For MbS and the Saudi leadership, attacks from Yemen represent a phobia which the Houthis and their Iranian backers delight in tweaking. On Monday, the Saudi English-language newspaper Arab News carried the headline that the missile attack was “an act of war” by Iran. “The kingdom reserves the right to respond in a timely manner to the hostile actions of the Iranian regime. … We will not allow any infringement of our national security,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir said. The piece also quoted the Saudi-led Coalition Forces Command calling the attack “a blatant act of military aggression by the Iranian regime.”
Tactically, the Saudis and their allies in the United Arab Emirates are bogged down in their mission to reinstate Hadi. Strategically, the missile attack suggests the alliance may be losing—a trend MbS is eager to reverse. Those who have met him say he wants to become more assertive on Iran and its proxies. Further missile attacks like the last one may prompt foreign airlines to stop flying to Riyadh. Such danger does not comport with MbS’s new “brand” of a modern, shiny kingdom that has embraced moderate Islam, a vision he unveiled at a major foreign-investors conference just weeks ago.
The Saudi-Iranian power struggle predates MbS—the latest iteration dates back to the 1979 Islamic revolution. Saudi Arabia views Iran as a historical and ethnic foe, a Shia rival challenging Saudi leadership of the Sunni-Muslim world. Iran’s long-term goal is to upset a status quo effectively guaranteed by the United States. Its short-term goal is to take advantage of the consequences of the Iraq war and the Arab Spring to spread its influence and reach out to Shia communities across the region. Baghdad, Damascus, Sanaa, and Beirut, now reside in the Iranian camp. Saudi Arabia leads the conservative Arab states, although the steady rise of MbS means that these populations are now being offered an up-to-date (although non-democratic) future. For the 32-year-old MbS, dealing with Iran is as important as transforming the Saudi economy and, under the cover of an anti-corruption campaign, sorting out royal rivalries.
For Iran, Yemen, under the declining rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, was a target of opportunity. Supporting the Houthi tribes by providing organizational assistance and funds was a mere stratagem. Saleh’s rule collapsed but he forged an alliance with the Houthis against President Hadi, who is under house arrest in Saudi Arabia. Despite the Saudi air force’s best efforts, it has failed to dislodge the Houthis. The UAE’s forces have been more successful in the south of the country, around the port city of Aden. But there it is challenged by al-Qaeda types who have turned the Yemeni hinterlands into their sanctuary.
Iran’s success in supporting its Houthi allies in Yemen appears to be a consequence of niche involvement, a small bet which has paid off. Several months ago, I asked a Saudi general visiting Washington how many Iranians were in Yemen—I expected a guess of thousands or perhaps hundreds. His response to what I assumed was an obvious question surprised me: “I don’t know.” The prevailing wisdom, based on responses to my pestering of officials in Washington, is that the figure is in the scores. Small teams come in from Iran to train or operate particular weapon systems and then leave, according to these officials. Hence, the missiles fired from the coast at U.S. warships in the Red Sea last year, and the drone boat attack on a Saudi frigate in January.