Why Yemen’s Implosion Matters

The Shiite-Houthi takeover of the government in Sanaa is a call to arms for al Qaeda.


There’s a new boss in Sanaa, but for how long that city is the capital of a unified Yemen, no one quite knows. On Thursday, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and Prime Minster Khaled Bahah stepped down, in the face of a Shiite Houthi insurrection that now threatens to dissolve the Yemeni state as we know it. Their resignations came just one day after Hadi bowed to the northern “invaders,” brokering an agreement with them to end their siege of his home, withdraw their militias from the streets and government institutions, and release abducted chief of staff Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak. In return, the government agreed to grant the Houthis the constitutional changes they seek, along with a greater share of power in government and state institutions.

But it’s Yemen’s government itself that may be the greatest casualty. Since the Houthis started their push to power last fall, al Qaeda has exploited the fears of Yemenis who oppose the Shiite group, trying to convince them that it is their natural ally against the Houthis. A sectarian war in Yemen would further strengthen al Qaeda, providing it with more recruits among the disaffected Sunni Yemenis who increasingly view the rise of the Houthis as an existential threat. There are already clear signs of a strengthened al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), including expanded operations and a larger presence across the country.

Southerners have long resented the northern-dominated government, which they believe has historically discriminated against them on everything from political appointments to development projects. The south also never embraced the 1990 unity agreement with the north that created the Yemeni state. These tensions have sparked two armed confrontations, which helped give birth to the independence or secessionist movement (southern factions use both terms). Known as “al-Hirak,” the southern coalition consists of seven different political parties that are roughly united in their quest to build a southern Arab State.

On Jan. 17, the Houthi militia kidnapped Mubarak, the president’s chief of staff, who hails from the southern city of Aden. Houthi tension with Mubarak is well documented: When Hadi — also a southerner — selected him as his prime minister last year, they vetoed his appointment. Mubarak further angered the Houthis by presiding over a new constitution that proposes to divide Yemen into six federal regions. Such an arrangement would leave the Houthis with an overpopulated area stripped of oil and gas deposits, which are concentrated in the south. The Houthi counterproposal: just two regions, a north and a south.

Events soon accelerated. On Jan. 19, Houthi militias attacked the presidential palace, laid siege to a palace where the prime minister had taken refuge, and fought and defeated Hadi’s guards outside his private residence; they fled, and the Houthis took over their positions. That same day, the Houthis seized the state television and the official Saba news agency. The Twitter account of Information Minister Nadia Sakkaf became the government’s sole means of communicating with the outside world. As chaos engulfed Sanaa, reports also surfaced that authorities in the southern capital of Aden had closed off all air, sea, and land access to the governorate of Aden, in a show of solidarity with the president (himself a southerner).

Now that the Houthis have forced out Hadi, they will consolidate their power, a move likely to hasten Yemen’s dissolution. In a fiery speech on Jan. 20, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, the Houthis’ leader, outlined his demands, including a national partnership with “southern and revolutionary parties,” and improved security for people in Marib, a governorate some 120 kilometers east of Sanaa. Why Marib? Its oil fields produce 70 percent of Yemen’s oil and gas. But it is also a region dominated by al Qaeda. Just a week before the Houthis moved on the presidential palace in Sanaa, Marib tribes were mobilizing to prevent Houthi militias from entering their province.

The Houthis, for their part, insist that their sole interest in Marib is defending it from al Qaeda. Everyone else is convinced their true intention is to seize control of its oil resources. The governor of Marib has warned that the Houthis want to destabilize the region and endanger Yemen’s interests, and insists that local government and the citizens of Marib reject their presence. Local tribes there supported now-former President Hadi, and claim he gave “direct directions” to protect the province against the Houthis — described by a tribal leader as “occupiers, invaders, and terrorists.”

In his Jan. 20 speech, al-Houthi said that his revolution knows “no limits.” Indeed, the Houthis are now empowered to further expand their power into pivotal regions in the south, which could split the southern front as some of its members ally with the new dominant force in the country.

So far, the international community has reacted to the Houthis with a mix of alarm and resignation, peppered with words of condemnation. On Jan. 20, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement supporting President Hadi as the “legitimate authority,” and urging Yemeni parties to solve their differences through dialogue. The council also condemned the Houthis’ “recourse to violence,” a statement that the United States supported. But aside from sanctioning two Houthi military officials for “threatening the peace” in Yemen, Washington has not exactly been tough on the rebel movement. The tepid international response will undoubtedly further embolden the Houthis.

The civil war also has regional implications. Abdulaziz Sager, head of the Gulf Research Center, said the Gulf states would regard a Houthi-controlled Yemen as unfriendly, due to its close ties with Tehran. If the rebel movement continues apace, this might leave Gulf states “no other option but to support the independence of the south.”

The specter of “limitless” Houthi ambitions, coupled with still-growing power, could be the last straw for a country that is barely clinging to its very existence. At the very least, it can only portend many more months, and probably years, of violence and fragmentation. Now, Yemen stands on the brink of dissolution.


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