Why did the Houthis and Iran attack Saudi Arabia?
The required historical context for the Drone Strike Attack on Saudi Arabia
Disclaimer: Let me preface this article by being honest with you before you dive in. I'm not a journalist. I'm not a historian. I hold an Economics degree, work in corporate finance, and run a history media company as a side project. However, I understand that America has a historical literacy problem and believe understanding historical context is pivotal for digesting current events.
So you may be wondering, why should you trust and read this article over any other source? Unlike the rest of the mainstream media that claim to report on each issue objectively, I do not. My reporting is slanted in favor of my worldview. For this piece, my foreign policy ideology leans Libertarian, which means non-interventionist. And for every other article I write, I'll be open about my leanings so you're prepared for the way I frame each topic.
Now that this is out of the way and you have proper context on my leanings, below is the historical context for these drone attacks (as you can tell, I believe context is important!).
The purpose of this article is to serve as a starting point to better understand the Yemeni Civil War, and Proxy War between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Let’s begin.
On September 14, 2019, two major oil facilities in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia were attacked by drone strikes.
As the New York Times reports:
"Drone attacks claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels struck two key oil installations inside Saudi Arabia on Saturday, damaging facilities that process the vast majority of the country’s crude output and raising the risk of a disruption in world oil supplies.
The attacks immediately escalated tensions in the Persian Gulf amid a standoff between the United States and Iran, even as key questions remained unanswered — where the drones were launched from, and how the Houthis managed to hit facilities deep in Saudi territory, some 500 miles from Yemeni soil."
As you’d expect, this attack elicited an immediate response from the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted:
U.S. President Trump made sure to chime in and added:
Respond how you’d like to these tweets, but I think they both have at least one thing in common: the underlying idea that Saudi Arabia was innocently attacked. In fact, this attack was a response to the ongoing civil war in Yemen and overall geopolitical battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
To understand the dynamics behind this Drone Strike, one must first understand the total context of the Yemeni Civil War, a war that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough. Though, as you can imagine, the conflict is overly complicated which explains why it’s easier for the media and politicians to simplify it and label one side as ‘good’ and another ‘bad.’
For this situation, it’s helpful to visualize the geopolitical landscape as a big chessboard. In chess, you have different pieces with unique capabilities and the players who determine what pieces to play.
The two main pieces involved in Yemen and their ideological slants are:
1. The Houthi Movement
Promotes Zaidi Islam (Shia denomination)
The Houthi Movement (Shia denomination of Islam) — Under the leadership of Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, this political and armed movement originated in the 1990s. In 2010, the Houthis rose up during the Arab Spring, which were “a series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions that spread across North Africa and the Middle East.” In 2012, shortly after the Arab Spring, the Houthis led the opposition to former Yemeni President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, charging him with corruption and effectively being a puppet for Saudi Arabia and the United States, while disregarding the Yemeni people.
A key takeaway from this movement is that the Houthis mostly align with the Shia denomination of Islam — Iran is a self-identified theocracy of Shia Islam. Though, admittedly, this is an overly simplistic characterization of the movement. Dive deeper into the Houthis here.
2. Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi
Promotes Sunni Islam
Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi (Sunni denomination of Islam) — President Hadi took power in 2012 for what was supposed to be a two-year transitional period following the corruption accusations and overthrow of President Saleh (mentioned above). It is primarily believed that President Hadi was chosen due to his ‘weak’ character.
A source from Yemen, who requested to be anonymous due to security concerns, told me:
“People in Yemen know he (President Hadi) sleeps a lot. There are rumors that he sleeps 16-hours a day. People also know that he’s extremely unhealthy; he likes to eat a lot. People are suffering, and they can’t find food, and you see the President of Yemen looks like the King of Saudi Arabia.”
“One thing also to know is his character. Even now, where there are some parts of Yemen free from Houthis, he is still in Saudi Arabia. For him, it seems like he doesn’t even care about what’s happening in Yemen. And that’s part, again, of his personality. Which is why former President Saleh chose him to be his Vice President.”
After taking power in 2012, Hadi was supposed to form a national unity government and hold renewed presidential elections within 90-days of taking office. Instead, he held onto power and disregarded the ‘democratic’ process. Like former President Saleh, President Hadi aligns with the Sunni denomination of Islam — this is key since Saudi Arabia is a self-identified theocracy of Sunni Islam.
The second thing to know are the actual players of the game in question: Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both countries are theocracies with a similar goal of spreading their influence and ideology across the Middle East.
As mentioned, Saudi Arabia promotes Sunni Islam, while Iran promotes Shia Islam. What wasn’t mentioned is that these two sects of Islam are in direct opposition to one another, which stems over disputes around who should have led the Islam religion after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. You can learn more about the Sunni vs. Shia divide here.
Oh, and when you play chess, you look at a real board. To help you visualize the situation, below is a map of the region:
So… Can we get on with the story now? No. I think it’s crucial to recognize that the above explanations are not provided in traditional media coverage. Now that you have the foundational elements of the conflict, don’t you realize how ridiculous it is that people form opinions of this conflict — and any conflict — without knowing the main parties involved?
So what happened in Yemen?
In 2012, President Saleh was ousted from power during the Arab Spring and President Hadi assumed the duty of interim President. As mentioned, he had a two-year mandate before he was supposed to host elections for a new President. However, President Saleh disregarded this promise, which further energized the Houthi movement.
In August 2014, the Houthi movement began openly protesting the removal of fuel subsidies from President Hadi’s government. A month later, the Houthis’ patience ran out and they invaded the Yemeni capital Sana’a, forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Mohammed Basindawa. This drastic measure caused the United Nations to broker a deal between President Hadi’s government and the Houthi movement to form a ‘unity government,’ which involved electing a new President and drafting a new constitution.
However, in January 2015, due to the slow progress, Houthi fighters took control of the presidential palace and President Hadi’s residence to gain more influence over the reworking of the Yemeni government. The existing government resigned and President Hadi was placed under house arrest. Ultimately, President Hadi dressed up as a woman and escaped to Saudi Arabia.
Two months later, in March 2015, Saudi Arabia began its intervention of Yemen with airstrikes and a naval blockade. Their goal was to restore President Hadi and his government to power. The Civil War began.
Unfortunately, when we talk about foreign conflicts, it’s easy to get bogged down in the statistics of the events since the event isn’t happening to you, which dehumanizes the event; however, keep in mind the conflict is all too real for those involved. Yemen has a population of 28 million people — this figure is larger than the populations of NYC, London, Los Angeles, Paris, and Berlin, combined.
It’s objectively true that War is horrific. Real people die. Real people suffer.
The Yemeni Civil War is no different. Since Saudi Arabia entered the fray, they’ve bombed hospitals, crowded markets, schools, and other Yemeni civilian areas. Their naval blockade has halted the inflow of food and medicine for Yemeni citizens.
To combat Saudi Arabia’s involvement, Iran has supported the Houthis in the form of advanced weapons and military advisers. Like most violent conflicts, both sides have done horrific acts in the pursuit of their ideologies. Labeling one as ‘good’ and another as ‘bad’ is overly simplistic and naive. Over 90,000 people have died. All sides are to blame.
In a geopolitical sense, the Yemeni Civil War is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But it’s also part of an even larger proxy war. Enter two larger players in this overly complex game of chess: the U.S. (backs Saudi Arabia) and Russia (backs Iran).
Wait, didn’t the Cold War end?
Recently on my podcast, Steve Leonard, a retired U.S. Army Intelligence Officer and current History teacher, told me that relations between the United States and Russia are “just as bad” today as they were during the Cold War. He went on:
“Their (Russia’s) experiment with democracy didn’t really work. Putin is the epitome of a Soviet-era strongman. He was KGB. He was in East Berlin when the wall came down. He watched the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he definitely wants to rebuild the Soviet Empire.”
“I think the United States has taken some actions that have probably made it worse as far as our relations go. In supporting expanding NATO up against the borders of the Soviet Union (Russia). You really have to understand what an important feature paranoia is in the typical Russian psyche.”
Regarding our friends to the Northeast, Russia and President Vladimir Putin have a $2 billion economic relationship with Iran and President Hassan Rouhani. Moreover, in June 2019, the Secretary of the Russian Security Council declared that Russia would continue to support Iran’s interests in the Middle East because it remains “the ally and partner” in Syria.
For its contribution, the United States has sold billions of dollars of weapons to support Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s efforts. Also in 2018, the U.S. pulled out of the 2015 Iran Nuclear deal and implemented its strategy of maximum pressure with economic sanctions on the Iranian Regime. Though the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear deal did not help relations, I’d like to point out that the Yemeni Civil War began before the Iran Nuclear Deal was even signed in 2015.
The chessboard just expanded, yet the pieces most affected are regular people:
A 2017 UNICEF report stated that nearly half a million underage children in Yemen were on the verge of starvation, and about seven million people were facing acute food shortages.
So why do the United States and Russia care about Saudi Arabia and Iran? We touched on this briefly, but let’s provide a better outline.
The United States’ support of Saudi Arabia stems from:
Saudi Arabia’s massive purchase of weapons from the United States.
Their confrontational relationship with Iran since the Iran Hostage Crisis from 1979 — 1981.
The danger Iran poses to Israel, one of the U.S.’s main allies. The U.S. views Saudi Arabia as the counterbalance to Iran in the region.
What about Russia’s support of Iran? Well, their relationship dates back to 1521 when the Grand Duchy of Moscow and the Persian Empire (Iran) struck an agreement. Though their relationship has been turbulent over the last few hundred years, Russia currently supports Iran due to:
Iran’s countering effect on the United States in the Middle East.
Iran’s strategic placement and involvement in the Syrian Civil War. Russia is a large supporter of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government.
Since 1992, Russia has sold Iran hundreds of military systems to Iran.
In a geopolitical sense, it is believed that Iran’s goal is to establish a land bridge through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea. Add in Iran’s growing influence in Yemen and you can understand why the United States and Saudi Arabia are nervous.
Now that we know why these superpowers care about Saudi Arabia and Iran, let’s investigate and acknowledge the crimes both theocracies have committed in recent memory. The American and Russian people deserve to know who they are supporting.
For Saudi Arabia’s part:
15 of the 19 Al-Qaeda hijackers involved in the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks were from Saudi Arabia. There’s even evidence of financial links between the Saudi Royal Family and Al-Qaeda from the 1990s through 2006.
In 2018, American Journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, perpetrated by agents of the Saudi Arabian government.
Okay. What about Iran?
Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Iranian Regime has engaged in terrorism by proxy through Hezbollah; Hamas; the Taliban; militias in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, and the Gulf; and numerous other terrorist groups. Former United States President George W. Bush accused the Iranian government of being the "world's primary state sponsor of terror."
In 2011 under President Obama, the U.S. formally accused Iran of forging an alliance with Al-Qaeda that includes harboring Al-Qaeda operatives on Iranian territory. Wait, both countries have relationships with Al-Qaeda?
Unfortunately, the above outline of Saudi Arabia and Iran’s atrocities do not provide the complete picture. What you should know is that supporting either country is antithetical to the support of human rights.
Pause. Reflect. Continue.
If you’ve made it this far, I’d argue you have the proper historical context required to react to the drone strike against Saudi Arabia in 2019. Instead of this being an unprovoked attack on a U.S. ally, it was an unsurprising escalation in an extensive conflict.
Now, you can read the rest of the news…
Update: On September 20, 2019, which was a late Friday night, the Trump administration authorized the deployment of U.S. troops to safeguard Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure. Yikes.
— I have so many people to thank who helped me with the direction of the piece. Thank you to Ethan Galowitz, Chelsea Neil, Simon Handler, Michael Vivier, Oksana Lyon, Josh Prywes, Jaynie Schultz, & many others! I appreciate each of your contributions & guidance…
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