Saudi Arabia is advancing in South Yemen a “Third Revolution” against Iran*

Inbal Nissim-Louvton**

ACIS Iran Pulse no. 104 | January 2, 2020


The popular protests that broke out in Lebanon and Iraq in November have a significant Iranian dimension, and a Yemen-oriented focus, according to the newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat, which is published in London and receives most of its funding from Saudi Arabia. In an article published on October 29, the newspaper proclaimed a “third revolution” against Iran in the form of the Riyadh agreement (al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 29, 2019). The agreement, which was officially signed in Saudi Arabia in early November, marks the re-unification of forces in southern Yemen, bringing together representatives of the Yemeni government that was ousted at the end of 2014 and the Southern Transitional Council that is demanding independence for southern Yemen. The military cooperation between the two forces is aimed at Shiite-Zaydi rebels, known as Houthis, who are affiliated with Iran. The Houthis have taken over large parts of Yemen, including the capital Sana’a, and dragged the country into a bloody war that has been raging for nearly five years.


The Riyadh agreement reflects the complexity of the war in Yemen. It began as a civil war and military coup, and continued as a regional conflict through which Saudi Arabia and Iran are each seeking to expand the borders of their influence, and reinforce their preferential status in the region. Saudi Arabia declared war on the Yemeni Houthis, which it sees as fighting on behalf of Iran, and founded a coalition against them in March 2015. The coalition consisted of nine countries from West Asia and Africa, including the UAE. The Saudis had hoped to restore the ousted, pro-Saudi government of Yemen, whose temporary seat is in the city of Aden (in southern Yemen), to power in a short time. However, the Saudi effort has not yet succeeded, and the state has effectively been disbanded. Under these circumstances, Saudi Arabia fears that the disintegration of Yemen would lead to the establishment of a Shiite state led by the Houthis on its southern border, effectively serving as a direct Iranian outpost in the southern Arabian Peninsula. Therefore, they have expressed opposition to the division of Yemen. Conversely, the UAE, a dominant member of the coalition in southern Yemen, has encouraged and even supported southern separatism, because autonomy in South Yemen better aligns with its economic and strategic interests.


The Saudi ambition to maintain Yemen as a united political entity, and the UAE’s support for the southern movement have revealed the disagreements and fissures within the anti-Houthi coalition. Against this backdrop, Saudi Arabia’s support for the Riyadh agreement is a significant change in its position because the agreement grants the Southern Transitional Council official status and recognizes its right to political representation in the Yemeni government, steps that might be an intermediate stage on the way to establishing an independent state in the south. This will, of course, have an impact on the character of northern Yemen, and the Saudis will likely have to rethink their attitude towards the Houthi rebels, and remember that despite their identification as Iranian agents, they are a local group (from the Sa‘dah region in northern Yemen), and an organic part of the social fabric in Yemen.


The Houthis’ violent struggle against the central government erupted in 2004, as a protest of their political marginalization and the meager allocation of resources to the neglected north. At the time, they received little, if any, assistance from Iran. Parallel to its the political motivations, the Houthis’ struggle also has a religious character, mainly through the activity of the Faithful Youth clubs (founded in the 1990s), which were an instrument for mobilizing support and activists from among the region’s young people, and as way to protest Saudi-affiliated Salafi activity in Zaydi areas. Saudi propaganda is aimed at weakening Zayidi Islam, which has been marginalized since the coup in Yemen in 1962, In its place, the Saudis promote Sunni-Wahabi Islam among young people in northeast Yemen (especially in Sa‘dah and Al Jawf). The Houthis’ struggle for power was also integrated into the 2011 civil protests in Yemen, which were led by young people. They began as part of the Arab Spring, but soon became a violent struggle and re-established political rivalries, geographical distinctions both between north and south, and between the center and periphery, as well as tribal distinctions and religious tensions between Sunnis and Shiites-Zayidis.


Violent clashes between various forces in Yemen accompanied the 2012 change of power, and the international and regional efforts for reconciliation and mediation. However, these failed to come up with a solution to the Houthi separatist issues in the north, and the demand for independence in the south, which the Southern Transitional Council now leads. The federative solution proposed by the 2013-2014 "National Dialogue Conference" was eventually rejected, by both the Houthis and the Southern Liberation Movement. At the same time, tensions between the Houthis and the government became worse, and even gestures like the appointment of a prime minister to whom Houthis had agreed in mid-2014 did not help. In the absence of an agreed diplomatic solution, the Houthis returned to the modus operandi that had characterized their conduct in previous years, but this time they advanced toward Sana‘a, taking control of the city and other large areas of Yemen. In early 2015, Saudi Arabia faced a reality with which it has trouble coming to terms: pro-Iranian rule, in the backyard of the Arab peninsula. The Saudis responded by declaring war, which has now been raging for almost five years. During this time, Yemen has become the world’s worst humanitarian disaster (UN News, Feb. 14, 2019).


Under cover of the continued war, the Houthi-Iranian relationship grew stronger. Despite Iran’s previously consistent denial of allegations that it was providing military aid to the Houthis, in early October 2019, Iranian officials confirmed that the Revolutionary Guards are advising the Houthis and providing support. However, they continue denying that they are supplying combat equipment. This public willingness to admit a relationship between the sides was also reflected in Houthis’ appointment of a diplomatic representative to Iran in early August, followed in late October by a meeting between Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Zarif and a spokesman for the Houthis, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam in Tehran.


 Iran’s aid to the Houthis at the beginning of the war in Yemen was probably minor, but it gradually increased as the war continued, and became more demonstrative and visible. However, it is worth noting that most of the Houthi’s weapons are not from Iran; rather they come from domestic trade in illegal weapons, military warehouses seized by the rebels while taking control of territory across the country and booty captured in battles with the deposed government and its allies. These include sophisticated, innovative equipment of American and European manufacture, including American UAVs that have fallen not only into Houthi hands, but have also reached al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen (CNN, Feb. 2019). This means that western arms are contributing to the Houthis’ military capabilities no less than Iranian weapons. In their attempt to broadcast military power and sophistication, the Houthis took responsibility for the attack on Saudi oil facilities (at Abqaiq and Khurais) in mid-September 2019. Despite this, the prevailing opinion in the west and in Riyadh is that Iran is responsible for these attacks, and that they were launched from its territory or carried out by its agents in Iraq.


Another development that affected the fronts against the Houthis, and accelerated the signing of the Riyadh agreement relates to the coup in southern Yemen in August 2019. Cracks opened in the coalition of Arab forces that had been fighting in the Houthis when members of the Security Belt Forces (al-Hizam al-Amni), the combatants of the Southern Transition Council, took over government offices and military facilities belonging to the ousted government. When the Southern Transition Council took control of Aden, it exposed significant disagreements within the anti-Houthi coalition, between Saudi Arabia and UAE. Due to growing tensions in the Gulf region during recent months, the UAE announced a gradual withdrawal of its forces from the southern Yemen, an about-face that positions it in a comfortable and conciliatory posture towards Iran and distances it from the Saudi camp.


The withdrawal of UAE forces from southern Yemen, simultaneous with the September 2019 Abqaiq–Khurais attack on Saudi oil facilities and rising tensions in the Gulf region contributed to the reversal in the Saudi’s position, and their support for the Riyadh agreement. What appears to be a pragmatic compromise is intended to bolster Riyadh’s position in southern Yemen and intensify the focus of its efforts to fight the Houthis. In a broader context, the article in al-Sharq al-Awsat describes the Riyadh agreement as a “third revolution” or blow targeting Iran, following the wave of protests that broke out in Lebanon and Iraq. The article goes on to explain that most corrupt politicians targeted by the protesters are affiliated with the Iranian regime, and that Revolutionary Guards forces in Iraq are directly involved in violent repression of the protests. Saudi Arabia’s success in consolidating divided factions to fight again against the Houthis, is harming Iran’s prestige and status on three fronts, and the Yemeni war is presented by Riyadh as part of an integral anti-Iranian wave in the region.


The military situation in Yemen, as of September 22, 2019

Source: maps



* The term “third revolution” is taken from an article by Amal Abd al-Aziz al-Hazani in Al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 29, 2019,

**Inbal Nissim-Louvton teaches in Department of History, Philosophy and Judaic Studies at the Open University in Israel, and is research fellow at The Forum for Regional Thinking.

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ACIS Iran Pulse No. 104 ● January 2,  2020 

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