The Saudi Arabia-Iran ‘Great Game’ in Yemen and Afghanistan


Since the last decade, Yemen is dragged into a Civil War. Even though the war was turned into a peace accord in 2010, but with the Arab Spring President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to resign from his Presidency. In the post-Ali Abdullah Saleh Yemen, the new president Abduruboh Mansoor Hadi, for many reasons was not able to control the ongoing conflicts in his country and as a result of it; the Shia Houthis seized many areas one after another and at the end through their so-called coup they gained Sanaa and dissolved the government and Parliament.

Yemen is one of  Saudi Arabia’s closed and important neighbor and with the ouster of Saudi-Strategic partners in Sanaa and coming of Pro-Iranian Shia Houthis Saudi considers this situation as an alarming sign for itself and Arab World.

The roots of Yemeni crises have reached to Afghanistan and it has raised concerns about Kabul’s Foreign Policy,  but regarding the Yemeni  crises many questions can arise:  What is Kabul’s stance towards the events that unfolded in the middle east?  Where the Yemeni crises had its roots? And additionally, who are engaged in the great game in Yemen and what  would be its implication for the region?


The Crisis in Yemen: Historical Background and its origin

Yemen was ruled by many Imams of Shia Zaidi for more than 1000 years, but with the 1962 revolution a full-stop was put to the imamate of Shia Zaidi and their rule was subsequently ended. In 1978, Ali Abdullah Saleh became President in the North Yemen and later when in 1990 Yemen became united he continued to be President of United Yemen until the Arab Spring.

The Houthis movement began in the decade of 80s under the name of ‘Believing Youth’. Until now, It is not clear that who was the founder of this movement but researchers wary their opinions in Muhammad al Houthi and Hussein al Houthi. This movement started their preaching in a peaceful manner but later started insurgency[1].

The group takes its name after its leader Hussain Badruddin al Houthi was killed in 2004 by the Yemeni Forces —and with it; their group is also called Ansarullah (supporters of God) — as a result, the Houthis from 2004 to 2010 launched six different militant uprising against the Yemeni Government. However, the Yemeni Government due to the presence of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, the long war with the Houthis, and the downward slope of economic trends forced the government to have a peace deal with the Houthis in 2010[2].

On the other hand in 2010, the protests were popping up across the Northern Africa and Middle East and within a short period of time it forced Tunis and Egypt’s governments to step down. This momentum of Arab Spring had also reached Yemen and as a result of it many peoples chanted in anti-government rallies across the country. The Houthis too, took part in these Anti-government rallies and protests.

In the Post Arab Spring and after toppling down of Ali Abdullah Salih in 2011, President Abduraboho Mansour Hadi became the new President of the country. Due to  inflation and other economic problems the Houthis had differences with the new president and later their differences were resolved by the United Nations special representative to Yemen, but the Houthis continued their insurgency and at the end via their Coup they grabbed the power by ousting the government of Hadi and is struggling to seize more areas.


The international Importance of Yemeni Crisis

The crisis in Yemen is important, mostly due to the following reasons:

  1. This place had enormous strategic importance, because it has one of the seven straits of the world, which is the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb. The importance of this strait can be realized from the fact that on a daily basis 3.3 million barrel oil is passed through it[3].
  2. Iran have become successful in the containment of Saudi Arabia due to fact that the Pro-Iranian Houthis have now controlling the Yemeni affairs, which the Riyadh looks to it as an alarming sign.
  3. The supporters of each side( in this case Saudi Arabia and Iran), who are engaged in Yemen’s Crisis, are also engaged with each other in the regional cold war and the supporters of the supporter of this crisis (USA, Russia, China, and EU) are also engaged with each other in the new cold war at the international level.
  4. As the Shia and Sunni’s are engaged in this crisis, the crisis has given sometimes the name of Shia-Sunni rivalry too. That’s why the Muslims of the entire world are giving their attentions to it.
  5. Since 2004, due to the Crisis in Yemen more than 200 thousand Yemeni peoples were forced to take shelter in the surrounding areas[4] and the present crisis would further increase these numbers. In addition, the crisis importance is also increased due to civilian casualties.


Saudi Arabia, Iran and the ‘Great Game’ in Yemen:

Yemen has not only strategic and economic importance at the international level but due to Saudi Arabia-Iran Cold War its importance is substantially increased. With the Arab Spring, Iran and Saudi Arabia confronted each other in Syria, Iraq and now in Yemen. That’s why the strategist and security analyst Mr. Martin Reardon call Saudi-Iran rivalry the ‘Great Game’ type rivalry, which was originally played in the nineteenth century between the Czar and Britain India in Afghanistan[5].

Yemen and Saudi Arabia had such a common border between them that from the one hand there is illegal migration on it[6] and from the other hand drugs and weapons are smuggled via it. This is the main reason which causes concerns in Saudi Arabia because with the pro-Iranian Houthis grabbing power, Iran can reach easily into Yemen and reaching to Yemen would then mean reaching Saudi Arabia.


The Regional Allies of Saudi Arabia and Iran:

It was during the era of 1991-2007, when Saudi Arabia-Iran relations were diplomatically becoming normal, but with the Arab Spring and Iran’s nuclear deal with 5+1 Countries the relations between these two countries were once again have gone from bad to worst and as a result of it, Saudi Arabia are making strives to make Anti-Iran alliance in the region (middle east).

On the other hand with the beginning of Yemen’s crisis and the Saudi-led coalition air strikes on Yemen, the government of Syria, Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Iran came under the umbrella of anti-Saudi-led alliance in the region.  Moreover, Afghanistan, Turkey and Pakistan are still non-aligned but leaned towards Saudi-led-Alliance.

The reasons behind Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey’s stances toward non-alignment but at the same time supporting Saudi Arabia had the following reasons:

  • Afghanistan is only supporting to protect the territorial integrity of the two holy mosques but regarding the Crisis in Yemen it hopes that the crisis should be resolved peacefully via Organization of Islamic Cooperation as well as the UN. Moreover, it is not a part of Saudi-led coalition who is air striking Yemen.
  • Even though Pakistan is the strategic partner of Saudi Arabia and calls ‘protecting territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia’ its responsibility, but until now it had not taken part in the Saudi-led-coalition air strikes. Pakistan, which wants to lead the Islamic ummah, might became non-align in this crisis and like Turkey it would seek to play a more conflict-resolving role.
  • Turkey had from one hand had condemned Iranian role in Yemen but on the other hand it is not part of the Saudi-led-coalition. In addition, Turkey had the same relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia and as a result it is in best position to resolve the conflict.



The Afghanistan’s Stance:

Regarding the situation in Yemen, Kabul has declared its policy in such a presidential statement, which was consulted with many. We call Kabul’s statement and stance in between the non-alignment and Realpolitik. The Afghan Presidential statements have the following important points:

  • Afghanistan would protect the territorial integrity of the two holy mosques and the Afghan government therefore stands with all power by the brotherly government and people of Saudi Arabia in defending the sacred territory should there be any threat.
  • The government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan strongly believes in the principle of democracy and supports the legitimate government of Yemen.
  • Afghanistan hopes that the crisis is resolved peacefully and there should be an end to this conflict through Organization of the Islamic Cooperation and UN.

In the above statement, there are few things which are quiet important and it is as accordance to the UN principles (Principle of democracy and the legitimate government) and Afghan tradition (non-alignment). Afghanistan being an Islamic country and like the Muslims of the world loves their sacred places and It had only supported Saudis in this regard, but on the crisis of Yemen it has a motive that the conflict should be resolved through OIC and UN.

On the other hand, looking into Ashraf Ghani’s Foreign Policy one can easily understand that Peace is an essential part of it and therefore Saudi Arabia’s position can not only effect Pakistan’s decision but the Taliban as well. That’s why Kabul’s Foreign Policy is circulating around Pakistan-Saudi Arabia-Afghanistan and Afghanistan-Pakistan-China.

On the economic aspect, Kabul’s decision would also increase the chances of giving Afghanistan 100 thousand labor visas, which would then positively affect afghan Economy through remittances.


[1] Saeed Al Batati, Who are the Houthis in Yemen?, Aljazeera English, 29 March 2015, 9 April 2015, see it online:<>

[2] For more studies about the Houthis insurgency between 2004 to 2010 please read: Christopher Boucek, War in Saada: From local insurrection to National Challenge, Carnegie Papers, Number 110, April 2010, retrieved at 9 April 2015, see it online:

[3] World Oil Transit Chokepoints. Energy Information Administration, US Department of Energy.

[4] UNHCR, Yemen: Monthly factsheet (Jan 2015), retrieved at 9 April 2015, see it online:

[5] Martin Reardon, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the ‘Great Game’ in Yemen, Aljazeera English, 26 March 2015, retrieved at 9 April 2015, see it online:

[6] Brian Whitaker. “Saudi Security Barrier Stirs Anger in Yemen.” The Guardian. February 16, 2004.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *