Saudis Fret Over Iranian Front Emerging From Yemen Chaos

The crowd packed into the soccer stadium in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, fell silent as three giant screens flickered to life with the image of the country’s de-facto leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi. In his half-hour speech, al-Houthi told thousands of supporters that he had dissolved parliament, but he pledged to talk with all parties and make Yemen a force for “stability and peace.”


Yet his message of reconciliation in the Feb. 7 appearance bore a darker undertone, with a style reminiscent of radical Shiite cleric Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon. Al-Houthi’s backers responded with chants of “Death to America, Death to Israel,” slogans echoed on badges, headbands and posters in the stadium.

The rise of al-Houthi is raising concerns in Saudi Arabia and among its allies in the Gulf about the emergence of a radical Shiite front, backed by Iran, along the southern border of the world’s largest oil producer. Saudi Arabia last year designated the Houthis — a Shiite religious militia founded in 2004 by al-Houthi’s brother — a terrorist group.

“The Houthis’ link to Iran is a deep worry,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Geneva. “In the long-term, the Houthis could even be more dangerous than al-Qaeda. Look at Lebanon,” where Hezbollah has become the most powerful political force.

Al-Houthi filled a vacuum when Yemen’s Saudi-backed president, Abdurabuh Mansour Hadi, failed to stabilize the California-sized country after protests toppled his predecessor in 2012. Hadi resigned on Jan. 22, and in the past two days the U.S. and Britain closed their embassies in Sana’a.

Saudi Arabia, which on Feb. 9 accused the Houthis of carrying out a coup, has limited options, Alani said. The Saudis could trim the billions of dollars in aid they have committed to Yemen, but cuts would likely aggravate the country’s economic crisis, he said.

Shiites split from Sunnis early in the history of Islam over the rightful successor to the prophet Muhammad. Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Shiite-led Iran, competing for influence across the Middle East, often find themselves on opposite sides of the region’s major crises. In Syria, Hezbollah fighters back President Bashar al-Assad against mainly Sunni rebels. In Iraq, the Shiite-led government is battling Sunni militants from the Islamic State group.

Little-known outside his home country, al-Houthi is one of 16 children of a religious scholar named Badr al-Deen. With limited formal education, the 36-year-old studied the Koran in Saada, a mud-walled city of about 50,000 high in the mountains of north Yemen, an hour’s drive from the Saudi border. As a young man, al-Houthi spent time in Iran with his father, according to Abdulmalik al-Ejeri, a relative and member of the Houthi political department.