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April 14, 2013 12:27 pm
Conflict-racked Yemen is emerging as the site of a murky and evolving power struggle between Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf and western nations, in a powerplay with echoes of the proxy regional war raging in Syria.
As the US battles Islamist militants in south Yemen, the country’s other factional fights are providing a means for neighbours – including Qatar – to press for influence in a country strategically located at the southern tip of the oil-rich Arabian peninsula.
At stake is the future of a nation that is struggling to right itself ahead of elections due in less than a year, is dependent on international aid and lies at the heart of Gulf state and western security concerns.
“Yemen now is open to all,” said Ali Saif Hassan, head of the Political Development Forum, a Sana’a-based think-tank. “From America, from Europe, from Saudi Arabia, from Iran – and from Qatar.”
Yemen has just launched what many see as a make-or-break national dialogue on its future, after an uprising that forced long-time strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh from power last year and pushed the country to the brink of civil war. An internationally backed peace plan backed by billions of dollars in aid pledges requires President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to oversee elections by February next year, but he faces a big test in the face of rivalries between old regime members, tribal chiefs and rebel groups.
The geopolitical backdrop is Yemen’s traditional position as the domain of its much richer neighbour Saudi Arabia, which has pumped in aid worth billions over the past two years but is seen by many Yemenis as an overbearing and controlling presence. Saudis also account for a good number of the jihadis fighting Yemen government forces backed by US drones.
Now diplomats and analysts say Riyadh’s old enemy, Shia-led Tehran, is trying to exploit the chaos in what one envoy calls “the soft underbelly of the Arabian peninsula” by backing rebels in both north and south.
UN investigators are examining a boat that was seized by Yemeni security forces in January, which US officials claim was loaded with weapons from Iran.
US officials say Iran is supporting militant elements of the southern secessionist Hirak movement, notably Ali Salim al-Beidh, a former Yemeni vice-president now based in Beirut. Mr al-Beidh – whom the UN Security Council in February threatened with sanctions over his alleged interference with Yemen’s political transition – could not be reached for comment.
While southern secessionists do not have a natural political or sectarian affinity with Iran, some say they would be comfortable with its backing, as they feel the west and its allies have shunned them. “We are willing to get supported and financed by any country in the world – as long as it’s for our cause,” said Abdullah al-Dhalehi, a senior Hirak official.
Iran has rejected allegations that it finances activists in either Hirak or the Houthi movement, a Shia rebel group in the country’s north.
Ali al-Bukiti, a Houthi spokesman, denied that the movement was directed by Tehran. He said he visited Iran for about five weeks last year and had meetings with senior political and religious leaders, but didn’t receive any money. He said a picture he posted from his trip on social media – holding a fistful of rials above the caption: “I arrived in Iran and received my salary” – was an ironic potshot against enemies who accuse him of being Tehran’s stooge.
Another foreign political wild card in Yemen is Qatar, with many observers trying to fathom what it is trying to achieve other than playing a characteristic independent gadfly role.
“We would all like to know more about the Qatari foreign policy strategy,” said one Sana’a-based diplomat.
Doha is widely believed in Yemen to have funded the al-Islah Islamist movement, a powerful force in the protests against Mr Saleh. Unlike its Gulf neighbours and western countries, Qatar has built strong links with Islamist groups across the Middle East and north Africa.
Muhammad al-Yadumi, Islah leader, denied the party received financing from Doha, although he said it was one of a coalition of opposition groups that visited Qatar to thank it for its support for the revolution.
Asked if al-Islah made a similar visit to Saudi Arabia, Mr al-Yadumi replied: “No. Saudi Arabia did not support the Yemeni revolution.”
Qatar has also come under scrutiny over its role in the release in February of Sylvia Abrahat, a Swiss teacher who had been kidnapped in Yemen almost a year previously and was flown to freedom via Doha. A Qatari foreign ministry official said at the time of her release that Doha had negotiated over her case for months, although no details were given about whether – as some suspect – a large ransom was paid to Islamist militants holding her.
The Qatari ambassador in Sana’a declined to talk about the country’s role in Yemen. Another person familiar with Qatar’s thinking insisted Doha was “taking a step back” from what was “Saudi territory”, although he suggested disengagement was far from total.
“The problem is, after the Swiss woman was released, everybody was knocking at the door of Qatar and saying: can you help?” he said.
Analysts see kidnappings in Yemen as just one of many tools being used by outside powers in a strategically significant Middle Eastern country whose turmoil provides a big opportunity to shape regional political change.
“You can have a huge impact for your money if you intervene at the right time, capitalising on certain pent-up frustrations,” said Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a Sana’a-based analyst. “That’s what the Qataris and Iranians are doing.”
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