Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen is not surprising given Riyadh’s past policies and current perspectives on Arabian Gulf security. Yemen has always suffered from varying degrees of chaos and civil strife. Even in the best of times, large areas of the country lacked government control, and few if any in the region saw it as a functioning nation state. Whatever Gulf Arab leaders may have said publicly, most have viewed Yemen as a loose collection of autonomous or even independent regions, held together only by the lines drawn on a map. As long as Yemen’s problems remained contained within those lines, the Kingdom and its allies could engage with Yemen’s leadership, particularly the governments of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Interim President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to debate solutions—but this is no longer the case.

The current intervention in Yemen represents a return to the strategic political and security paradigms of the past. It is a reassertion by Saudi Arabia—and, to a lesser extent, its Gulf partners—that an equilibrium between multiple centers of political and military power in Yemen is the only means by which a modicum of stability can be achieved and that another 1994-like conquest of Sunni areas by Zaydi-led elements must be resisted. It is an assertion that the Western notion of a centralized nation state, much less a democratic one, simply does not fit the facts on the ground in Yemen. It also represents recognition by the Gulf states that Yemen’s problems cannot be solved but only contained, and that meddling by countries outside the Arab Gulf cannot be tolerated.

Since 1932, Saudi Arabia has consistently opposed Yemeni unification, supporting instead the reality of multiple Yemens. The Kingdom has supported local tribal autonomy and resisted attempts at political consolidation, particularly under the banner of secular Arab nationalism. Under Imams Yahya (1904-1948) and Ahmed (1948-1962), Riyadh retained a position of influence among the Yemeni tribes and even invaded Yemen in the 1930s to assert this influence in the border regions. From 1962 to 1972, during the Yemen civil war and its immediate aftermath, the Kingdom demonstrated that an outside power—in this case Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser—would not be allowed to consolidate power on its southwestern flank. To Nasser’s Republican Yemeni allies, the Saudis made it clear that the only path out of political and military chaos passed through Riyadh. 

After 1972, the Kingdom set out to undermine Soviet and Communist-bloc influence in both the Yemen Arab Republic and the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Yemen. The strategy was to prevent any consolidation of political and military power in the Yemens that could threaten the Kingdom. This approach, tenaciously pursued, resulted in a set of opportunistic policies that outlasted the Imams, Nasser, the Soviets, and others.

In the early 1990s, Saudi Arabia continued to oppose Yemeni unification as a potential threat to the Kingdom. Read more specifically, Saudi leaders were angered by President Saleh’s support for Saddam Hussein. Senior Saudi officials also understood that fundamental differences existed between the societies of northern Zaydi Yemen and those of eastern and coastal Sunni Yemen. When the north-south civil war broke out in 1994, Riyadh supported the south and former Vice President Ali Salem al-Beidh against the Zaydi north, led by President Saleh and southern sympathizers like Hadi. The northern army’s victory opened the door for al-Qa‘ida’s presence in eastern and southern Yemen as an ally in Sunni resistance to northern domination. Here again the Saudis supported a managed equilibrium that reflected the tribal and sectarian reality, while the United States pursued the notion that a unified nation state run by Saleh could become a bastion of stability and democracy.

Why did Saudi Arabia shift from its traditional anti-Saleh, anti-central government stance to supporting Saleh and now back to opposing Saleh and his Houthi allies?

In the early 1990s, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, Majd al-Din al-Mu‘ayyidi, and Saleh al-Falitah founded al-Haqq, a Zaydi revivalist party. In many respects al-Haqq was a Zaydi response to the emergence of rival political parties in the newly unified Yemen. Saleh supported its formation, seeing it as a counterbalance to the Islah Party, the Hashid tribal confederation, its leader Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar, and Saudi influence. Ironically, over the next decade, both Riyadh and the Saleh regime relied on al-Mu‘ayyidi, a representative of the traditional Zaydi leadership, as a moderating influence on the growing militancy of the Houthi family.

By 2000, al-Mu‘ayyidi’s waning political influence symbolized the decline of traditional Zaydi religious leaders and the growing militancy of revivalism. His eventual death cleared the path for the unfettered rise of militant Houthi leadership through the al-Shabab al-Muminin and later the Ansar Allah movements. From Riyadh’s vantage, Houthi dominance raised the specter of a Hezbollah-like entity channeling Iranian influence in the immediate neighborhood. As for Saleh, he saw opposition to the Houthis’ rise as an opportunity to regain Saudi support and to use Saudi influence internally.

In 2004, the Saleh government began a crackdown on the Houthis. In June 2004, Saleh’s security forces arrested 800 Houthis at Sana’s Saleh Mosque and issued a warrant for the arrest of Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi. This led to open revolt. In September of that year, security forces killed Hussein, but efforts to suppress the revolt failed. Both real and perceived ties between the Houthi Zaydi movement and Iran led to increased Saudi support for the Saleh government and other entities such as the Sunni Islah Party and the al-Ahmars. Riyadh concluded that compared to Shi‘i revivalism and Iranian meddling, support for the Saleh government was preferable. 

The uprisings of 2011-2012 unraveled Saleh. Saudi officials were dismayed as they watched, and it was at this point that Riyadh bought into the idea of a negotiated settlement. The United States and other GCC states strongly supported the so-called “reconciliation plan” to create a federal state cleansed of Saleh’s influence that retained a central government under former Vice President Hadi. Saudi support for the plan was predicated on the idea of a federal outcome replete with autonomous regions, ergo a return to the traditional Saudi position. Despite their participation in these negotiations from 2012 to 2014, the Saudis’ view of the reconciliation plan always reflected a high degree of skepticism about its chances for success.

The reconciliation effort was effectively stillborn, but it took two years for the United States to come to grips with the fact that the interests of the multiple factions were simply too diverse for any coherent agreement. To complicate matters, Saleh was still a political force in Yemen, despite being severely wounded in an assassination attempt in 2011. In his view, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Hadi had all betrayed him. He therefore allied himself with the Houthis and used his influence in the army first to allow Houthi expansion into Sana and then to support Houthi-Zaydi expansion into traditional Sunni areas. Whether it was simply retribution or another play for power, Saleh’s alliance with the Houthi Zaydis clarified the policy situation for Riyadh. Saleh was now in his traditional role as the enemy, and the Houthis were Iranian proxies that had to be stopped. U.S. mediation having been discredited, the door was open for Riyadh to take the lead and return to its traditional policies on Yemen.

Saudi and Gulf Arab unease with U.S. policies toward Iran (particularly the ongoing nuclear negotiations), Iraq, Syria, and Bahrain further undermined U.S. credibility as a leading player in Yemen. The Obama administration’s perceived reluctance to recognize the level of Iranian meddling led to the decision in Riyadh to pursue its own policies and interests, and to pressure Washington for support. Riyadh has succeeded in moving the United States and its Arab allies toward a new, more aggressive policy in Yemen and is back to policy basics, ensuring that no outside power, especially Iran, is allowed to establish a power base there.

The Kingdom supports regional and tribal autonomy—and even independence—in the south as the only real hope for creating some stability. Riyadh knows that Saleh used his influence with the army to facilitate Houthi gains, but Saudi leaders also know that he could turn on his Houthi allies. The Houthi Zaydi movement overstepped a Saudi red line when it took Iranian support, and it is paying a price. But it is still possible that it might seek a compromise restoring its pre-2000 relations with Riyadh.  After all, it was Saudi support for the Zaydi tribes that stymied the Egyptians in the 1960s, brought major health care and other projects to Sada Province in the 1970s, and in the 1990s helped maintain the peace by facilitating a working relationship with traditional Zaydi leaders like al-Mu‘ayyidi, which blunted militancy among the northern Zaydi tribes.  

Yemen’s fractured landscape offers rich potential for the Kingdom to realize its long-held preference for equilibrium among rival groups reflecting tribal, political, and sectarian differences. It remains to be seen if Salman will display the tenacity shown by King Faisal from 1962 to 1972, but given the critical importance that the Kingdom attaches to Yemen, the perceived Iranian threat, and the decisiveness that Salman has exhibited to date, observers should expect Saudi efforts to persist until the Yemenis decide to explore a compromise. Saudi management of the conflict in Yemen will be a fluid, long-term process involving a range of political, military, and economic strategies. Military campaigns, ceasefires, grand pronouncements, and leaders of the moment need to be weighed against the historical context of Saudi policy and the reality of multiple Yemens.