The blind leading the blind: On Yemen, Houthis and regional dynamics


The Houthis in Yemen believed in themselves. After less than a decade of fighting against Aly Abdallah Saleh, the Shi’ites in Yemen have finally come to terms with the former president, coordinated their efforts, and took power. The fighting machine that is the Houthi Movement has been playing to Saleh’s tunes since his departure from the presidential palace, despite the fact that they played a role in his ousting…but in politics, enmity never lasts.

With a longtime career as president of one of the poorest Arab states, Saleh came to the fore by masterminding the means of collaboration and evacuation. His term in office shows his ability to strike deals, reach out for alliances and then get rid of his allies. His cunning reflects that of Mohamed Ali of Egypt, who long ago invited all the leaders of the Mamluk dynasty to the Citadel for dinner and killed them all to get rid of a major challenge in ruling the country. Yet, both Saleh and the Houthis are playing a role in the big circus of the Middle East, produced and directed by the United States. Moreover, both Saleh and the Houthis are playing minor roles as the leading ones went to Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and maybe even Egypt.

In third world countries, the United States has almost always sided with the dictators and oppressors and the Arab world is no exception. Undemocratic regimes are corrupt by nature and thus easy to manage and capable of serving US interests in return for a small favour…being glued to the ruling chair. For a superpower, the Arab world is only a place where oil is kept underground for centuries. Above this oil, the most backward, conservative and oppressing regimes have been sitting aloft for centuries. The many attempts made by the people in this region to get rid of such regimes were always met by the soft power or even its hard variety by a superpower; mainly an empire, whether it be Ottoman, British or French and finally, even American. Oil like other natural resources in Africa has been a blessing for the West’s industrial machine and thus no one can afford to be left in the dark as far as the ‘future of oil’ is concerned. Thus, a superpower is all about being able to manage the dictators and secure the power to the production machines.

Therefore, when the Arab-Afghan freedom fighters finished their mission in Kabul and celebrated along with their creator – Washington – the collapse of the Soviets, they were chased back home to clear the Afghan roads for the advent of the silk road pioneers. But the former freedom fighters after the Afghan war turned nasty, creating the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and thus becoming a nuisance to Uncle Sam. Since they had their Soviet mission accomplished, the US and its allies in the Arab region started to fight the returnees or Al-Qaeda terrorists. One of the leading fighters against terrorism was the former president of Yemen. The government in Sanaa has taken in roughly $401 million from the US counter-terrorism fund, in addition to nearly $164 million the country has received since 2001 from the State Department’s Foreign Military Financing budget.

The United States trained Yemeni counter-terrorism forces, led by a nephew of Saleh’s, and provided military hardware including helicopters, armoured vehicles, surveillance equipment, and night-vision goggles. Washington has also conducted dozens of drone strikes on suspected targets reported by Saleh. All these efforts were in the service of defeating the same group that may have been Saleh’s pawns in a political power game.

Saleh encouraged the returnees of Al-Qaeda to settle in South Yemen, which was not under his control at the time, to undermine the communist rule there and the US was ok with destabilizing the country because it was ruled by communists. Tiny, poor and practically ineffective in the region, the US helped Saleh undermine the communist rule in Aden using Al-Qaeda’s Mujahideen. By the time he took over the presidency over the north and south of Yemen, he turned his back to Al-Qaeda Mujahideen and decided to launch his war against terrorism as he realized that the Sunni Al-Qaeda should be counter balanced by the Shiite Houthis to maintain his power. The Zaydi Shiite group which resided in the north of Yemen was funded by Saleh to create educational institutes as a mean to counter the Sunnis’ impact as clearly seen through the Muslem Brotherhood (Islah party) and Al-Qaada’s Mujahideen. To Slaeh, the Houthis developing power was a ploy to siphon more money and support not only from the US but from the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia which sees itself as the leader of the Sunni world. By the time Saleh got whatever he wanted from US and Gulf funding, he launched fierce attacks against the Houthis, which lasted at least seven years. However, the 2011 uprising shifted the dynamics in Yemen. When the Arab spring reached that country, the Houthis, Muslim Brothers and Mujahideen were equally as strong and defiant, and thus decided to join the demonstrations against Saleh, who had ruled for more than three decades.

With the government’s firepower focused on dissenters in major cities, Saada quietly slid out of its control. A mini state sprang up, run almost entirely by the Houthis, who took on the responsibilities of government, appointing their own governor, policing the streets, and rebuilding schools and houses destroyed in the war. Though the Islah party, or the Muslim Brotherhood, took part in the movement to oust Saleh and gain key posts in the country’s transitional government, the party nevertheless remains on the edge. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, along with the Houthi incursions into former Islah strongholds such as Amran, have left officials fearing for the party’s future.

“The GPC [ruling party] fought the Houthis tooth and nail for years. Now the Houthis are rampaging in the capital and the GPC turns a blind eye,” said an Islah party official. As the new president, Mansour Hady has never been able to establish his image as the country’s president. The the Houthis’ blitz in Sanaa and expanded in central Yemen, where Sunni tribesmen dominate, besieged the presidential palace in what was seen as a coup. Al-Qaeda in Yemen, which has waged deadly attacks targeting both the Houthis and Hadi’s forces, stands to benefit, but the whole country has come to a deadly power struggle.

Here come the real players or the holders of the leading roles in this scenario. The Houthis are criticised for fighting a proxy war on behalf of Shi’ite Iran, while the Islah party is fighting on behalf of the International Muslim Brotherhood Organisation and Turkey. In the meantime, the old north-south divide still defines politics, with a secessionist movement growing in momentum with aims to recreate a communist South Yemen that might be supported by Russia. Last but not least, Mr. Saleh’s loyalists and allies in the Republican Guards, who have maneuvered on behalf of the former president, perhaps hoping for a comeback, plays with all the available threads but none echoes a regional or international player. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which designed a deal to help Saleh, who lives peacefully and securely in Yemen due to his services to Washington, felt betrayed.

Now, the Houthis’ coup knocked at the Yemenis’ doors and the former president is addressing his people while the current president is pleading for a resignation. The Gulf feels the heat and has decided to move forward with a plan. According to an intelligence report put forward to the US by the Gulf’s intelligence body, the security of the Gulf of Aden, which may threaten the routes to Suez canal, is left for Egypt to take care of, but the most threatened Gulf states will support ‘civil society’ in Yemen! Does that mean anything to Mr. Saleh and the Houthis?

Mervat Diab is Assistant Editor-In-Chief of Al-Ahram newspaper.