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The Saudi Intervention in Yemen: Struggling for Status

On March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes on Yemen with the aim of restoring the rule of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and destroying the Houthi movement. Scholars and policy analysts moved quickly to examine the Yemen war as a sectarian struggle and a byproduct of Saudi-Iranian rivalry in the region. However, these traditional explanations fall short of unravelling the Saudi motive behind launching a large-scale operation in Yemen, its severely weakened and politically divided neighbor. This paper offers an alternative explanation for the abrupt Saudi aggressiveness toward Yemen. It argues that this intervention is driven by a non-material need: Saudi leadership aims to assert the Kingdom’s status as a regional power in the Middle East.

The Saudi Intervention in Yemen Struggling for Status

Introduction

On March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes on Yemen with the aim of restoring the rule of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and eliminating the Houthi movement. Located on the Bab al-Mandab Strait at the southern entrance of the Red Sea, Yemen has always constituted a cornerstone of Saudi foreign policy. Since the Kingdom’s foundation in 1932, the Saud family (al-Saud) has striven to expand its control over its southern neighbor and prevent it from threatening its interests. In 1934, the first modern war broke out between the two Arabian states. The 1934 Treaty of Ta’if put an end to this military confrontation, ceded the three provinces of Asir, Najran and Jizan to the army of Ibn Saud, and established a peaceful coexistence between the two countries.1 Since then, the Saudis have avoided open, large-scale confrontation, and have instead maintained a precarious stability in Yemen through meddling in its internal politics, backing certain local groups against others, using Yemeni guest workers as leverage, buying off tribal leaders, and conducting limited, occasional military operations, especially over border disputes. 

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