Even with the brutal wars raging in parts of the Middle East, some acts stand out for their despicable nature. That the Houthi rebels would fire a missile at the most sacred site in Islam defies belief. Fortunately, the Saudi Arabian military was able to intercept the missile, but the act still marks a shocking escalation in the war in Yemen.
In one sense, perhaps we should not be surprised. The Iranian-backed Houthis have taken every opportunity to destabilise Yemen and Saudi Arabia. They have shown no interest in negotiations, have not respected ceasefires and have shown nothing but contempt for the people of Yemen. The humanitarian crisis that they have sparked shows no sign of abating and despite multiple opportunities to pursue peace – or even merely talks – they have not. This from a group that claims to represent the will of the Yemeni people – and whose flag includes the slogan “Victory to Islam”. The group has yet to explain how targeting Islam’s holiest shrine would aid that victory.
With ISIL slaughtering civilians in the most horrific ways and the Houthis now targeting the holiest sites of Islam, the militias who have taken hold of parts of the Middle East appear unwilling to respect any norms. Yet there is a crucial difference with the Houthis, because they are backed by groups who have, or did have, international respectability. While this missile strike raises some very serious questions for the Houthis, it also raises hard questions for their backers, both Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Iranian government.
On Twitter, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, asked how the Iranian government could continue supporting the Houthis after they fired on Mecca. “Is this an Islamic regime as it claims to be?” he asked. The same question must be directed at the former Yemeni president. Mr Saleh still has considerable support in northern Yemen. It is only because of that the Houthis have managed to hold on to territory.
Both must now condemn the attack and distance themselves from the group. The Iranians cannot continue sending weapons to a group that uses them to attack Islam’s holy shrines, nor can Mr Saleh back them. Failure to do so will make them complicit in what seems like an attack not on one state, but on an entire religion.