It is difficult to understand deceased ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen’s calculations before he was killed by a Houthi sniper, and it even more difficult to predict accurately what is to come in Yemen after his death. We simply do not have enough credible information. Worse still, Saleh’s quick defeat by the Houthis—a social movement with a strong paramilitary core who prefer to refer to themselves as Ansar Allah (supporters of God)—shook most of the analytical frameworks that have been used to understand Yemen’s power configuration. The best we can do now is to try to re-frame our understanding of the key dynamics in Yemen in a way that enables us to make proper policy recommendations.
Since 2011-12, the overarching paradigm of Yemen’s politics can be summed up as a breakdown of an old order and the emergence of a new one. The conflicts up to now have been the result of the competition between emerging powers, the Houthis in the upper north of Yemen and the Southern Movement, an umbrella term for various groups in the south of Yemen, to assert their influence and to diminish the powers of the old order.
The Houthi movement was founded by Hussein al-Houthi (hence the name: Houthis) after the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Al-Houthi’s key message was that the U.S. was upscaling its regional hegemony in a way that would benefit Israel and undermine the people of the region and that Yemenis should be aware of that. In 2004, Saleh ordered his arrest. Al-Houthi resisted and turned the arrest attempt into a three months war after which al-Houthi was arrested and summarily executed. His younger brother (b.1979) took leadership of the movement and led it through five more wars with the Yemeni government between 2005-2010 with devastating consequences for upper north of Yemen and for the country at large. These wars claimed thousands of lives and displaced more than a hundred thousand civilians. Now, thirteen years after Saleh’s forces killed their founder, the Houthis killed him after Saleh decided to turn against the movement and reach out to the Saudi-led coalition.
The Order—and Eventual Breakdown of Yemeni Politics
In the decades preceding Yemen’s Arab Spring in 2011, the country’s political order was based on a Saudi-sponsored alliance between then-President Ali Saleh, Brig. General Ali Muhsin Al-Ahmar (Saleh’s key ally and military strong man), The Al-Ahmar Sheikhs (leaders of the key tribal federation of Hashid), and the Islah Party (an alliance between traditional tribal leaders and the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood). A key component in Yemen’s political order was the exclusion of the Hashemite clans of Yemen—numbered in the hundreds of thousands—and the Zaidis—one of the key religious groups in Yemen—from power (both Hashemites and Zaidis later became the key drivers of the Houthi movement). Since the late 1990s, a cold and proxy war was waged between the four constituents, and, in 2011, the political order in Yemen finally collapsed when President Ali Saleh, the Ahmar family of the Hashid tribal confederation, and General Ali Al-Ahmar raised arms against each other, and Saleh was almost killed in an assassination attempt. Since then, Yemen’s politics has been shaped by the quest for a new order. In 2011, President Ali Saleh was pulled out of the equation, and his allies were marginalized significantly. The Saudis were also distanced due to the Al-Ahmar’s family and the Islah Party’s support of deposed Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Morsi, and both considered his ousting a crime facilitated by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). When the Houthis (read as: Hashemites/Zaidis) entered the game, so did the fears of a new regional actor—Iran—influencing Yemen’s politics emerged.
The Initial Conflict
Between 2011 and 2014, these various actors fought to determine the new order of Yemini politics. The Houthis had forced the Al-Ahmars, Ali Muhsin, and Al-Islah’s leaders to flee the country—pushing them out of the equation. Saleh and his allies moved towards the creation of an alliance with the Houthis to compensate for his weakness after he was deposed. The Iranians wanted to replace (and still do) the Saudis as the sponsor of the key power in Yemen, while the Saudis are looking for ways to reassert their position in Yemen. In 2014, the Houthis entered Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, after defeating all opposition, and they started to consolidate power. Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi was president of Yemen during this time; he is from the southern regions of Yemen and had served Saleh as vice president between 1994-2012 before becoming president himself after Saleh was deposed. He had no strong base to support his rule and had to rely on pitting the various powers against each other. As far as the Houthis were concerned, he was a relic of the old order, and was only useful to them as a facilitator of the transition from the old order to the new one. Of course, Hadi was not pleased.
The Houthis also started to make overtures with Iran, which had nominally backed them before, but now Iran was promising more financial and logistical backing, such as facilitating the Houthi media channel in Lebanon and providing expertise and advice. The Saudis warned the Houthis not to take this route, but the Houthis—who at the time were keen to improve relations with the Saudis—ignored it, hoping that such overtures with Iran would improve their bargaining position with the Saudis and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states. There were attempts to bring the conflicting parties to a Saudi-sponsored negotiation in Riyadh, but the Houthis resisted, perhaps thinking that this would lead only to the assertion of the power of Saudi’s allies and would make it harder for them to set their own terms in their relationship with the Saudis. In the end, Hadi—fed up with the way the Houthis were treating him—decided to resign; he fled to Aden, withdrew his resignation, and called for Saudi support. The inner tension between the old powers and the new, and the fear of a future competition between the Saudis and Iran in Yemen, resulted in the breakout of war.
War Erupts Throughout Yemen
Then, on March 26, 2015, a coalition of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Yemeni rivals of the Houthis, and Yemeni supporters of the Hadi government launched “Decisive Storm” or “Storm of Resolve” (The Storm). The coalition had two goals: one internal and the other regional. The main internal goals were to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table, to disarm the Houthis, to remove the Houthis from all government institutions, and allow internationally recognized President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to return and govern without threat from all non-state actors in Yemen. Its main regional goals were to assert a new regional order that did not allow the existence of armed non-state actors and to balance and deter Iran from further intervention in the region.
Perceptions and Assumptions
When the “Storm” started, a number of assumptions circulated between analysts, experts, and policy makers.
First, the Houthis would inevitably surrender early in the conflict, or they would at least adopt a defensive strategy, retreating back to their enclaves in northern Yemen, where they have a popular base. This move would relieve Sanaa and other key regions in Yemen from pressure, thus allowing the return of President Hadi and the resumption of a political process. And once the coalition’s airstrikes began, the Houthis’ rivals would use the opportunity to rise against them and support the coalition’s effort to defeat the movement.
None of this happened. The Houthis did not retreat, and the upper North became a stronghold for the Houthis. Why?
The Houthis are an alliance formed between an ideologically committed core and a wide network of actors in the upper north of Yemen. While their leaders may be from Sa’adah (in northern Yemen near the Saudi border), they have now found safe haven and support across all cities and villages in that part of the country. Moreover, since the “Storm” started, there was no political goal convincing enough to mobilize residents to rise against the Houthis. The only available political goal was the return of legitimacy represented by President Hadi. But the communities in the Houthi-controlled areas were not going to war for an abstract and distant concept such as legitimacy.
We need to remember that one of Saleh’s key legacies was eroding the idea of statehood. Due to Saleh’s political machinations, the State came to be perceived as one key power actor amongst others, a “tribe” among other tribes. Thus, “legitimacy” was not a strong enough rallying cry to encourage Yemenis to put their lives at risk. To make matters more difficult, Hadi—a southerner—was not a person who would inspire northerners to fight. Finally, and most importantly, most of the communities in the Houthi-controlled areas did not consider the war theirs. They saw it as a power reconfiguration. These people preferred and decided to remain observers only intervening when it was in defense of their direct and immediate interests and lives.
Second, a number of assumptions were made about the power configuration in the northern regions of Yemen. The most important of which was that the Houthis were mere tools, used by ex-President Saleh to further his goal of returning to the political scene, and that should he turn against them, the Houthis would retreat or even be defeated. Saleh’s long presidency, his survival from many assassination attempts, his success in turning people against each other, and his continuous support from regional and international powers all made him a myth: that he was the man in control of all the strings and that all other parties and actors were mere puppets or temporary obstacles. The myth of Saleh became the prism through which Yemen’s power politics is analyzed and, of course, distorted. This myth generated strategic, tactical, and policy options which were not viable, and the failure of which had a direct consequence on the lives of those living in Yemen. This, of course, turned out to be wrong. The Houthis had long consolidated their power and the extent of their reach. Saleh had lost most of his military influence, mobilization capacity, and tribal base. Most of those who followed Saleh did so because he was president, not due to any personal loyalty towards him.
Wither the Peace
Saleh’s death will not likely influence the military situation in Yemen. His party, the General People’s Congress, has the largest popular base and exhorts much influence in Sanaa, but not any further.
His absence will, however, affect perceptions in ways that will have positive and negative effects on any future peace prospect.
One positive impact is that for the first time since the war began various parties will deal with the Houthis as the ultimate power in the areas they control. This development will be in contrast to previous dealings when Saleh was seen as the ultimate decision maker, or at least as an alternative. Now, all will have to face the longstanding, yet unseen, reality of Houthi power.
While this is a positive impact, there are many negative ones to consider as well. One negative impact is that this new realization may be a reason to continue the war by all sides. On the Saudi side, Saleh was considered a lesser of two evils, a leader with whom one can negotiate and one who is pragmatic enough to accept reasonable concessions; the Houthis, on the other hand, are considered Iranian proxies with whom no reasonable deal can be made, and who are too militant to accept concessions. On the Houthi side, they will now be emboldened to reject any peace offer that does not give them all, or most, of what they are demanding. A second negative impact is related to the new enemies that the Houthis have made. Before killing Saleh, they sought reassurances that the Yemeni supporters of the coalition would not be a threat to their future existence and political role. Now, the Houthis have to worry about their neighbors who were Saleh supporters—many of whom would be happy to avenge the ex-president if given a chance. This may make the Houthis less inclined to accept a ceasefire deal and surrender all heavy and medium weaponry. They would now demand enough assurances that they would be part of any future political process, and they would hold on to their guns in fear of future retaliation and revenge. The Houthis may decide that while the “Storm” can continue indefinitely, the blockade on Yemen cannot, and thus they may decide to hold on until the blockade eases and smuggling money and arms becomes easier.
A serious peace broker would not worry about those and other challenges. All wars generate reasons to continue, and the role of a peace broker is to stand against those reasons. The situation in the aftermath of Saleh’s death is no different. What should be of concern is how the peace is conceptualized. Is it a peace between two warring parties belonging to different political orders? Or is it a peace that creates a total break from the old order and sets Yemen on a path to a new order?