On 26 September 1962, four tanks rumbled through a moonless night and surrounded Imam Badr’s palace in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. Hearing the tanks Badr and his father-in-law descended from the highest room of the palace moments before it was shelled.
The coup that would plunge north Yemen into almost eight years of bloody civil war was underway. Imam Badr ordered his remaining guards to bring him Bren guns. Then Badr and his father-in-law stepped out onto a balcony and opened fire on the mutinous soldiers that surrounded the palace while gasoline soaked sandbags were ignited and hurled onto the tanks below. The soldiers momentarily fled and Badr lived on to fight from northwest Yemen’s rugged mountains until his eventual exile in the UK in 1970. Imam Badr’s exile marked the end of the Zaidi Imamate that had ruled parts of Yemen for a thousand years.
The leader of the coup was the chief of Badr’s corps of bodyguards, Colonel Abdullah al-Sallal who was supported by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Within months, several thousand Egyptian soldiers were on the ground in north Yemen to support Sallal’s republicans in their fight against Badr’s royalists. The royalists were bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and covertly supported at various times by Jordan, Israel, Iran, France, and the UK, all of whom had a strategic interest in weakening Nasser and the Egyptian Army. Nasser would eventually commit more than fifty-thousand soldiers supported by MiGs and heavy weaponry to Yemen. Despite the number of soldiers, extensive air-support, and even the Egyptians’ use of chemical weapons, the war in Yemen became what Nasser would later describe as, ‘my Vietnam.’
With the recent Houthi takeover of much of northern Yemen, there are echoes of the 1960s. There seems little likelihood of Yemen not becoming a battleground for a protracted proxy war between two regional powers: Saudi Arabia and Iran which, in contrast to the 1960s, are now on opposite sides. The Saudis are vehemently opposed to the Houthis because they are Shi’a, adherents to the Zaidi sect of Shi’a Islam. The Saudis are fearful that the Houthis’ ‘revolution’ could spread across their southern border and embolden their own restive Shi’a minority. In April 2000, the Saudis put down a Shi’a led rebellion in the province of Najran, which borders areas that are now controlled by the Houthis.
On the other side of the emerging proxy war is Iran whose material support for the Houthis is limited. The claims made about Iran supplying arms and training to the Houthis are dubious. The Houthis are in no need of weapons—they have more than they can manage—and the core Houthi fighters are battle-hardened and require no training. However, if isolated, the Houthis may increase their level of engagement with Iran.
What the Houthis do need and what Iran has likely been providing, at least in token amounts, is money. The Yemeni economy is moribund. The Central Bank of Yemen is dependent on loans and grants from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. The resignation of Yemeni President Hadi and his government and the Houthis’ unilateral and extralegal dissolution of the Yemeni Parliament have meant that money from the Gulf States has dried up. It is an open question as to where the money for the salaries for tens of thousands of Yemeni bureaucrats and soldiers will come from. The lack of funds to pay government salaries poses a serious and potentially fatal challenge for the Houthi leadership.
Saudi Arabia will take full advantage of the Houthis’ limited financial resources by providing blank checks to those tribal leaders and displaced military figures who oppose the Houthis and agree to fight them. Most worrying is the fact that some of this money could make its way to groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who, as militant Salafis, are the sworn enemies of the Shi’a led Houthis. AQAP is a far more amorphous organization than is commonly supposed. The Houthi takeover of Sana’a and the resignation of the government will mean that the lines between tribesmen and tribal militias opposed to the Houthis and the militants allied with AQAP will become even less distinct. Militant Salafi organizations like AQAP will be key beneficiaries of a proxy war in Yemen.
The calls by some in the Yemeni government for members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to intervene in Yemen in order to force the Houthis to withdraw is a first step toward igniting a new proxy war in Yemen. The calls will likely go unheeded, at least in terms of an overt ground-based intervention. The members of the GCC, most particularly Saudi Arabia, do not have the capabilities or constitution for a military intervention in Yemen. Yemen is most definitely not Bahrain. However, some members of the GCC will undoubtedly fund a host of covert measures in Yemen, all of which will add fuel to the fire that threatens to wash over Yemen.
The Houthis are a distinctly Yemeni movement that is deeply rooted in the Yemeni socio-cultural context. All outside parties, including those in the US government, like Senators John McCain and Diane Feinstein, who recently called for more ‘boots on the ground’ in Yemen, would do well to remember the words—some of his last words—of Field Marshal Amer, the architect of Egypt’s disastrous campaign in north Yemen: ‘we did not bother to study the local, Arab and international implications or the political and military questions involved. After years of experience we realized that it was a war between tribes and that we entered it without knowing the nature of their land, their traditions and their ideas.’ The Egyptians became involved in Yemen thinking that they were supporting a proxy, the republicans, in what would be a short sharp war against the Saudi backed royalists, but it ended up costing them more than twenty-thousand dead soldiers. Meddling in Yemen without taking into account the country’s history, traditions, and intricate patchwork of loyalties is a dangerous game for all involved.
Michael Horton is a writer and Middle East analyst.