The domestic power struggle between sectarian factions and political forces in Yemen seems to have shifted in favour of the Shi’a Houthis and their militia Ansar Allah (‘Partisans of God’), who have recently overrun the capital Sana’a, forcing the government to resign and President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to give the go-ahead for major political concessions.
On 21 September, the government dominated by the Sunni al-Islah party stepped down. On 13 October, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi appointed Khaled Bahah as Prime Minister. Bahah was designated by the Houthis’ political bureau as the “right person” to lead the government, and his appointment came just a few days after the Shi’a movement strongly opposed the candidacy of Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak. President Hadi appeared to have no choice but to approve a rapid government reshuffle, with the aim of reaching a political compromise with Ansar Allah. On top of that, on 14 October the group sized control of the strategic Red Sea city port of Hodeida.
Whilst it is widely acknowledged that Iran has sponsored and financed Ansar Allah for years, and particularly its recent ascent, there exist widespread allegations over the role that former President Ali Abdullah Saleh has played in facilitating the Houthis’ takeover of the capital. If these allegations are to be proven correct, it would rather ironically shed light on the intertwined personal interests in the region, that go far beyond the seemingly exclusively sectarian nature of relations there.
Between 2004 and 2010 the Houtis engaged in several battles with the central authority in Sana’a, and fought with Saleh’s forces. What is more, they also actively participated in the so-called Yemeni Arab Spring, which led to the toppling of the Saleh regime in 2011. During his time in office, President Saleh harshly repressed the Houthis, who were generally perceived as an obscure and insignificant group from a peripheral northern region, with no clear-cut political project. Moreover, the Houthis were traditionally held under control in order to meet the security concerns of Saudi Arabia. The Shi’a group claimed to be the protector of the Zaydi doctrinal tradition against the influence of Saudi Wahhabism; being located in the northern Saada province, at the border with Saudi Arabia, Ryad has been highly concerned about having a Shi’a Iran-sponsored militia at its frontiers.
In 2011, King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia orchestrated a power transition from President Saleh to his vice-President Hadi. However, in recent months the kingdom seems to have lost its usual capacity to coordinate the sequence of political events in the neighbouring country. This came as a result of the Muslim Brotherhood-affilaited Islah party distancing itself from the kingdom, and Ryad’s general perception of having lost all possible allies in Yemen.
Former President Saleh seems to have taken advantage of the political confusion in the Gulf and the weakness of President Hadi and his allies to try to gain influence in the country, and possibly to pave the way for his son, currently Yemen’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, to become the next President, thus reinstating his long-standing patrimonial rule.
In recent months the Houthis have surprising observers by being able to reverse the political status quo of the country and during their march towards Sana’a tribes loyal to the former President Saleh have not hindered their advancement. However, this move has ignited tensions between the Houthis and their Sunni opponents: the Ahmar family, the military wing led by Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Salafi fighters and the Islah party, and – more recently – the Yemeni-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is suspected to be behind the two suicide bombs that left nearly 70 people dead on 8 October 2014.
After President Hadi was forced to go down the road of compromising with the Houthis, and against the backdrop of the quasi civil war that is ravaging the country, he commented: “You have to know that conspiracy is beyond any imagination. We were stabbed and we were betrayed from inside Yemen and outside”. He also added: “it is a cross-border plot where many forces are allied together”.
While the Houthis’ agenda is unlikely to follow in the same footsteps of the deposed raìs, and while Iran’s backing has been crucial in making the Houthis’ gains significant, it is also likely that, by using the Houthis’ card, Saleh is trying to undermine the new political forces in order to reinstate his own loyalists. This would definitely not be surprising in a country, whose long-standing civil war has been a story of shifting alliances and compromises among domestic actors, political players and tribal groups, for the sake of personalistic short-term interests.