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Business News/ Opinion / The fight for primacy in West Asia

The fight for primacy in West Asia

The Saudi Arabian offensive in Yemen is a proxy for a larger fight with Iran

Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint Premium
Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

On Thursday, a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia bombed targets in Yemen, its neighbour to the south. The country’s major ports, including the strategically located Aden, were shut. Within hours, global oil markets were on the boil, with prices rising by 5%.

These developments signal the return of geopolitical risks to the global economy. These risks had waned as the world got used to the raging battles in Syria, the spread of the Islamic State and the slow fragmentation of authority in Libya. However, the attack on Yemen lies in a different class and brings to the fore a risk that has long been feared: the war of primacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In the past two years, this stealth rivalry has been waged overtly in two locations. In Syria, where the balance of forces between rebels and the Bashar al Assad regime (supported by Iran) has turned into a stalemate and, over a slightly longer duration, in Iraq. While these have led to sudden spurts in oil prices, these have abated quickly. The Syrian conflict does not endanger any oil-producing region. In Iraq, the Iran-backed, largely Shia-dominated, government has kept oil flowing without much trouble. With the bombing of Yemen—openly by a coalition of Arab countries who fear Iran’s increasing power in the region—a third front has been opened in West Asia. There are other sites of conflict—Libya, for example—but these really don’t matter beyond a point. What happens in Yemen is important.

Yemen’s location is strategically crucial. The port of Aden is a major petrochemical storage and transit hub; the choke point of Bab el Mandeb—the strait that connects the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea—is important for shipping oil to Europe and elsewhere through the Suez Canal. This is a volatile part of the world. The Gulf of Aden has seen attacks on transport vessels by Somali pirates in the past. That has led to increases in insurance premiums for shipping companies. But any major state-to-state conflagration can end the flow of cheap oil which countries across the world have come to enjoy in the past one year since oil prices collapsed.

It will be facile to say that Saudi Arabia won’t mind these prices inching up as it is one of the oil-exporting countries that has suffered most from the discovery of shale oil in North America. The Saudi game is wider.

Two recent developments have upset the Saudi Arabian apple cart, forcing it to reveal its hand in Yemen. One, the impending nuclear deal between the US and Iran. This deal, which seems likely to go through except for a last minute hitch, will see an end to sanctions against Iran and give it breathing room for expansion in the region. Even with biting sanctions, Iran has not ceased to support its state (Iraq and Yemen) and non-state allies (Hezbollah in Lebanon). Minus the sanctions, this process will only deepen.

Two, the nuclear deal will not prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons capability, it will only slow the process by a couple of years at the most. If during the interim period, Iran manages to gain influence over vital pieces of real estate in West Asia, especially in Saudi Arabia’s periphery, Iran will become unstoppable by the end period of the nuclear deal.

From that perspective, the developments in Yemen proved untenable for Saudi Arabia. Yemen is now largely controlled by the Shia Houthis. The Houthis, originally from the province of Sa’dah in northern Yemen, now control those areas of the country that have historically been out of bounds for them. These include the southern provinces of Lahij, Ibb and Ad Dali. Even two months ago, when the Houthis dislodged Western and Arabian-backed president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, this appeared remote. But in the past two weeks, the Houthis have captured major southern towns, including Taiz and Aden. Now only the remote eastern provinces—Hadramaut and Al Mahrah—remain out of their control. The Houthis are openly backed by Iran.

Iran has openly assailed Saudi Arabia for its actions. Saudi Arabia is now being backed by almost all Arab countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council. The religious and political divisions of West Asia have never been so visible. But like many wars of great geopolitical consequence—from Corcyra in Ancient Greece to Crimea in the 19th century to Vietnam in the 20th—the fuse is generally lit in remote and backward regions. The Yemen of today fits that description.

What will be the consequences of the war in Yemen? Tell us at​

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Published: 29 Mar 2015, 06:38 PM IST
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