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Yemen crisis and power struggle

Yemen is fast becoming a violent battleground due to the competing interests of many rebel groups and regional players. The crisis is so serious that countries are closing their embassies and evacuating their people. On the surface, it appeared to be a direct fight for power between Shia Muslims, better known as Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the government headed by President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, a Sunni. After rebel forces closed in on the President's southern stronghold of Aden in late March this year, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Hadi to intervene and followed by air strikes on Houthi targets. The coalition comprises five Gulf Arab states and Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Sudan.


Yemen is a very strategically located country, because it sits on the Bab al-Mandab strait, a narrow waterway linking the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden, through which much of the world's oil shipments pass.

Middle Eastern countries especially Saudi Arabia fears a Houthi takeover would threaten free passage through the strait.

As Houthi rebels are Shia Muslim group, Saudi Arabia is finding it as a serious threat. The rise of the Shia Houthis makes Yemen a significant battleground in the wider Sunni-Shia struggle.

Particularly, it's a battle for influence between Riyadh and Tehran, Saudi Arabia posing as the Sunni champion against Shia Iran.

But with unfolding events it is becoming clearer that Yemen is being used for a bigger strategic power rivalry, which will affect the whole region, if the conflict is not resolved soon. Yemen is now becoming more of an Iran-Saudi battleground, where both countries are not ready to accept defeat.

Since Arab Spring and regime change in many Middle Eastern countries, Iran has become ambitious and is looking forward to play a bigger and significant role in the regional matters.

It is said that Iran is supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen, though Tehran denies the charge. In the past also Iran was accused of supporting rebel forces in Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain and Iraq.

But Saudi Arabia, a Sunni dominated nation, finds Iran’s expanding footprint in the region as a serious challenge and threat to its regional influence.

Therefore, a Saudi-led coalition has been targeting Shiite rebels and their allies in Yemen in a campaign of airstrikes. But it is not proving to be sufficient to bring the current situation under control.

In this war, Saudi Arabia has many consequences at stake. It cannot accept defeat in the country at a time when there is a new King, as handling of Yemen crisis can be a litmus test for his leadership.

Further if Saudi Arabia is not able to reinstate ousted President Hadi, it will be an embarrassing defeat. Even the failure in Yemen will be a great setback to the US-Saudi alliance in the segment of counter terrorism strategy.

The Saudis have their attention fully focused on trying to defeat the Shia Houthi rebels and their allies, or at least bomb them towards the negotiating table.

However, Saudi Arabia is under tremendous pressure to take the Yemen crisis to a logical conclusion. And somewhere now Saudi Arabia is realizing that air strikes alone will not be enough to defeat Houthis, and a long term military operation cannot be sustained by Saudi military unless it intervenes with strong ground forces.

Therefore there are possibilities of entrance of new players into the Yemen crisis, which may be secretly funded by Middle Eastern countries to restrict the expansion of Shia rebel group in Yemen.

Al-Qaeda, which has lost some ground in the recent past mainly in the post-Osama killing, is finding Yemen as a suitable entry point to reestablish its influence in the region. AQAP is already expanding its reach into the country while recruiting Sunni tribes to its cause.

It is expected that if Yemen crisis is not being handled carefully, it will soon be a bigger battleground for terrorist groups including Al-Qaeda and ISIS, which are already in the process of establishing their dominance in the region and are ready to exploit any such opportunity to their maximum benefit.

Few countries in the region might support such groups due to their strategic and national interests that can be more damaging for Yemen in long run.

If the Syria example is anything to go by, a war will continue indefinitely until all involved parties in Yemen feel they have more to gain from talking and compromising than they do from fighting.

A prolonged war in Yemen will be detrimental to the overall regional peace and stability especially for the MENA countries.