The dissolution of Yemen’s parliament on Friday by the country’s powerful Houthi movement and announcement that it has taken control of the government has deepened the country’s already volatile political situation. The effects are likely to be felt immediately in the region, among regional power centers in Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as in the United States, which has struggled to calibrate a policy response to Yemen’s difficulties while also charting a path against Al-Qaeda in the region.
Yemen has been effectively without a government since the Houthis seized the presidential palace and government ministries, leading to the resignation of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi on Jan. 22. At that point, the Houthis stopped short of declaring a new leader. Hadi had maintained the official support of the United States and European Union, and a 2011 political transition plan drawn up by the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council and supported by the U.S. remained in place.
Friday’s move jettisons that plan, but offers little clarity about Yemen’s political future. The Houthi leadership announced the creation of ad-hoc “revolutionary committees” that would be in charge of appointing Hadi’s successor and forming a new government, but beyond that, it is unknown where Yemen’s political roadmap will lead.
What happens next in the country will depend on how the rest of the world, especially the regional players in the Gulf, react to the Houthi takeover. "This power vacuum is of great concern to us," Stephane Dujarric, a United Nations spokesperson, told reporters on Friday. "The Secretary-General [Ban Ki-moon] and all of those who are concerned with Yemen here are following the situation very cosely."
A Shia minority group within a largely Sunni country, the Houthis have been engaged in an on-and-off war against Yemen’s central government for more than a decade, from the Houthi’s traditional power base in the country’s northwest. While the Houthis say their movement has centered on fighting against discrimination and a greater say in political affairs, their rivals have accused them of being an insurgent group bent on seizing power.
The Houthis are currently the most powerful of several different factions jockeying for power in Yemen. A strong secessionist movement in the country's South has long treated rule by the North skeptically; while in predominantly Sunni tribal areas, particularly in provinces due south and east of the capital, there has been increasing resistance to Houthi rule, in some cases taking the form of alignments with Al-Qaeda's Yemen franchise, which has a large power base in the country.
For Saudi Arabia, the Houthis’ ascendance offers the first major foreign policy test to the two-week old reign of its new ruler, King Salman. Riyadh has long rejected Houthi actions and claims in the country, seeing the group as a proxy force of Iran, Saudi’s chief regional rival.
Saudi Arabia has contributed some $4 billion in aid to Yemen since 2011, when protests forced the autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office. Yet that aid, which had helped maintain minimal public services in spite of rampant corruption, was largely suspended in December after Houthis took control of Sanaa in the fall. Now, Riyadh must decide whether to take an ever harder anti-Houthi line.
For its part, Iranian power and interests in Yemen remain very murky. While Tehran’s support of the Houthi movement is often taken for granted by most observers, and acknowledged by some Houthi politicians, Iran has remained largely silent over the past few months as the Houthis have made their march on Sanaa. It has long denied any direct support of the Houthis, and it’s not certain whether Iran has the desire or wherewithal to displace Saudi’s role as benefactor.
Iran does, however, have an interest in a stable government. “Neither Iran nor the Huthis would benefit from the economic collapse and conflict that is sure to come if an inclusive national compromise is not reached soon,” the International Crisis Group wrote in a report released last week.
Meanwhile, Washington’s interests in the country have been tightly focused on its efforts to weaken Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the organization’s Yemen branch. U.S. support for Yemen’s government changed little from Saleh to his successor Hadi, who had been Saleh’s vice president, so long as it could rely on a local partner to bless Washington’s military operations against AQAP, including a heavy reliance upon drone strikes targeting suspected AQAP members.
The Obama administration has previously held up Yemen as a successful example of its counter-terror policy in the Middle East, but now finds that model imperiled without a reliable ally in Sanaa. After Hadi stepped down from his position as president on Jan. 22, the U.S. continued drone strikes in the country, but it is unclear whether those operations could or would continue under Houthi rule, given Houthi antipathy to U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Washington is now scrambling to determine its own response, opposing the Houthi takeover, which it described as “unilateral,” but unwilling to say that its efforts against AQAP in the country would stop. “Obviously, it’s a very fluid situation on the ground. We are closely monitoring developments,” State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters on Friday.
In theory, the Houthis could be a powerful ally against AQAP. “Thus far, the Huthis have had notable success in battling al-Qaeda,” the ICG report said.
But as the Shia Houthis, who previously targeted the Yemeni government as their main adversary, increasingly take on the Sunni AQAP, Yemen’s conflict risks mutating into a full-blown Shia-Sunni sectarian battle. AQAP already considers the Houthis a mortal enemy, and has waged a bombing campaign targeting Houthi-controlled areas since September.
For AQAP, Al-Qaeda’s most powerful global franchise, any ongoing political instability is thus a boon. And the Houthis’ rise to power have given AQAP a persuasive propaganda tool within the country, the ICG report said. AQAP “has been aligning with tribes that view Huthis as invaders and is using explicit sectarian language against Shiites generally to catalyze the fight.”
Whatever happens within Yemen's combustible political situation going forward remains difficult to guess. But despite the seemingly solid power of Houthi rebels within the government for now, its likely that outside powers, especially Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United States, will continue to play an outsized role as the unfolding political gamesmanship continues.