Over the past year, the seemingly impossible has occurred. Firstly, the region reeled at the occupation of huge swathes of Iraqi and Syrian territory by the so-called “Islamic State,” which began life as a small group of disgruntled Iraqi remnants of the Saddam era partnered with anti-government tribes numbering no more than 10,000. And now we learn that a Yemeni Shiite minority has succeeded in taking over Yemen, a reality that almost beggars belief!
What a strange and fragile region this is when a comparative handful of insurgents can’t be easily defeated by the military apparatus of a functioning state.
On Friday, a Houthi militia unilaterally disbanded parliament and inserted a presidential council in its place, a move that isn’t going well with the majority Sunni population. On Saturday, people responded by taking to the streets to protest in almost all major Yemeni cities when they came under attack by Houthi gunmen and thugs.
Following years of civil unrest that led to the exit of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who held the top job for 22 years, the country has been mired in chaos, violence, terrorism and extreme poverty and one doesn’t need to read tea leaves to predict there is worse to come. The forced resignation of Saleh’s successor, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in what has been described as a coup, may have finally driven Yemen over the cliff edge. Terrorist organizations, such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, will no doubt be firing their guns in celebration as I write.
The Houthis have given terrorists a propaganda gift that will no doubt elicit queues of eager new recruits lining up to join the fight. Furthermore, the likelihood of a sectarian civil war has expanded exponentially, which could have the knock-on effect of once again slashing Yemen into two or possibly three. The Houthi head honcho, Abdel Malik Al-Houthi, wasted no time in installing himself in the presidential palace and is now doing his utmost to reach out to all Yemeni citizens and political parties, but judging from their negative reaction thus far, his “moderate” message is falling on deaf ears. Sunni militants and tribes are unlikely to fall into line when Shiites make-up just 35 percent of the population. “This historic and responsible initiative is in the interests of the country . . . because it fills a political vacuum” and is in the interest of all Yemenis without exception,” was Houthi’s message even as his armed thugs were manning checkpoints and roughing-up citizens daring to protest.
An unstable Yemen is bad news, indeed, for the Gulf region. Saudi Arabia has bolstered its impoverished neighbor for years with financial and material support in terms of energy in the hope of saving Yemen from becoming a violence-ravaged failed state—and, indeed, has funded Yemen to the tune of some $4 billion since 2011. Last month, a spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, Mohammed Albasha, revealed to CNN that without Saudi assistance, “Yemen will become a failed state.” The idea that wealthy Sunni states will rush forward with open check books to prop-up a leadership that pays allegiance to their regional rival, Iran, isn’t worth pondering. As ever, the victims are the ordinary Yemeni people, over half of whom (53 million) subsist below the poverty line of $2 per day, according to the 2014 Poverty Plan issued by the United Nations. Moreover, 45 percent are judged malnourished and life expectancy remains an average of just 64, as opposed 78.74 in the US, 81.50 in the UK and 75.50 years-old in Saudi Arabia. Unemployment overall stands at 40 percent and 60 percent of youth are without a job. Unless its new leadership’s Iranian ally is prepared to step into the breach amounting to billions of dollars, those statistics will become even more shocking.
On Saturday, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) described the Houthi “coup” as a blow to the peace process that will plunge Yemen into a “dark tunnel,” adding, the power grab amounts to a threat to the security and stability of the region . . .” GCC member states will do all they can to protect their interests and has asked the international community to assist in bringing the crises to an end. Iran, on the other hand, has thus far been oddly silent on the news, perhaps because at a time when negotiations are under way with the P5+1 on its uranium enrichment program, it doesn’t want to be viewed as rubbing salt into the wound.
Likewise, the White House has yet to come out with a statement. America’s Arab allies should not expect to hear harsh rhetoric from US officials because, if Doyle McManus, writing in the Los Angeles Times is to be believed, the US is “courting the Houthis” as a lesser evil than Al-Qaeda and has recently been attempting to get in touch with Houthi leaders to send the message that the US does not consider them as America’s enemy. In short, GCC states cannot count on the West; the question is where will they go from here?
Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.