The ungovernable Yemen

Yemen’s Houthis must know where to draw a line in their demands to ensure stability.

A Houthi fighter guards a street leading to the presidential palace in Sanaa [EPA]

Nothing comes easy for Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East. Unlike its neighbours elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen lacks the energy resources and infrastructure necessary to drive economic growth and social change. Add to that mix, decades of poor governance, chronic corruption, competing tribal politics that oftentimes end in bloodshed, a secession movement in the south, and Yemen’s future looks even bleaker.

Last September, Houthi rebels – taking advantage of a general nationwide feeling of economic and social malaise made even worse by government cuts in fuel subsidies – caught the world off guard when they swept into the capital city of Sanaa from the north and brought President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi‘s regime to its knees in a matter of just days. The Houthis, as you recall, are members of the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam, a small minority in an otherwise Sunni majority country. Their rise to power was as swift as it was unexpected. Things just haven’t been the same for the old guard since.

After forcing the resignation of Yemen’s prime minister last fall, the Houthis rejected Hadi’s first choice of a replacement outright. Determined to regain the power and influence in Yemen’s north that their ancestors held for centuries before the 1962 revolution, the Houthis demanded a say in how Yemen would be governed, and the president wasn’t in a position to say no.

Houthis lost patience

Frustrated with what they perceived as Hadi’s inability to govern, the Houthis lost patience quickly. In the last week, they took control of the state-run television station, kidnapped Hadi’s chief of staff, forced the prime minister to go into hiding and seized a number of military bases. Then they surrounded and took control of the presidential palace – with Hadi still in it.

Yemen president quits amid worsening crisis

From the outside, it would appear the Houthis are in an all out effort to topple the central government in what would amount to a coup. In actuality, their intent isn’t quite so ambitious – at least not yet. Yemen is too fragmented for any one party to take complete control of the government, and the Houthis are astute enough to realise that.

They can, however, be the dominant political force, and have demonstrated repeatedly for the last several months that they have both the capability and intent to use military means to achieve that end.

They also have a strong and charismatic leader, Abdel-Malik al-Houthi, who actually has some appeal across tribal lines, particularly when blasting the slow pace of reform in the Hadi government and the military’s lack of aggressiveness or success in fighting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Houthis, by the way, have shown no hesitation whatsoever in striking at AQAP head on.

Following a tense several-day standoff in the capital, the Houthis and Hadi appeared to have reached a compromise last Wednesday. Hadi was to remain president, but only because of additional concessions to the Houthis. However, in an astonishing acknowledgement of political defeat, Hadi, his cabinet and the prime minister all resigned the very next day. Parliament has called for an emergency session, where they are likely to reject the resignations.

Looming battle

So what is it the Houthis actually want at this point? To begin with, they vehemently oppose Hadi’s draft constitution that would divide Yemen into six administrative regions, thus assuring that no one group becomes a dominant political power. Instead, look for the Houthis to push for the country to be divided into two regions – north and south.

By doing so, they are in a much better position to consolidate their power and maintain control of the north, to include the capital city of Sanaa. What happens in the south is of secondary concern to the Houthis. Besides, they can ill afford to stretch their resources too far by moving in that direction, especially with a looming battle against AQAP that they figure to play prominently in. The Houthis will also force a power sharing deal with Hadi or his successor that puts more of their members into key military and security service leadership positions.

For now, the Houthis remain the dominant political and military force in Yemen, and it doesn’t appear they’re going to relinquish that role any time soon. But what happens next? The best-case scenario is a power sharing agreement between the Houthis and Hadi or his successor that puts Yemen on a path towards some semblance of stability.

Assuming regime reforms can be implemented that significantly curtail corruption, improve governance and address the endemic issues of poverty and resource depletion for starters, the Houthi influence might just be Yemen’s best chance for survival. But that could also take years to achieve, and if there’s one thing history has shown when it comes to Yemen, it’s that leaders come and go, but the problems seem to remain constant.

Less desirable scenarios

Under the category of less desirable scenarios, there are several, all of which may very well happen. First, Houthi successes in the north may further embolden the Southern Separatist Movement or al-Hirak in their long sought-after goal of an independent South Yemen.

If that transpires, stand by for a prolonged and costly civil war. Second, a never-ending power struggle between different competing parties that keeps the country embroiled in a bloody domestic conflict – something Yemen has seen too much of already.

The third scenario, which is already happening, has AQAP taking advantage of the standoff in Sanaa to expand and consolidate their control in Yemen’s oil-rich Marib province. AQAP, which has taken responsibility for the recent attacks in Paris, remains a significant national security threat to Yemen, as well as other regional and western countries.

And then there’s the very real potential for sectarian conflict. Remember, the Houthis are from the Shia branch of Islam, while the vast majority of Yemenis are Sunnis. Now that the Houthis are in a much stronger position to influence Yemeni politics, there is a higher probability for some degree of resistance, to include violence, from those Sunni tribes aligned against them. And don’t put it past AQAP to do what they can to cause a sectarian conflict either.

One last scenario to consider is that Yemen serves as a geopolitical pawn in the strategic rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional power and influence. While some may argue that the case against Iran’s interests there is questionable, there is no doubt that the Saudis do consider the Houthis’ rise to power a direct result of Iranian backing. No telling where that may lead.

The sudden rise of the Houthis last fall put Yemen on a trajectory towards political change that may never have come about otherwise. For the time being at least, they remain the dominant political and military force in a country that might just be ungovernable. Governance requires compromise. The question now is: Will the Houthis know where to draw the line in making demands, or will they go too far? If the latter occurs, look for Yemen to go quickly down the path towards chaos and disintegration. And if that happens, no one wins. Nothing comes easy for Yemen.

Martin Reardon is a senior vice president with The Soufan Group, a New York-based strategic security and intelligence consultancy, and senior director of Qatar International Academy for Security Studies. He is a 21-year veteran of the FBI, and specialised in counterterrorism operations.