Can Iran Replace Saudi Arabia as Yemen’s Sugar Daddy?

Tehran may have declared that it will support the Houthi revolutionary government, but let’s see if it can provide the hundreds of millions that Riyadh did.

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Houthi Shiite Yemeni raise their weapons during clashes near the presidential palace in Sanaa, Yemen, Monday, Jan. 19, 2015. Credit: AP

The Houthi rebels in Yemen have disbanded parliament and declared a provisional government, but they don’t yet control the entire country. Over the weekend, the Houthis talked about “revolutionary committees” that will appoint a five-member national council — to replace the president, who has resigned. There will also be a new parliament, which will serve for two years.

During this period a new constitution will be written and elections held. The new government also hurried to reappoint Defense Minister Mahmoud al-Subeihi in an attempt to show a willingness to cooperate with people from the old regime.

But the procedures for governing are a secondary problem for a country in which 40 percent of the people are Zaydi Shi’ites and the rest are Sunnis. The south, where Al-Qaida operates, is Sunni, and the other regions rely on tribal loyalties that have normally been stronger than those to the central government.

The sagging Yemeni army is also divided between these loyalties, so the Houthis were able to conquer the north and center of the country with little resistance. The main challenge is to prevent another north-south split.

The Houthi regime also has vast economic problems. It’s not just that Yemen is the poorest Arab nation, where over half the population lives in poverty. In December, Saudi Arabia announced that it was halting vital economic aid estimated at $450 million for ongoing needs and $900 million for petroleum products.

Iran may have declared that it will support the Houthis, but there’s a difference between support for the fighters and ongoing economic aid. This is even more the case when Iran is suffering a financial crisis due to the West’s economic sanctions, the steep drop in oil prices and the heavy aid it’s providing Syria. The question is whether Iran can replace Saudi Arabia as a conduit of aid.

The Houthis can’t depend on Yemen’s oil production because the oil and natural gas ports — as well as some of the oil fields — are in the south and controlled by Sunni tribes. These tribes shut down certain oil facilities a week and a half ago to protest the Houthis' efforts. Other possible channels for aid are Russia and China, which are making contacts with the Houthis.

Saudi Arabia’s boycott of the Houthi regime could turn out to be a double-edged sword because it leaves the new government in the hands of Iranian good will. It also requires Saudi Arabia to cooperate with the Sunni tribes — most of which support the reformist Islah party, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudis’ enemy.

A similar dilemma faces the U.S. administration, which criticized the dissolving of parliament and the Houthi takeover. The United States needs the central government’s cooperation, or at least its acquiescence, to continue the battle against Al-Qaida bases in the south.

The State Department has announced that U.S. drone attacks in the south will continue; for now the Houthis have no reason to prevent these assaults against its rivals. But the paradox is that Washington will continue cooperating with the pro-Iranian Yemeni regime against Al-Qaida; it seems it will have to “contribute” to the Houthi government to keep this relationship going.

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