x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Rebellion reflects 'regional rivalry'

For many commentators in the Arab world, the Houthi insurgency reflects the smouldering regional rivalry between predominantly Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two major powers in the Gulf.

When Yemen recently claimed it had captured a ship carrying Iranian arms destined for al Houthi rebels, Arab media seized on the incident as evidence that Iran was exploiting the conflict to advance its regional ambitions, primarily at Saudi Arabia's expense. For many commentators in the Arab world, the Houthi insurgency reflects the smouldering regional rivalry between predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia and mainly Shiite Iran, the two major powers in the Gulf. The proxy battle is being waged mainly in the countries' state-run media, however, rather than by official statements.

Typical was a comment piece in the Saudi daily newspaper Al Watan. Elements in Iran "think by stepping up its interference [in Yemen] Tehran is aiming to turn Yemen into a regional arena for conflict, as part of its ongoing dispute with several countries in the region - thus ratcheting up the tension in this region, which is sensitive in terms of the [Saudi] kingdom's security," the newspaper said.

Yemen, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, has accused Iranian religious institutions of funding the Houthi rebellion, but stopped short of accusing the Tehran government. Iran rejected the arms shipment claim as a "media fabrication" and offered to mediate in the conflict between the Houthi rebels and Yemen, a predominantly Sunni country. An Eritrean opposition group yesterday joined in with unsubstantiated allegations that Iran was funnelling arms to Houthi fighters through Eritrea.

Iran's state-run Press TV, meanwhile, last month accused the Yemeni authorities of providing al Qa'eda with light weapons to help it fight the insurgency, a claim vehemently denied by Yemen. Many Iranian experts tend to accept Tehran's official denials that it has despatched military assistance to the Houthis, but say some Iranian and other Shiite religious figures, acting independently and outside state control, have sent them donations, purportedly as charitable aid. Al Houthi leaders deny receiving financial support from any foreign country.

"There are [Iranian] clerics who believe it is their religious duty to assist the poor and marginalised everywhere," said Masoud Asadollahi, a Beirut-based Iran expert. The Iranian government has tried unsuccessfully to persuade some clerics against such funding, arguing that it damages Iran's image, Mr Asadollahi told Middle East International, an authoritative fortnightly journal that was relaunched in Cyprus last week.

Nevertheless, even misperceptions of Iranian regional clout may suit Tehran because they strengthen its hand in the troubled negotiations with western powers over Iran's nuclear programme. Conversely, it suits the Yememi authorities to portray al Houthis as Iranian lackeys to deflect attention from their grievances. "Iran is often given much more credit for power it hasn't got and it doesn't deny it," said an Iran scholar and former seminary student in Iran's holy city of Qom, who declined to be named. Shia religious institutions in Iraq, where al Houthis are said to have an office, are more active than Iranian ones in funding the Yemeni insurgents, he said.

Iran has not been particularly close to al Houthis, who belong to the Zaidi sect of Shia Islam and do not accept in full the Shia traditions practised in Iran and Iraq, he said. Official Iranian denials of practical support for the Houthis seemingly have been bolstered by reformist opponents of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, who have accused him, opportunistically, of failing to protect Yemen's Shiites.

"It was a cheap party political shot; if the reformists were in power, they'd have done less for the Houthis because, as moderates, they want better relations with Saudi," said an Iranian analyst in London, who did not want to be named. Iran's critics point out that Tehran only rallies to support oppressed Muslims abroad if its interests will not be harmed. There was, for instance, little criticism from Tehran of Russia's military action against the mainly Muslim breakaway state of Chechnya.

Iran will shed few tears over Saudi Arabia's growing difficulties in neighbouring Yemen but has little interest in seeing the conflict escalate, some experts say. "Iran doesn't want to see anything that might push Saudi further into the western camp," the analyst in London said. Several US-allied Sunni Arab countries have voiced alarm at Iran's growing regional power following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. They worry about Iran's nuclear programme and Tehran's influence through Shiite minorities in their countries - and they resent as meddling in Arab affairs Iran's support for such groups as Hizbollah and Hamas.

Iran, meanwhile, suspects Saudi Arabia, among others, of supporting Jundallah, the extremist Sunni rebel group that last month killed 42 people, including top Revolutionary Guard commanders, in a suicide bombing in its Sistan-Balochistan province. Tehran also accused Saudi Arabia of complicity in the disappearance of an Iranian nuclear scientist during a pilgrimage in the kingdom. More recently, Tehran and Riyadh traded recriminations over the Haj, which takes place this month. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, accused the Saudi authorities of mistreating Iranian pilgrims. Riyadh, in turn, warned Tehran against any Iranian attempt to politicise or disrupt the Haj.

The media battle between Iran and its Arab rivals intensified last week when Iran's Arabic-language station, Al Alam, said it had been taken off the air without explanation by satellite operators based in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Tehran's media claimed the move was politically motivated. Al Alam had widely covered the conflict in Yemen and reported regularly on statements by Houthi rebels. Yemen summoned Iran's ambassador in August to complain of Iranian media coverage.

@Email:mtheodoulou@thenational.ae