Yemen Shifting from Saudi Arabia
By Rachel Hertzman
February 7, 2014
Washington DC – The Houthi rebels territorial gains this past week of Yemen’s Northern region are indicative of Saudi Arabia’s diminishing hegemony in the region and Iran’s rising star—both at the expense of emergent Yemeni federalism. Since the start of 2014, over 300 people have been killed in the Houthi-Salafi conflict on Yemen’s northern border.
In the last few days, fighting between the factions increased as the house of the prominent tribal leader, Husain Al-Ahmar (Hashed ruling family) was besieged by members of its own tribe, the Hashed, who are more and more aligning themselves with the Houthi cause. Al-Ahmar, who is famously allied with the Saudis and Salafis against the Houthis, reportedly set his own house on fire and fled as the fighting continued. These developments were followed by another ceasefire, mediated by the Yemeni military, on Tuesday, February 4, 2014.
Political pundits have become concerned that larger global issues are represented in the fighting as each side engaged in the conflict accuses the other of foreign backing. The Houthis say the Salafis receive Saudi government money and weapons as well as al-Qaeda manpower and support. The Salafis answer that Iran is funding and providing weapons to the Houthis.
Since Ali Abdullah Saleh’s exit from the presidency in late 2011, the Saudi Kingdom’s direct channel to power and influence in Yemen has waned. As a result, the Saudis increased their security and control over their portion of Yemen and have evacuated hundreds of villages on their side of the border and turned them into no-go zones. These actions indicate the realization of what the Saudis see as an ascendant Iranian influence in the Houthi conflict.
The Saudis also increased their supply of munitions and manipulation of the political scene via Saleh’s ancestral tribe and dominant political faction, — the Hashed to counter the assertive Houthis.
The Hashed tribe is positioning itself on both sides of the Houthi-Salafi conflict. The tribe has become well-known for its influential line of leaders from the Al-Ahmar family who have aligned themselves with Saudi interests and converted from fiver Shi`ism (Zaydism) to Sunnism. Historically though, the Hashed were somewhat capriciously allied with the now defunct Zaydi Imamate. During the emergence of the Yemen Arab Republic in the 1960s, Saudi Arabia, who had once supported the Royalist cause, provided refuge to the family of ousted Imam Yahya—predecessors of the Houthi movement. Saudi Arabia views the Zaydi Houthis as part of a Shi`a threat and expended significant resources on bolstering a counter to their Sa`ada foothold by providing money and weapons as well as Salafi religious proselytization to tribal Northern Yemen and by supporting al-Islah.
Despite the possible global melodrama being played out in the dispute between the Houthis and Salafis, the focus must be on the national Yemeni interest of maintaining stability within national borders. The recently concluded Yemeni National Dialogue Conference put forth an initiative to end the Northern regional conflict. At least two prominent Houthis representatives to the dialogue were assassinated by presumably Saudi backed elements. The killings of Abdulkarim Jadban and Ahmed Sharafeddin bring into question the efficacy of such dialogue.
Although Yemen is renowned for its fierce independence, Yemeni existence is in danger if a cohesive national unity is not achieved. The Yemeni nation has to be seen as a practical alternative to the more destructive possibility of continuing down the road of a weak state backed by various foreign players at odds with one another. Until the Houthis, the Hashed, and the Salafis are presented with this possibility as a practical reality and political betrayal is eliminated, Yemen will fracture into lawless regions rendering Yemen as a failed state.
Policy Recommendation: As the Yemeni-Saudi border becomes an increasingly militarized zone, dispute resolution should focus on resolving local concerns, rather than amplified entanglement in a regional conflict acted out vis-à-vis Yemeni factions.
Rachel Hertzman is a Policy Analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs.