The capture of Yemen’s capital by rebels with ties to Iran has jolted Saudi Arabia, prompting a scramble by Riyadh to prevent its Shi’ite Muslim rival from exploiting the takeover to make trouble in the kingdom’s backyard.The Sunni Muslim country is also concerned that the security deterioration in its southern neighbour, where the Shi’ite Houthi fighters seized Sanaa on Sept. 21, does not benefit another old enemy, al Qaeda.
For the hereditary rulers of Saudi Arabia, a stable, wealthy oil kingpin, the 1,400-km (870 mile) border with turbulent, impoverished Yemen which snakes over remote mountains and desert, has always been a security nightmare.
But with their ability to manipulate events south of the border at the lowest ebb in decades, the kingdom’s ruling Al Saud are scrabbling to find Yemeni allies who can restore a semblance of order while remaining friendly with Riyadh.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal warned of “accelerating and extremely dangerous conditions” and said in New York last week that Yemen’s violence would “threaten stability and security on the regional and international arena”.
In a sign of how far Riyadh is worried about Iran’s ties to the Houthis, it and five other Gulf Arab states said after an Interior Ministers’ meeting on Wednesday that they would not “stand idly” by in the face of foreign intervention in Yemen.
Riyadh has always wielded greater influence in Yemen than other countries, yet while it remains a big aid donor, the chaos following the country’s 2011 uprising has left it with many potential foes there and few trusted friends.
For the Saudis, the risk is not only that Iran could gain a new foothold across the border via its ties with the Houthis, but that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) could take advantage of the unrest to plot new attacks.
“The struggle in Yemen is a threat to neighbouring countries and Saudi Arabia should worry about this. It could become another Taliban land,” said Abdullah al-Askar, head of the foreign affairs committee on Saudi Arabia’s Shoura Council which advises the government on policy.