When Saudi Arabia and its allies began to bomb Yemen last week, it was not the first time that Yemen’s neighbors turned the country into a battleground. Both the Obama administration and the Saudi monarchy would do well to recall the last time Yemen became a pawn in regional power struggles.
In the fall of 1962, Saudi Arabia’s King Saud watched nervously as Egyptian troops poured into Yemen. Egypt had undergone a revolution 10 years before and, under the leadership of its charismatic president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, it had been transformed from a friendly fellow monarchy to a fire-breathing republic.
Nasser set about exporting Egypt’s revolution throughout the Middle East, sowing fear in the hearts of monarchs from Baghdad to Sana. In 1956, the kingdom of Jordan nearly fell to pro-Nasser forces. In 1958, the Iraqi monarchy collapsed. That same year, Nasser announced the formation of a union between Egypt and Syria, laying the foundations for a pan-Arab empire. The Saudis, desperate to stop the Egyptian project before it reached Riyadh, allegedly funded a failed attempt on Nasser’s life and conspired to break up the Syrian-Egyptian union.
It was only a matter of time before Nasser struck back.
Exactly one year later, a group of Yemeni officers, supported by Egyptian intelligence agencies, staged a coup in Sana, overthrew Yemen’s monarchy and established a republic. The ousted imam, Muhamad al-Badr, retreated to a mountain stronghold among supportive Zaydi-Shiite tribes in northern Yemen — the same tribes from which the Houthi movement was to emerge in the 1990s — and declared war on the republic.
For Nasser, the coup in Yemen was a chance to set off a revolutionary chain reaction in the Persian Gulf that would, he hoped, bring down the House of Saud. The Saudis, horrified by the idea of a hostile Egyptian army encamped in their backyard, decided to back the imam with bountiful supplies of arms and gold. A protracted and costly civil war ensued, only ending with the withdrawal of Egyptian forces from Yemen in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War.
Is history now repeating itself before our eyes? The Saudis no doubt see the fall of the Yemeni government and the spread of the Houthi rebellion with an acute sense of déjà vu.
The roles, of course, have shifted in the past 50 years. Back then, Saudi Arabia’s nemesis was Nasser’s republican Egypt, which sought to ride the wave of Arab revolution and spread its influence over the ruins of toppled monarchies across the Middle East. Today the Saudis’ chief adversary is Shiite Iran, which has deftly maneuvered among the wreckage of the Arab Spring in an effort to construct a “Shiite axis” extending from Baghdad to Sana. Then, as now, the central arena of conflict is Yemen, an impoverished backwater whose importance stems from its geographic proximity to Saudi Arabia and the crucial Red Sea choke point at Bab el-Mandeb.
Once again, the meddling of an adversary in Yemen has led the Saudis to take action — this time under a new king, Salman, and his ambitious son, Muhammad. Iran’s support for the Houthis today is not comparable to Egypt’s invasion of Yemen in the 1960s, but the regional context is eerily familiar. First in Iraq, then in Syria and now in Yemen, the Saudis have watched with concern as Iran gains influence amid chaos.
As if things were not bad enough, America, the Saudis’ trusted ally and longtime guarantor of their power, is making diplomatic overtures to the enemy. Seen in this context, the Saudi-led intervention represents a line in the sand — a demonstration of power aimed as much at Washington as Tehran.
In recent days, critics have asked how the Obama administration can square its support for Iran’s battle against ISIS in Iraq with opposition to Iran’s proxies in Yemen. American policy suffered from similar contradictions 50 years ago. When war broke out over Yemen in 1962, the United States had no choice but to defend its beleaguered Saudi allies. Yet the Kennedy administration was then in the midst of a delicate dance with Nasser, predicated on the belief that American influence in the Arab world required an understanding with Egypt — the Soviet Union’s most significant regional ally. Much to the frustration of the Saudis (and their ally at that time, the shah of Iran) America adopted a nuanced policy toward the conflict in Yemen that satisfied no one.
As the Saudis predicted, the attempt to restrain Nasser’s revolutionary ambitions by plying him with aid didn’t end well. Nasser persevered for several years in Yemen, Egypt gravitated toward the Soviets, and American-Egyptian relations went up in smoke on the battlefields of Sinai in 1967. The parallel with the Obama administration’s current outreach to Iran cannot be lost on the 79-year-old Saudi king.
Ultimately, the Obama administration will have to choose whether to accommodate Iran’s leaders at the expense of America’s traditional allies or align with the Saudis and Egyptians against them. In the context of a coherent regional strategy, the crisis in Yemen could supply a useful pressure point on Iran that might enhance the chances of success in the ongoing nuclear negotiations.
An American red line in Yemen, backed by Saudi and Egyptian air power, would signal to the Iranians that relief from sanctions is contingent on ending their support for violent proxies from Yemen to Iraq and beyond. That was true of Egypt in the 1960s. It is true of Iran today.
Jesse Ferris is the author of Nasser’s Gamble: How Intervention in Yemen Caused the Six-Day War and the Decline of Egyptian Power.