The deposition of Yemen's president by Houthi rebels supported by Iranian Quds militiamen and the death of Saudi King Abdullah open a Pandora's box of unknown conditions in the Middle East. U.S. officials describe this confluence of events as leading to uncertainty in the region.
The Saudi kingdom has seen the United States as a protector, but the U.S. rapprochement with Iran has made the Saudi leadership uneasy. Overtures to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates for defense cooperation are a symptom of emerging distrust for U.S. motives, leadership and alliance obligations.
A transition of Saudi leadership from Abdullah to the former ruler's half-brother Salman bin Abdul Aziz may reduce the ability of the kingdom to move decisively if challenged by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels that have taken over Yemen, the country on the southern border of Saudi Arabia.
The eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia, where the oil fields are located, has been the prize for Iran. In this region resides the nation's Shiite minority, yet another justification for Iranian intervention. Talks between the U.S. and Iran over Tehran's nuclear program are viewed by Riyadh as a sign of a weakening American-Saudi alliance and circumstantial evidence the U.S. was negotiating behind Abdullah's back.
U.S. officials, speaking with diplomatic caution, assured the new leadership of support and a willingness to contain the civil war in Yemen. One overarching question looming in future discussions is whether the Saudi kingdom will continue pumping oil at extremely high levels, driving the price per barrel down and forcing competitors into an economic slide. With 20 percent of the global oil reserves, Saudi Arabia can tolerate this revenue downturn, but there is little doubt this strategy is having an adverse effect on its chief rival, Iran, and other nations dependent on oil for their hard currency.
Saudi rulers are likely to continue their present moderate course of action, perhaps even attempting to buy off the Houthis rather than confronting them. What remains unknown is how the Houthi leadership will respond. If they see the Saudi rulers as hesitant or equivocal, they may use Yemen as a staging area for an attack. Another scenario has the Houthis aligning with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to put additional pressure on the Saudi kingdom, notwithstanding the fact that Iran — the Houthis' benefactor — is fighting against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Uncertainly is the only way to characterize these unfolding events. They are made even more complicated by the fact that Abdullah's younger brother who succeeded him is 79 and the new crown prince is 69. As a consequence, a whole new line of succession must be established, a condition that is invariably disruptive. Moreover, no one really knowns how this transition will play out and whether it will put Saudi Arabia in a vulnerable position. While it is unlikely the kingdom will face a popular revolution from within, this scenario cannot be discounted. Shifts in policy tend to be incremental. Nonetheless, close to half of the population is under 24, many jockeying for position and raised with a sense of entitlement. Young people tend to be impatient.
The more immediate threat is exogenous. Iran's influence in Yemen is worrying. In addition, with virtual control of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Hormuz, Iran dominates the sea lanes Saudi Arabia depends on for the exportation of its oil. In the recent past, Saudi Arabia could call on its American ally to protect its regional interests. That guarantee is no longer assured. If President Obama is intent on playing the Iran card to defeat ISIS and then being accommodating on the nuclear enrichment front, Saudi options will be limited.
Will Salman secure nuclear weapons if Iran is given a green light for fissile material in the P5+1 (the U.S., U.K., Russia, China, France and Germany) negotiations? Will the Houthis seize a moment of indecision to attack? Will Iran use its regional influence to broker a deal with Saudi Arabia, one that leaves the U.S. out of the diplomatic equation? These are questions that boggle the imagination; they also impinge on the future of the region.
This piece has been corrected.
London is president of the London Center for Policy Research.