Yemen Conflict Raises Sectarian Temperatures across the Gulf

by Giorgio Cafiero and Daniel Wagner

Yemen’s rapidly deteriorating conflict is heightening sectarian tension across the Middle East. Shi’ite leaders in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Lebanon—as well as Shi’ite communities throughout the Gulf Arab sheikdoms—have expressed staunch opposition to the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing of Zaidi Shi’ite Houthis in Yemen. Although Riyadh defends its campaign under the pretext of fighting for “legitimacy”, “stability”, “unity,” and “security” in Yemen, many Shi’ites in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) view Operation Decisive Storm (later named Operation Restoring Hope) as a war on their sect of Islam.

Since the “Arab Awakening” revolts erupted across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, historically disenfranchised communities throughout the region stepped up demands for political, economic, and social reforms to address deep-rooted grievances. Fearful that anti-government activism would gain momentum in the Gulf, GCC officials have intensified crackdowns on political dissent in their kingdoms since then, eliciting a range of responses among their citizenries—from outrage and opposition to support and a yearning for stability.

The gravest challenges to the authoritarian regimes in Riyadh and Manama came from Saudi and Bahraini Shi’ites (who account for 15 and 70 percent of the native populations, respectively) long before 2011. Since Operation Decisive Storm/Operation Restoring Hope was launched in March, authorities in both Sunni-ruled kingdoms, as well as Kuwait, have jailed Shi’ites who have criticized the campaign in Yemen.

Such a course of action demonstrates the Gulf Arab monarchs’ practice of citing regional instability as justification for cracking down more harshly on non-violent opposition and political dissent in an effort to consolidate absolute rule. Although militant non-state actors such as the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and al-Qaeda pose an unquestionable threat to the Gulf Arab monarchies, the rulers have detained many liberal journalists, scholars, and online activists under the banner of combatting “terrorism” in recent years.

Shi’ite Opposition to Riyadh’s War in Yemen

In early April, Saudi Shi’ites in the kingdom’s restive oil-rich Eastern Province clashed with security forces, resulting in the death of one police officer, scores of activists being injured, and four arrests. According to the official news agency, security forces carried out an operation to confront “terrorist elements” in the Shi’ite-dominant Awamiyah village. Activists maintain that the authorities carried out raids designed to silence local protests against Saudi Arabia’s military involvement in Yemen.

Bahrain has been the first and most aggressive GCC member to criminalize criticism of the Arab coalition’s campaign in Yemen. Its Interior Ministry has vowed to enforce measures aimed at safeguarding the island kingdom’s security from the regional morass. In practice this has entailed silencing writers alleged to be guilty of “spreading rumors during wartime.”

Article 36 of Bahrain’s constitution prohibits the government from engaging in “aggressive war” and mandates parliamentary approval for war, which was not obtained before Manama deployed 15 fighter jets to Yemen. In late March, two officials from the National Democratic Assembly (al-Wahdawi), including deputy secretary general Mohammed al-Motawa, were arrested after their political faction expressed opposition to Manama’s military involvement in Yemen on constitutional grounds and condemned the campaign against the Houthis as “flagrant aggression” prohibited under international law. They were charged with “exploiting [the] situation in Yemen to disrupt the peace and endanger security and civil order.”

In April, dozens of Bahraini demonstrators held protests chanting “Saudis, get out of Yemen.” At other demonstrations, Bahraini protestors expressed their solidarity with Yemen’s Houthis by holding up posters of Abdul Malik al-Houthi, the Houthis’ leader. Also in April, Bahraini authorities arrested Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, who was detained for writing a Huffington Post article that addressed Yemen’s civilian death toll and the documented cases of torture in Bahrain’s Jaw prison. He remains behind bars and may face a 10-year sentence if convicted.

On the same day of Rajab’s arrest, Kuwait arrested two Shi’ites—lawyer and former parliamentarian Khaled al-Shatti and academic Salah al-Fadhli—held them for five days, and questioned their motives for posting messages on Twitter about Yemen. Kuwait’s authorities saw their tweets as insulting to the emir of Kuwait, disrespectful of Kuwait’s soldiers, and offensive to neighboring Saudi Arabia. In recent years, Kuwaitis have also been arrested for remarks deemed insulting to Egypt and the UAE, two of Kuwait’s closest allies.

Last month, Abdulhameed Dashti—a Shi’ite member of Kuwait’s parliament—sought to take the foreign minister to task for Kuwait’s participation in Operation Decisive Storm/Operation Restoring Hope. As Kuwait’s constitution also requires parliamentary approval for any “defensive war” and prohibits the launch of an “offensive war,” the Shi’ite parliamentarian cited the kingdom’s constitution as a reason to oppose Kuwait’s military involvement in Yemen.

Disunity in the GCC

Saudi Arabia and four of its fellow GCC members—Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE—waged Operation Decisive Storm/Operation Restoring Hope under the previously stated pretext of restoring “legitimacy,” “stability,” and “security” in Yemen. In a grander regional context, Riyadh’s military campaign in Yemen is interpreted as an attempt to counter Iranian influence in the Arab world at a time when Saudi Arabia and other GCC states fear the geopolitical implications of a potential comprehensive nuclear agreement with Tehran. Rulers in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama fear that a long-term rapprochement between the West and Iran will diminish the GCC’s strategic value to the U.S., which is the council’s most important military ally and guarantor of its defense. Furthermore, many in the region fear that an easing of sanctions against Tehran will embolden Iran to assert greater influence across the Middle East via its regional proxies. Not lost in the equation are budgetary dilemmas. As the oil-dependent Persian Gulf sheikdoms grapple with the economic challenges of low oil prices, the potential reintegration of Iranian oil/gas into the global economy threatens to further lower the price of oil and cause GCC states to tighten their belts by reducing domestic spending.

Saudi Arabia largely understands the conflict in Yemen within the context of the geopolitical, religious, and ideological rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Within such a framework, Riyadh viewed the Houthi take-over of Sana’a and other cities in Yemen as the precursor to the establishment of a de facto Iranian client state on the kingdom’s border. Although the extent of Tehran’s actual influence over the Houthis is debatable, the Saudi rulers saw the fall of their ally Hadi to Houthi militants as a development that would push Yemen further from Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical orbit and closer to that of other powers—most importantly, its archrival Iran.

Yemen’s rapidly deteriorating crisis, which Yemen’s neighbors view in an increasingly sectarian context, strikes a sensitive chord for many Bahraini, Kuwaiti, and Saudi Arabian Shi’ites. The political leadership in Riyadh paints its involvement in Yemen as an effort to counter Tehran, and Saudi Arabia’s reactionary Wahhabi religious establishment has endorsed Operation Decisive Storm/Operation Restoring Hope as a “holy war” aimed at crushing “Safawis” in Yemen (a reference to Iran and the Persian dynasty that oversaw the expansion of Shi’ism in the 16th century). A growing number of Gulf Arab Shi’ites perceive the coalition’s intervention in Yemen as a war against their branch of Islam.

Given the current manifestation of Sunni-Shi’ite conflict throughout the region, the Yemeni crisis is only deepening the fissures between the Sunni Gulf monarchies and their Shi’ite subjects. The war against Yemen’s Houthi fighters can potentially foment further opposition to the ruling Saudi family in the kingdom’s strategically vital Eastern Province, where clashes between Shi’ite protestors and Sunni security forces continue more than four years after the “Arab Awakening” erupted.

Sunni-Shi’ite relations within Saudi Arabia and other GCC states remain sensitive to the fires that burn in Syria and other Arab countries. The Islamic State’s orchestration of a deadly suicide attack on a Shi’ite mosque in Kuwait City on June 26 and the recent threat from Turki al-Binali (the “Imam” of IS, who comes from Bahrain) that Bahrain would be the next target, underscore how the GCC monarchies are themselves becoming increasingly volatile flashpoints in the Middle East’s sectarian conflicts. Ultimately, the Yemeni crisis is likely only to raise the Gulf’s sectarian temperatures.

Photo: Bahrainis protest Saudi bombing of Yemen.

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.