an intelligence officer, Major Bruce Conde, whose job was to recruit foreign mercenaries in Saudi Arabia to fight against the republican Yemeni government and its Egyptian backers. Buoyant with the American support, Faisal furnished decisive financial and military aid to the royalist militia of the dethroned Yemeni Imam Muhammad al-Badr, which frustrated the Egyptians to the extent that they started bombing the Saudi border villages and towns that in turn rattled the Saudi Defence Minister Prince Sultan, who sought Faisal’s advice about retaliatory actions on an urgent basis through the latter’s advisor Rashid Pharaon, who was told by a calm Faisal to sit down and have dinner which was followed by several rounds of tea and coffee. When the desperate advisor asked again as to how the Egyptian raids were to be responded, Faisal said, “Tell my brother Sultan to inform me if Egyptians appear in Riyadh suburbs. Until then, he is not to undertake anything.” The Egyptians could never reach the suburbs of Riyadh because the US aircraft manned by American pilots had started the defence of Saudi skies. Even after the Egyptian withdrawal, the Saudis continued to meddle in the Yemeni affairs till the time the anti-Saudi elements were neutralized.
Besides Yemen, the Saudis looked upon the entire Persian Gulf region as the area of their sphere of influence. When an Arab nationalist movement stirred up a rebellion in a western province of Oman, which could not be crushed by the Omani Sultan Qaboos, 3,000 Iranian troops were called to crush the revolt in 1975 but Saudi Arabia continued to protest for their withdrawal and so the Omanis had to send them back in 1977.
Saudis are quite sensitive about what happens in the greater Middle East and particularly in their backyard in Yemen. They did not tolerate Nasser’s meddling in the 1960s and they will not let go any Iranian influence there now. Giving this conflict a sectarian colour is a strategy of Saudis and their western backers otherwise it is nothing more than a contest between two geopolitical rivals. As in the past, the Americans are standing right behind their Saudi friends. And whether one likes it or not, history is also on the side of Saudi Arabia in this ongoing war.