In recent months, the Gulf Cooperation Council has watched with increasing concern as events in Yemen spiral out of control. Two developments in the first few days of 2015 alone highlight the urgency of the situation.
According to a report by a Yemeni think-tank, the Abaad Centre for Strategic Studies, Shia Houthi rebels control some 70 percent of the army’s capabilities, and the political transition following the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh has failed. Furthermore, the Houthis are threatening to capture the oil-rich Marib province.
Following sweeping military advances last year, they control Yemen’s capital and swathes of the country, including parts of the Sunni heartland. After long-held grievances over their community’s marginalisation, the Houthis have achieved unprecedented political sway as kingmakers in the present government. Capturing Marib would greatly bolster their economic influence.
Scenarios and consequences
The GCC faces several scenarios, all unpleasant. The Houthis could further extend their control over Yemen. A country long regarded as the GCC’s sphere of influence could become a satellite state of regional arch-rival Iran, which has been increasingly vocal about its support for the Houthis.
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Another scenario is that Yemen cements its status as a failed state as it descends into all-out civil war, with various parties – the Houthis, Sunni tribes, al-Qaeda and government forces – fighting each other. The country could break apart, as Houthi advances galvanise a southern secessionist movement, and the warring parties try to maintain their respective areas of control.
The GCC could face direct consequences from any of the aforementioned scenarios. Violence could spill over into neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which shares a long and porous border, and has previously fought the Houthis.
Shia control, if not greater influence, in Yemen could also inflame sectarian tensions within GCC states as Shia communities press their rights, particularly in Bahrain, eastern Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been galvanised by Houthi advances, with Yemenis joining its ranks, and Sunni tribes that once fought against it now joining forces against a common enemy.
As AQAP targets Yemeni authorities as well as the Houthis, a jihadist resurgence poses a regional security headache. This is particularly true for Riyadh, which has waged a years-long domestic campaign against al-Qaeda, and is trying stop its citizens going abroad to join jihadist groups.
The turmoil in Yemen could lead to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) establishing a foothold there. Like al-Qaeda, ISIL portrays itself as a bulwark against Shia expansionism, so Yemen could provide fertile ground. Furthermore, the US-led campaign in Iraq and Syria – of which Gulf states are a part – has led the two organisations to bury their differences and threaten coalition members.
The GCC has issued joint and individual statements condemning Houthi and Iranian influence in Yemen. A joint statement of interior ministers said their countries would not “stand idly” in the face of foreign intervention, and “Yemeni and GCC security is indivisible”. However, the Council’s options are limited and risky.
There are recent reports that GCC states have suspended economic aid, which is a lifeline for poverty-stricken Yemen. Military aid has also reportedly been halted. The rationale behind this may be two-fold: to avoid money and weapons falling into Houthi hands as they increasingly control state institutions; and to ward off state and public cooperation with the rebels.
Suspending aid considerably weakens the state, thereby empowering the Houthis as well as al-Qaeda. It also does nothing to limit Iranian support for the Houthis, which may increase to fill the gap, giving Tehran even greater leverage.
However, suspending aid considerably weakens the state, thereby empowering the Houthis as well as al-Qaeda. It also does nothing to limit Iranian support for the Houthis, which may increase to fill the gap, giving Tehran even greater leverage. In addition, the loss of Gulf aid may anger the Yemeni public if it views this as collective punishment rather than a targeted measure against a minority group.
A military response is not a credible option. The situation in Yemen is far different and much more complex than in Bahrain, which GCC troops entered in 2011 at the monarchy’s request.
There are no calls within Yemen for foreign military intervention. Bahrain is a GCC member, so the perceived collective need, or duty, to respond is greater than with non-member Yemen. Bahrain is more geographically central to the other Council states, 690 times smaller in land mass and 18 times smaller in population.
Manama’s authority was still largely intact prior to its neighbours’ entry, unlike Sanaa’s, and the success of the GCC’s intervention was assured because Bahraini opposition was unarmed. In Yemen, however, the warring parties are well-supplied and battle-hardened. Gulf troops would end up fighting not just the Houthis and al-Qaeda, but tribes and other forces opposed to foreign intervention.
In addition to the multi-layered divisions in the country, this means that any foreign military involvement would result either in outright failure or in a long-term quagmire that would be costly, domestically unpopular, and likely to result in “blowback”. The relatively stable Gulf monarchies would be keen to avoid these risks.
The GCC is aware of its limited options, as are the Houthis and Iran. As such, we are likely to see continued condemnatory statements, as well as punitive economic measures whose effectiveness is questionable. The Gulf states are reluctant spectators in their own backyard. The best they can aim for, given current circumstances, is to limit spill-over rather than directly influence events in Yemen.
Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English, Al Arabiya News, The National, The Middle East magazine and the Middle East Eye.