Ayman Sharrouf

The Saudi-Iranian confrontation: 1 - 0

A billboard with a soldier and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, reading "my country, we all protect your soil" in Riyadh on 15 April 2015. (AFP/Fayez Nureldine)

Today, several conflicts are simultaneously being fought out in Yemen. Meanwhile, Iran’s headline-making war on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been juxtaposed by an absence on the part of the United States, if not its alignment with the interests of Iran. It is with the Iranians and the Houthis that the US has been negotiating a solution to the Yemeni crisis. Talks have taken place in Muscat, where there has been a marked absence by the Kingdom and the Gulf states.


Today, Yemen summarizes much: disputes here and there between Arab states, and other disputes between Arabs and Persians (with them and their Arab proxies) in more general and all-encompassing terms. Notably, in more than one Arab area, armed conflicts are also playing out between political parties and militias. The conflict between Yemen’s factions—from Al-Qaeda to the Houthis, the General People’s Congress and the Islah party—has placed them at the center of the greater struggle between the regional powers.


Some of Yemen’s conflicts, which are affected by the power struggle between the larger actors surrounding it, play out between leading figures in the country. The prime example of this is the conflict raging between deposed president Ali Abdallah Saleh, who is trying to return to power on the backs of the Houthis, and Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar. The latter is the son of Sheikh Abdallah al-Ahmar, the founder of the Islah party, one member of which was put on the US terror list in 2004—Sheikh Abdul Majeed al-Zindani is believed to have maintained close connections with Osama bin Laden.


Sheikh Hamid is a young man who gathered a considerable fortune as a trader. With several businessmen he established Saba Islamic Bank and is its current chairman. Sheikh Hamid also owns the telecommunications company Sabafon and represents a number of other companies—Siemens and Arcadia Petroleum, for example. Other businesses he owns include Kentucky Fried Chicken and Baskin-Robbins restaurant chains, and he is the head of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi’s Al-Quds International Foundation, which the US Treasury Dept. says is under the control of the Hamas Movement.


When the Houthis entered Sanaa, they appropriated Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar’s property and business enterprises, (which included food companies, oil companies, printing houses and restaurants) and continued to run them for their own benefit. Likewise, the Yemeni Office of the Procurator-General issued an order to confiscate property and assets belonging to him and his family. Even the Egyptian authorities confiscated an estimated $170 million that Sheikh Ahmar had placed in Egyptian banks and was intending to invest in Egypt with Muslim Brotherhood leaders like Khairat el-Shater and Mohammed Badie. Before this, he had declared from Turkey that the Islah party, with all its constituent parts, would stand by the Muslim Brotherhood. Sheikh Hamid was accused of tax evasion amounting to an estimated $340 million. According to Yemeni newspaper Al-Watan, Muslim Brotherhood money is invested in and passes through Ahmar’s companies. Today, Sheikh Ahmar is outside Yemen and his companies in the country are inactive.


The conflict between the two men reflects the greater ongoing regional battle between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran, which supports the Houthis and supplies them with weapons. This support includes long range missiles, which threaten the Kingdom’s security. Notably, the Islah party, to which Ahmar belongs, gave its outright support to the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm. This power struggle between the two leaders may well mirror the different strategies of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on the one hand and King Salman on the other.


Since King Salman came to power, he has done his utmost to bring the positions taken by Arab states closer together and urged them to put their differences aside, especially those related to the Muslim Brotherhood. It was with this in mind that King Salman extended his hand to Qatar and Turkey as soon as he took office, in an attempt to unite the three countries around a greater strategy, based, before anything else, on confronting Iranian expansionism. However, King Salman’s priorities, at least in Yemen and Syria, do not appear to match the priorities of President Sisi, who is facing a veritable war with the Muslim Brotherhood at home. It is on this basis that the Egyptian leader chooses what actions to take with regard to the two countries.


This is very clear when it comes to Syria. On the 8 and 9 June, Egypt hosted the “Expanded Conference of the Syrian Opposition and National Forces,” which was intended to build agreement on a political document that would be adopted by the opposition figures who attended and would include their demands in any potential political solution to the Syrian crisis. The conference also aimed—covertly—to launch a new opposition body as an alternative to the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). The Cairo conference generated a constructive ambiguity: while the participants kept to the Saudi line that Assad has no future in Syria, they did not reject the idea of a roadmap involving negotiations with the regime and they did not stipulate Assad’s exit before the beginning of negotiations. This is very close to Egypt’s approach to the Syrian crisis, which has so far remained more favorable to Assad than anyone else.


The meeting and its results confirm that there is of a difference of opinion between Egypt and the Kingdom with regard to Syria, especially as the Gulf Cooperation Council has invited the SNC to meet in Riyadh to discuss supporting the revolution and emphasized its support for a solution where Assad is excluded—something that Egypt rejects. However, the meeting in Riyadh has not yet happened and Egypt did not move to put off or cancel the Cairo conference. This is another instance of the two country’s conflicting policies.


Returning to the subject of Yemen, Sisi rejects any interpretation of events in the country that falls outside his struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood. This is why he is appropriating the assets of Islah party leaders while they are standing up to Iranian hegemony, and fighting the Houthis and Ali Abdallah Saleh. Accordingly, during this period, the Islah party has supported Saudi Arabia’s broader regional policy: confrontation of Iran as a priority over all other primary and secondary objectives.


Saudi Arabia is doing its utmost to balance the strategic necessities of the current period against the individual trajectories of its Arab allies, each of which has its own divergent interests. So far, by reaching an agreement with Turkey, the Kingdom has been able to support the rebels in Syria by securing the flow of weaponry to them.  This has had a fundamental effect on the progress of the battle against the regime, which seems weaker than ever. Although Qassem Soleimani has promised us surprises, it is his ally’s army and militias that are retreating en-masse. In Yemen, the launch of Operation Decisive Storm, and later on Operation Restoring Hope, undermined Iran’s attempt to take control of the country and the surrounding shipping lanes. The Kingdom has also prevented Iran from threatening its national security by destroying the Houthis arsenal of long range missiles.


Saudi Arabia is fighting on the Arab world’s front lines and, so far, it has succeeded in overcoming the obstacle of the various, conflicting trajectories of its allies. The coming days, in Syria in particular, will reveal which of two scenarios plays out: either Saudi Arabia’s success will be completed, or the considerations to be made regarding Syria, in light of the Turkish elections, will prove too momentous to allow for an accelerated end to the Iranian occupation.


Ayman Sharrouf is the editing secretary at 24 Media. He tweets @aymansharrouf 


This article has been translated from the original Arabic by Ullin Hope

A billboard with a soldier and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, reading "my country, we all protect your soil" in Riyadh on 15 April 2015. (AFP/Fayez Nureldine)

Although Qassem Soleimani has promised us surprises, it is his ally’s army and militias that are retreating en-masse."