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Why is Saudi Arabia at War in Yemen?

RIYADH – Saudi Arabia has drawn a lot of criticism lately for its leading role in the war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Some deride the Kingdom, the richest Arab state, for taking action against the poorest. Others have claimed that the fight against the Houthis – a Zaidi Shia-led religious-political movement – is just one element in a broader war on the Shia that Saudi Arabia has supposedly been waging. These are simplistic claims, reflecting a fundamental misunderstanding about the Kingdom’s role in Yemen – and, indeed, in the entire Arab world.

Saudi Arabia is not out to get the Zaidis. In fact, it actively supported the Zaidi royal family in Yemen’s civil war in the 1960s. What the Kingdom has reacted to in Yemen is Iran’s cynical efforts to take advantage of Yemen’s internal conflict to build a military alliance with the Houthi rebels – an alliance with only one conceivable target: Saudi Arabia.

Yet when Saudi officials tried to warn the international community about Iran’s activities in Yemen, it was met with denial. Western commentators, in particular, have twisted themselves into knots to avoid recognizing any Iranian involvement in the conflict, even as evidence to the contrary has mounted.

In the last 18 months, the US Navy has intercepted four arms shipments from Iran to Yemen. Iran itself has claimed numerous times that it controls four Arab capitals, including Sana’a, and the Houthis have become closely tied with Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese political and military proxy.