From The Nation by Juan Cole:

Under its new king, Salman, Saudi Arabia is fighting four major struggles to reshape the Middle East. The common denominator is a quest for neighbors that will not challenge the Saudi monarchy or make alternative claims on religious and temporal authority, especially on a populist basis. The Saudi government is more pragmatic than usually recognized, and it can abide left-of-center nationalist regimes as long as they do not denounce Riyadh. But political Islam scares the geriatric royal family to no end if it is not under their control.

The Saudi intervention in Yemen, and its organization of key members of the Arab League into a coalition to support that military move, is unusually adventurous for the royal family, which likes to work behind the scenes and more subtly. The muscular character of the intervention is a sign of how frightened Riyadh is of the instability in Yemen. There, the tribal Houthi movement of Zaidi Shiites has allied with military units loyal to deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh to topple the government of Saleh’s successor, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The Houthis have pledged to topple the Saudi throne; they chant “death to America” and have friendly relations with Iran. Nothing could be more threatening to the Saudis than a grassroots populist movement of this militant sort, and that it springs from a Shiite population makes it worse. The Saud dynasty is allied at home with the Wahhabi movement, which typically views Shiite Muslims as worse idolators than Hindus. Still, the late King Abdullah appointed two Shiites to his national Advisory Council, the embryonic Saudi parliament, and deployed the Ismaili Shiites of Najran against Yemen. It is not Shiite Islam that is the red line for the kingdom, but populist movements that talk dirty about the Saudi monarchy.

Another worry for King Salman, as for the United States, is that the Houthis’ attempt to rule all of Yemen despite being from a minority community (Zaidis are about a third of Yemen’s population) will create a power vacuum in the Sunni south of the country. There, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has long been active, with between 400 and 2,000 fighters. In 2011–12, AQAP attempted to take territory in Abyan province, but was defeated by the Yemeni army.

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