Yemen's frail faultlines

The seizure of power in Sanaa by Houthi rebels has alerted the world to the crisis in Yemen. But it never really went away.

Aaron Edwards
6 March 2015

That was then: President Hadi (left), now under house arrest, assuming the reins from his authoritarian predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in 2013. Demotix / Saleh Maglam. All rights reserved.

In the wake of the recent turbulence in Yemen, reports of a country ‘on the brink’ have become commonplace. Yet Yemen has never really been stable—and, indeed, the whiggish idea that the Arab Spring in some ways prompted an open embrace of Western democracy there has been exposed as an illusion.

The United Nations and international powers, such as the US, UK and Russia, clearly support a political transition from autocratic rule towards a more representative system of government, to restore peace and security in Yemen. Less clear, however, is the role regional powers in the Middle East are playing in the unfolding drama in the Arabian peninsula.

Historically, the UN left Yemenis to resolve their own problems. In 1967 the UN Mission to South Yemen visited Aden with a view to the dismantling of British colonialism, as a prelude to self-rule. But the mission showed palpable disrespect for local tribal rulers and, after half-hearted meetings with armed opposition groups, its members left in a hurry without bothering to help draft a tangible plan.

Amid civil war in North Yemen, the UN again opted out of seeking to end the violence peacefully and ignored the wishes of two major regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The instability favoured the Egyptians, who continued to sponsor the Movement for Arab Nationalists and its associated armed groups across the region.

Over the next 20 years Riyadh would continue to pay stipends to the northern Yemeni Arab Republic and, after he rose to power in 1978, Ali Abdullah Saleh would continue to fall in line with Saudi hostility to the southern Marxists. Conversely, Moscow would continue to back the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), its surrogate in the south, which would be further backed by Tehran after the Iranian revolution of 1979. By 1990 the two Yemens had come together in a union which reflected the end of the cold war and the termination of Moscow’s support for separate regimes.

Given what we know of Saudi Arabian and Iranian influences in other parts of the Middle East, it is unsurprising that we should hear contending narratives from Riyadh and Tehran as to the direction Sanaa should now take.

Capital captured

In January Houthi rebels, drawn from Zaidi Shia Muslims, stormed the capital from the north and defeated the meagre military forces defending the city. Having captured the presidential palace and placed the president, Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi, under house arrest, they formed a council of representatives twice the size of the National Dialogue Committee (NCC), which had been sponsored by the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) as a vehicle for charting a political transition.

The rebels’ problem is that any political process they might engender would be unacceptable to the broad mass of the population, north and south. Their seizure of power has done nothing to unite the country and endangers the regionally-backed initiatives towards national reconciliation.

What the Houthi coup has done is to channel through Yemen the wider conflict between Shia and Sunni across the Middle East. It threatens to reinforce the tribal faultines underpinning Yemeni society and politics, and to bring closer a renewed split between north and south.

Proxy war

In September last year Ali Reza Zakani, a representative of the Iranian parliament, reportedly said: “Three Arab capitals have today ended up in the hands of Iran and belong to the Islamic Iranian revolution.” Sanaa, he went on to claim, was the fourth, now considered well on its way into Tehran’s sphere of influence. While there is ample evidence to suggest a raging proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran in Yemen, how far this is the case on the ground is however questionable.

Historically, the UN left Yemenis to resolve their own problems.

The Iranians undoubtedly see the current instability as an opportunity to squeeze the Saudis. At the very least they are sending money and at worst they control the Houthis as ‘useful idiots’—as Lenin would have put it—to create problems in Saudi Arabia’s backyard. Far from seeing their ‘bogeyman’ reputation as a disadvantage in international relations, the Iranians like to capitalise on it: if nothing else it permits them to sow confusion in the minds of their opponents.

Most comment so far about Iran’s role, typifying popular media tropes of antagonism and belligerence, has however come from Arab and Sunni-ruled states. And Iran is a very convenient country to blame for everything, even though a lot of the trouble can be traced to indigenous roots. Nevertheless, it has stepped up involvement in capacity-building programmes for youth and women’s groups and covertly supplied arms to the Houthis in northern Yemen.


We must, therefore, be careful when assessing the prospects for sectarian conflict in the Middle East, particularly since religious motivation is not such a clear-cut influence on state behaviour in the region. In a world where Realpolitik rules supreme, Iran will do whatever it takes to preserve its position as a regional power and will, therefore, seek to weaken potential opponents by subterfuge and intrigue, undermining their credibility on the world stage.

For Saudi Arabia the Yemen conflict continues to raise alarm. But the antagonism between Riyadh and the Houthis is tempered by the reality that Yemen requires money to keep functioning as a viable state—as even the Houthis have recognised in recent weeks.

Yemen will continue along its path of instability until a viable process is found to resolve its outstanding problems. The perennial question remains: how should power be distributed fairly in a society wracked by tribalism, religious sectionalism, secessionism, terrorism and regional-power interests?

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