Yemen’s political instability has been compounded as a result of being the Arab World’s poorest country with a rapidly growing population. Long confined to the north, the Houthi rebels, (now having rebranded themselves as Ansar Allah) are from the Zaydi subsect of Shia Islam, which makes up approximately 40 percent of Yemen’s population. Their capture of the capital and overthrow of Yemen’s struggling transitional government has prompted much discussion on where the victorious rebels will fall in regard to the wider geopolitical objectives of the regional powers.
The Houthis’ movement is still a relatively unknown and little understood factor in Yemen’s power struggle. The movement is comfortable operating outside of its own Zaydi sect and uses humanitarian gestures to win over its opponents.
Copying out of Hezbollah’s play book, the Houthis have gained a reputation for their ability to maintain discipline and for their collective principles, both of which have helped win over supporters. Still, demonstrations against the Houthis have been ruthlessly put down, sparking widespread resentment and tension.
Abroad, suspicion is frightening regional actors as to whether Yemen’s new power broker can be a partner for stability and spearhead the fight against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Saudi Arabia is anxious about the collapse of Hadi’s government, and there is a possibility that the US could find itself facing a second multifaceted civil war in the region.
There have been allegations that the country is in the midst of a counter revolution à la Egypt, most prominently coming from Yemeni activist and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize Tawakkol Karman, a supporter of Hadi. Long time autocrat, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Zaydi, is widely believed to have been behind the removal of the transitional government. Tawakkol Karman has suggested that a new constitution and elections should be implemented by the Hadi government.
Yemen’s Sunnis have long been a key benefactor of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s authoritarian regime. Now the predominantly Sunni South, propelled by the Al-Hirak secessionist movement, is at risk of breaking away amid the Houthis’ calls for unity.
Saudi Arabia is growing increasingly agitated by Iran’s regional adventurism. With Iranian-supported Shia militias bolstering the Iraqi army against IS, Hezbollah propping up the Assad regime in Syria, ongoing tension continuing between the government and the Al-Wefaq party in Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia’s own restive Shia population in the Eastern Province remaining a consideration, Iran is now cultivating a new front in the Kingdom’s south.
However, Iran may not have as much influence as it seems. Global Risk Insights spoke to Middle East Institute scholar and Yemen specialist Dr. Charles Schmitz, who affirmed, “The relationship between the Ansar Allah and Iran is not clear. I suggest there is financial support because Ansar Allah has money to pay for militias. But Ansar Allah is also collecting taxes and controls the qat trade, so there may be significant local revenue as well. The Iranians may also give logistic support.”
While the Houthis downplay their ties to Iran, high-level officials from the IRGC al-Quds Force gush how they are modelled after the Lebanese Hezbollah as a combined military and social movement.
US and Saudi Arabia’s strategy
The United States’ Yemen strategy (relying on drones and local forces) was highlighted by President Obama, but that strategy has now been knocked off its foundation. The Pentagon is already with the Houthis in the campaign against AQAP. Drone attacks have increased significantly in recent weeks.
Dr. Schmitz also commented on whether the US could rely on the Houthis to restore order and for security cooperation: “The US can build a political relationship with Ansar Allah, but it depends upon Ansar Allah’s actions in Yemen. Will it compromise and build an effective coalition to rule Yemen or will it explode the situation and cause tension and perhaps a civil war?”
One hope is that Abdul-Malik al-Houthi could end the deadlock by reaching a power-sharing compromise with the Hadi faction. It will be difficult to get the conservative Sunni Al-Islah faction on board. A senior member, Sadiq Ali Mansour al-Haidary, was killed last November. However, this option may be the best chance for constructing a return to stability.
Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf States could be nearing the end of their patience with the US and its cooperation with Iran’s regional proxies. The US quickly cast aside the Hadi government in favor of the rebels.
Saudi Arabia also put the brakes on $500 million allocated for military aid to Yemen until the outcome of a power-sharing agreement. Yemen relies on remittance from its nationals in Saudi Arabia for 4.2 percent of its GDP. Despite this, Saudi Arabia will be largely occupied by its own domestic concerns.
However, the Obama Administration is reluctant to call the takeover a coup, preferring instead to continue counter-terrorism operations in Yemen’s south as long as possible. Branding the Houthis’ maneuver a coup would require it to end counter-terrorism aid and cooperation.
The Houthis have a track record of taking on AQAP and the United States is willing to give them a chance at Yemen’s helm. However, the long-term risk remains that the geopolitical struggle for dominance may ultimately end any chances of Yemen’s future functionality as a unified state.