Yemen in Play (Round Two) and Saudi Arabia Fears (of being caught in an ISIS pincer movement)

Conflicts Forum Weekly Comment, 5 September

The Prime Minister has resigned; the government has been dismissed; Sana'a streets are filled with tens of thousand Houthi protesters and their Sunni alies; roads are blocked and the Interim President Abed Rabbo Hadi is looking distinctly vulnerable, as his his proposals for resolving the crisis and forming a new government have been roundly rejected by the protestors "as not enough".  Houthi spokesmen said that a ritual 'cry' from the rooftops of Sana'a on Thursday evening would mark the 'third phase of escalation', and represent their complete rejection of fuel price increases (as usual, a part of an IMF 'reform' programme), and of 'the corrupt government'.

In short, the Hadi tribal grouping of the Houthi (named after Hussein al-Houthi, who was killed by the government in 2004 - at the begining of the six year war against then President Saleh's attempt to crush the movement) has staged a remarkable renaissance, a renewal sufficient for the movement to have achieved domination of the north of Yemen (the governates of Sa'ada and Amran - and effectively the capital too though they have not sought Sana'a's takeover - for now).  The Zaidi Shiites are a substantial community in mainly Sunni Yemen (representing some 40 - 45% of the population) and they form a solid majority in the northern highlands, including the Sanaa region. They were a key component to the protests that overthrew President Saleh in 2012.

Despite the claims that the Houthi are seeking a government takeover or planning to mount a military coup, the movement has been careful to be restrained in its demands. It is not asking to lead the government (it is not even seeking cabinet portfolios for itself).  It is demanding only that the petrol price-hike (of 15%) be overturned and that fuel prices be returned to pre-2011 levels; and that the government's plans for a new six-region federation be cancelled.  They also reject Interim President Hadi's initiative for a unity government under which he would appoint all the key  'strategic' cabinet ministers, but with cessationist representatives from the South and the Houthi sharing in government too. For most protestors, Hadi's initiative amounts to 'more of the same'. and is therefore unacceptable.  The Houthi restraint has broadened the base of the protests, though one tribe loyal to Hadi (the Harith) has taken to the streets in Sana'a in support of the President.

The Houthis have achieved this position of 'king-maker' in Sana'a, after having defeated Saleh's efforts to Wahhabise the (the Houthi dominated) Sa'ada governate (ousting the Zaidi imams, and replacing them by Wahhabi-orientated preachers); after fighting off a Saudi Border Guard attack in 2009 (reportedly inflicting heavy casualties on the Saudi forces); and after having deafeated the Muslim Brother orientated Islah Party, which is now said by knowledgeable commentators to be a 'broken reed' politically.

The Houthis (or Ansar Allah are part of the Shia Zaidi), and believe that Muslims should be ruled only by their Imams as has been the case for more than 1,000 years - a rule that ended only in 1962. The ideological differences between the Zaidis and the Sunni Shafi'i majority however are not great. Both sects harmoniously lived together and prayed in the same mosques for hundreds of years, and many Shafi'i Sunnis side with the Houthi in their dislike of the Muslim Brothers (Islah) and the Salafists .

The Saudi fear is that the Houthis - by effectively overturning the Transitional Arrangements imposed on Yemen by a grouping of six Gulf States, and which effectively allowed for a continuation of the old Saleh 'order', but under a new interim President - will exacerbate instability; will weaken the government's commitment to fight anti-Saudi elements; and will allow Da'ish to create the space in Yemen - through which the latter can pressure the Kingdom from Iraq on one side, and from Yemen in the other.

Behind this anxiety, lies a further Saudi worry that the Houthi campaign is unravelling the carefully set-in-place Saudi structures of support which the Saudis have cultivated (and financially primed) over preceeding years - and further, that Houthi assertiveness and anti-government sentiment is likely to instigate the (Shi'i 'Severner') Ismailis (who lie across the strategic border land, which was formerly Yemeni, but was 'taken' by the Saudis) to emulate this revived Houthi activism.

The Salafisation campaign in the north (supported by the Saudis) has already been rolled-back by the Houthis (although other pro-Saudi and pro Qatari Salafist movements elsewhere still remain active); Islah which, too, was funded (through certain individuals by Saudi Arabia, with others - to Saudi Arabia's ire - funded by Qatar) is now both divided (with some pro-Saudi and other pro-Qatari elements), and is weak. The (Sunni) tribes forming the cessationist South remain resolutely hostile to Saudi Arabia and the government in Sana'a (and consquently are close to the Houthis) and largely are beyond the Saudi reach - as are the Ismailis.

The key then, if the Sana'a government is to fall to Houthi (Shi'i) effective control, what will happen to the forces which until now have been termed 'al-Qae'da' - and which effectively control aproximately of governate of terrain (i.e. a substantial landbase)?  This is the Saudi worry.  Saudi Arabia does have a lien into al-Qae'da Yemen, but by no means into all of it (perhaps less than half of it).  Will Da'ish (ISIS) seize the chance to co-opt the part of so-called 'al-Qae'da' in Yemen which may be available to pledge its allegiance to the Caliph in Mosul?  This would be to have ISIS located precisely at the soft underbelly of the Kingdom.  Time will tell. But perhaps the best answer to Da'ish would be for the Saudis (and their western allies) to accomodate into the Houthi demands, rather than portray them as radical militants.