There are few historical coincidences as ironic as the simultaneous occurrence, last week, of the resignation of Yemeni President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the death of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.
The recent takeover of power by the Shi’a Houthi movement had been one of the major anathemas in Abdullah’s life. After the Houthi’s Ansar Allah (‘Partisans of God’) occupied the Yemeni capital Sana’a in September 2014, forcing the government to resign, their ascendance has been overwhelming. As a result, Saudi Arabia has completely lost control over its neighbouring country, after a long tradition of political indirect patronage, fuelled by personal clientelist relations. Saudi’s last residual share of influence on Yemen withered away with the resignation of President Hadi, the trustworthy man of Ryad.
President Hadi’s resignation came after it became de facto impossible for him to exert his authority, as by now the Houthis control a share of the Yemeni territory stretching from Sa’ada, at the northern border with Saudi Arabia, to the southern province of Thamar. That said, he does not lack popular support. On 24 January around 10,000 people took the streets to protest against his decision to step back, thus formally accepting the Houthis’ coup d’état.
In the meantime, some reported that the international community has already started talks with the young and charismatic leader of the movement, Abdel Malik al-Houthi. If true, this would also explain why President Hadi – once backed by US and Saudi diplomacies – has hastened his resignation. Nonetheless, the political impasse that is afflicting the country is nowhere near approaching its end. On the contrary, new and old dynamics are dangerously merging to create an explosive cocktail.
Ansar Allah’s triumph over Sana’a has been generally depicted as one of the many ‘hot’ proxy wars between the two rival Middle Eastern powers – Saudi Arabia and Iran – that are fighting a Cold War for the regional leadership. Yet, it is not a mystery that the sophisticated weapons in the hands of Ansar Allah militants are of Iranian origin, and that Teheran’s funding of the Houthis increased tremendously after 2011 at the peak of the Saudi-Iranian Cold War. The Houthis are also depicted as a Yemeni Hezbollah, the main proxy ally of Iran in the region – although their organisation and their ambitions sharply differ from those of the Lebanese ‘Party of God’.
In the same vein, some have provided a sectarian explanation for the current political turmoil in Yemen, claiming that the current impasse is the outcome of the fitna between the Sunnis and the Shi’a in the Middle East.
President Hadi is a Sunni from the southern province of Abyan, among the most active regions of Yemen, reviving irredentist claims of secession from the north. However, it would be reductive to see southern secessionist stances as a mere reaction to Houtis’ advancement. In fact, this claim goes back to South Yemen’s ‘persistent objections’ to the unification of the country in 1990, cyclically reviving during periods of Yemen’s long-standing instability. In addition, what is further exacerbating tensions in the South is al-Qaeda’s attempt to take advantage of the unprecedented weakness of the central authority. The ambiguity of the US, and the general fear over the future of the country, has also pushed many in the Gulf to sustain some radical Sunni Islamist militias, in the hope of pushing back the Shi’a Iran-sponsored Houthis.
The elephant in the room here remains the former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh. In another blog post, we highlighted the pernicious role that Saleh has been playing in fostering and aggravating the current political blockage. Forced to resign from power in 2011, under the pressure of a notorious ‘informal’ US-Saudi joint effort to placate the popular uprisings, Saleh tried to take his revenge, through further destabilizing the country. In so doing, the ex-President has mainly relied on the many military and political figures – his “deep state” – that survived his departure.
Saleh’s political gambling aims at preparing the rise of his son to the presidency. Many officers and key tribal leaders, still loyal to him, still support his project. The paradox is that, in spite of the sectarian narratives, Saleh and his loyal basis have allied with the bitterest enemies (the Houthis) of their new enemies (President Hadi and his Saudi-backed political entourage). This is happening in spite of the fact the Saleh harshly repressed the Houthis during the period of his presidency.
Sectarian narratives are informing the fabric of the current Yemeni domestic conflict, and have undoubtedly played a role in galvanising militants. However, by delving deeper into the layers of a complex reality, what is once again fracturing Yemen seems to be mainly a cynical Machiavelian game, leaving little room for religiously motivated stances, while magnifying pragmatic personal interests.