How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
On March 27, the day after the Saudi air attacks on Yemen started, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s former president who had been ousted during the Arab Spring, offered to negotiate a political settlement between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, but the efforts went nowhere. On the 17th day of Saudi air raids, Saleh tried again, sending his emissary, former Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, on a diplomatic trip to the Gulf to push for a new round of talks.
Many suspect Saleh of using the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, to regain power. For example, in July 2014 Saleh used his influence among the tribes in Amran, a city in northern Yemen, to help the Houthis overturn the Ahmar family’s leadership of the Hashid tribal confederation. Saleh is also thought to have used his influence over the Yemeni military to get troops to stand down as the Houthis marched to Sanaa in September.
Saleh was not always aligned with the Houthis. In fact, Saleh fought six wars against the Houthis between 2004 and 2010. In the 1980s, when he and his party, the General People’s Congress, were coming to power, they instead worked with forces that eventually became the Islah Party, which was Yemen’s largest and best-organized opposition group until the recent rise of the Houthis. With Islah and the General People’s Congress in hand, Saleh dominated Yemen’s political scene. But it didn’t last. His alliance with Islah, which was strained after the war in 1994 when Saleh distanced himself from his Islamist allies, finally broke during the Arab Spring when the group sided with the protesters calling for Saleh to step down.
As Yemen threatened to descend into civil war, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) fashioned an interim government, which patched together a power-sharing agreement between the feuding old Yemeni elites in the General People’s Congress and Islah and removed Saleh from office. However, the interim president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, failed to govern effectively—unable to provide security and basic public goods such as electricity and fuel. With oil production declining, the state faced a fiscal crisis that Hadi’s government failed to address, and the economy slipped into a precipitous decline.
Although as interim president Hadi received internal backing, his poor governance proved a foothold for Saleh. He attacked his former allies in the Islah Party, and by partnering with the Iran-backed Houthis, he brought in Tehran as a counterweight to Riyadh, which favored Islah. Saleh’s alliance with the Houthis, like his previous accord with Islah, is one of convenience rather than ideology, however. Now having toppled his enemies, Saleh is apparently distancing himself from the Houthis. For example, he recently made an offer to the Saudi-led coalition to retire the Houthis to its heartland in the far north. That would represent a complete reversal for the group and leave Saleh at the center of Yemen’s political future. Of course, the Houthis rejected this demand because it would be a huge defeat. The Houthis took Sanaa and most of the western portions of the country, and Saleh’s proposal would have them withdraw from all of their territorial gains.
The odds are against Saleh and his power gamble. The UN has imposed sanctions on him, and there are calls to bring him to trial for violence against Arab Spring protesters in 2011. (Saleh had originally received immunity under the GCC agreement because he stepped down from power.) Europe, Saudi Arabia, the UN, and the United States all recognize Hadi as the legitimate leader of Yemen and want Saleh out. Domestically, the Houthis’ military incursion into the south of Yemen to capture Hadi, who had fled to the seaport city of Aden, has galvanized resistance against the Houthis in the country’s southern and eastern regions. It has also healed, at least temporarily, the deep political rifts in southern Yemen. For example, the former president of South Yemen, Ali Salim al-Beidh, who was also vice president under Saleh after north-south unification in 1990, is an Iranian-backed leader of al Hirak, the southern independence movement. But al-Beidh belatedly welcomed the Saudi air raids because the south is united in resisting Houthis’ control. In the course of doing so, though, he presumably lost his Iranian backing and will now be forced to look for a new source of support.
The Houthis’ military operations in Yemen have also pushed al Hirak to ally with its formal rival, the popular committees, irregular militias composed of tribesmen and former soldiers of the southern military organized by Hadi in 2012 to oust al Qaeda from Abyan Province. Al Hirak may have opposed Hadi’s declaration in late March that Aden would serve as Yemen’s temporary capital while the Houthis controlled Sanaa, but al Hirak has joined with the popular committees to push back against the Houthis’ advance on Aden. The southern military force fighting the Houthis is slowly becoming more coherent and united. As it does, Hadi is becoming a symbolic leader, his incompetence as interim president largely forgotten. Once the south is liberated from the Houthis’ control, however, the question of southern independence may again divide Hadi’s supporters from al Hirak.
THE SAUDI’S GAMBLE
Saleh may be facing long odds, but so is Saudi Arabia in its gamble to forcibly remove the former president and push back the Houthis. In his latest efforts to rally support, Ahmed Asiri, the official spokesperson of the Saudi-led coalition forces, called on Yemen’s tribes to stand up against the Houthi militias by threatening to target anyone harboring the Houthis and its allies. In doing so, the Saudis are perhaps hoping for a tribal awakening against the Houthis in the same way the Iraqi tribes turned on al Qaeda. But that has not yet happened.
Outside of the south, where tribes and militias were already deeply opposed to the Houthis, the Saudi air war has yet to win many new allies. What the Saudis and their international backers forget is that all politics are local, particularly when it comes to tribes in Yemen. These tribes are concerned with practical matters such as security, schools, agriculture, and public health. The Saudi air strikes make no promise to secure a better future for tribal communities.
Tribes are also not political parties. Tribal custom does not oblige tribesmen to follow the leadership of local sheiks as members in a political party are obliged to follow the party line. They make their own decisions about which leaders they support. Consequently, to hold on to the northern tribes, any force would have to make alliances with all the individual leaders.
THE HOUTHIS’ REDOUBT
The Houthis are not in much better shape than Saleh or the Saudis. At first, the group’s authority grew as Hadi’s fell. Two years of an interim government turned into three while the country’s economy and security deteriorated. The Houthis first arrived in the national capital not to take over the government but to install a more competent one. That move was popular across Yemen. However, when the Houthis shifted strategy—from supporting the interim government to trying to take power—it lost backing. When the Houthis put Hadi under house arrest, they destroyed their movement’s legitimacy, except in the north. And then, when the militias made it to the south, local people, including tribesmen, saw them as an occupying force. As resistance in the south solidified and gained traction, more local tribes joined the fight.
The north is a different story, however. There, the Houthis and Saleh’s forces have military control and offer the only coherent leadership. The Islah Party, once positioned to do well in post-transition elections, declined precipitously in power when the Houthis destroyed its offices and ran one of the party’s key affiliates, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the powerful commander of Yemen’s First Armored Brigade, out of Yemen. Mohsen’s forces were considered the military wing of Islah. Yemen’s eastern tribal confederation is close to the Islah Party, but in the north, Islah’s leadership is currently weak. Hadi has no roots in the north. His legitimacy lies in the fact that he symbolizes resistance to the Houthis’ use of force.
Saudi calls for an uprising against the Houthis were well received in the southern and eastern regions of the country, as well as in parts of central Yemen, around Taiz, but in the north outside of Sanaa there is little support. The Saudis are hoping to pound the Houthis into submission, perhaps by driving desperate Yemenis into the opposition, but the Houthis remain a core component of Yemen’s body politic and are not likely to collapse that easily.
In the end, Saleh may be the biggest loser. The military units loyal to Saleh are taking a beating. Although he requested safe passage out of Yemen for himself and his family, a seeming surrender, the Saudis quickly rejected his offer.
As for Yemen’s political future, compromise will be difficult, since the Houthis will not easily forget the Saudi strikes and Hadi’s support for them. But in the long run, only political power sharing among all parties, domestic and foreign—including Saudi Arabia and Iran—will bring some stability to Yemen.