What is next for Yemen’s Houthis?

Despite the Houthis’ territorial advantage in Sanaa, they lack the ability to govern, analysts say.

Houthi fighters react after Yemen''s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed, in Sanaa
Houthi fighters react after Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed in Sanaa [Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

The death of Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the capital at the hands of the Iran-aligned Houthi rebel group, his former allies-turned-adversaries, has plunged the war-torn country into further disarray, analysts said.

The Houthis, who protested against Saleh during the country’s 2011 uprisings, formed a shaky alliance with the long-time leader and his General People’s Congress party (GPC) against the government of the internationally recognised President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in 2014.

This unusual cooperation, termed a “partnership of convenience”, broke last week as Houthi fighters and Saleh loyalists clashed. Two days before he was killed, Saleh publicly stated his willingness to engage in talks with Saudi Arabia, who has been leading a military coalition against the Houthis since March 2015.

Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow for the MENA programme at Chatham House, said that Saleh had underestimated how powerful the Houthis had become.

“He didn’t have that much support at the end – not only because he was killed but because the Houthis were also able to overrun the houses of several of his relatives in the capital,” she said.

‘Sole game players’

With Saleh out of the picture, the Houthis are “feeling favoured as the sole game player” in Sanaa, said Osamah al-Rawhani from the think-tank Sanaa Center.

“The question is who they will make a partnership with,” al-Rawhani told Al Jazeera.

The Houthis don’t have any other political powers they can start an alliance with except for the tribes, he continued, and they have always had shifting positions depending on where their interests lie.

“During the past three years the Houthis have built their own alliances,” he said. “Some tribesmen have rebelled against their own people and allied with the Houthis. Others, such as Sheikh al-Mashriqi, who is from [Saleh’s] Hashid tribe, surrendered to them.”

What is next for Yemen

Kinninmont said that a new alliance between the Houthis and Saleh loyalists is “absolutely possible” but at the same time, one of the biggest uncertainties.

“Things are changing very fast,” she said.

The way that Saleh’s body was filmed and paraded around by the Houthis has left a lot of his former supporters “in a bit of a quandary” she added, “because there will be fear and humiliation that this is what will happen to them if they think about betraying the Houthis”.

The ‘challenge’ of governance

While there isn’t an exact figure for the number of Houthi fighters, their strength has been increasing over the past three years to grow into the only force to reckon with in Sanaa.

However, their popularity in the capital is not uniform, as many people do not want them in power.

“Houthis are now going to rule Sanaa using fear,” al-Rawhani said. “They are going to use that fear with the tribes.”

Despite their territorial advantage, the Houthis lack the ability to govern, which is why they maintained their fragile alliance with Saleh and his party, experts noted.

“They know they are fighters, not administrators,” Joost Hiltermann, International Crisis Group’s Middle East programme director, told Al Jazeera.

“They are strong militarily, but otherwise they have no real means of governing,” he said. “This is going to be the new challenge for the Houthis.”

Hiltermann went on to say that it is indisputable that the Houthis will be able to maintain their security apparatus in northern Yemen, but that they need the support of the population, which is now “difficult” to achieve, in order to govern.

The other option on the table, he noted, is for the Houthis to strike a partnership with the country’s “technocrats”.

But a risk looming over the Houthis is the speed at which the existing opposition may act to undermine their presence in Sanaa.

Following Saleh’s death, President Hadi urged Yemenis to rise against the Houthi rebels as violence further escalates in Sanaa.

Hadi called for a “new page” in the battle against the Houthis in a speech carried live on Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya TV late on Monday.

“Let’s put our hands together to end the control of these criminal gangs and build a new united Yemen,” Hadi said from Riyadh, where he lives in self-exile.

From Saleh’s son, who was flown to Riyadh by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to the Saudi-led coalition, the Houthis are facing enemies on multiple fronts.

Speaking to Saudi television on Tuesday, Ahmed Abdullah Saleh vowed to avenge his father’s death. 

“I will lead the battle until the last Houthi is thrown out of Yemen,” he said. “The blood of my father will be hell ringing in the ears of Iran.”

‘Making money by the day’

Another point of strength for the Houthis is their financial control over much of the capital.

“In Yemen, if you have the control of the finances, you have the power,” al-Rawhani said.

“They pay people and fighters full salaries, so we cannot say that the Houthis are weak. They have been very strong on the ground because they have money.”

A major source of income for the Houthis has been the black market in oil. Since rising to power, the Houthis have dismantled the local market, making everything from food to oil sellable underground.

Houthis also imposed their own system of customs, al-Rawhani told Al Jazeera, where taxation on goods arriving from ports they do not control are paid once again when they reach Houthi territory.

“They also made money out of the communication ministry,” he said.

“We cannot say that they are going to run out of finances …They are making money by the day.”

Saudi’s role in Yemen

The advantageous position that the Houthis have secured, from territorial gain to secured finances, makes the notion of a Houthi-Saudi reconciliation farfetched.

“I have a very hard time seeing how the Saudis can now reach out to the Houthis,” Hiltermann said. “How can they sell that at home, to make peace with the Houthis – their sworn enemy and who they see as an Iranian proxy?”

Kinninmont questioned whether Saudi Arabia is promoting a growing military offensive in Sanaa and pressuring the UAE, who have been playing a much more active role in the south, into fighting the Houthis.

“I don’t think Saudi Arabia is desperately keen to resolve the fighting with the Houthis,” she said.

The Saudi-led coalition has in the past few days increased its air raids over the capital and its surrounding areas. The ongoing attacks have so far killed at least 125 people in Sanaa, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

“You cannot win a war with air bombardment … they need ground forces, and they would have to organise,” Hiltermann said about the coalition.

Fragmentation, not partitioning

The future of Yemen, with the north seemingly under Houthi control for now and a strong separatist movement in the south, is not at all solely about territorial divisions managed by a few players.

“The problem in Yemen, as we saw in Iraq and Syria, is not so much a partitioning – but a fragmentation,” Hiltermann said.

“There are many power centres … what we see is a further breakdown of institutions across the board, and conflict centres with different warlords in different places,” he added, which compounds the obstruction of aid flow.

Kinninmont agreed.

“There are a lot of groups who are aligning with each other, but they’re not exactly lining up behind the Houthis or Hadi or Ali Mohsen,” she said. “It’s a lot messier than that.”

If peace talks eventually take place, the entire approach to Yemen will have to change to reflect the players.

“There will need to be something that will capture the broader range of movements,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera