Saudi’s Choice: the Menace of Democracy, or the Shi’ite Devils?

Yemen’s Houthi rebels have at long last shown their hand and formally seized the capital city that they have controlled for many months. In the face of this improbable victory, Francois Burgat wonders why Yemen’s neighbors in Saudi Arabia seem to have suddenly come to terms with a “Shi’ite” regime on their southern border. Within the country, religious sectarianism between Sunnis and Shi’ites, as well as regional rifts, threaten war.

On the evening of January 20th, in an extensive speech, Abdelmalik al-Houthi, long dismissed as the provincial leader of the decade-old “Zaydi Shi’ite rebellion in the north,” drew some lessons from the final victory of his partisans. By seizing the palace of the acting president, Abd Rabbuh Hadi, al-Houthi’s Ansar Allah militia had made themselves masters of Yemen’s capital. In a tone as remarkably composed as it was decided, he said he was opening a new page in the history of this ancient nation. Many local and regional actors and observers gave in to the temptation to describe what has happened as the simple return of the “Shiites” who until the revolution of 1962 had ruled Yemen for near a thousand years. The reality is not so simple.

The Houthis had signed an agreement with the acting president on January 21; but saying he had done so under duress, Hadi immediately resigned along with his government, leaving the head of parliament in charge and the country facing a disquieting political void. Against the background of protest rallies by both sides, regionalist and sectarian tensions are developing: from Istanbul, Tawakkol Karman, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who is allied with the Muslim Brothers and an important spokeswoman for those who lost out to the Houthis, has launched a vibrant appeal for resistance. She demands that the Arab monarchies step in to support Yemen, and describes the situation in unsubtle terms as an “Iranian occupation.” In the country’s south, where numerous high civilian officials and military officers have begun to take refuge, secession measures have begun, reopening the never-fully-healed wounds of the country’s 1990 reunification, and the brief civil war that followed.

All the while waving the banner of the Feb. 2011 revolution, the leader of the Houthi rebellion has now completed the overthrow of the balance of power that allowed the revolutionaries to achieve their biggest successes. What had initially been a mass mobilization by the ‘revolutionary youth’ was very quickly superseded by the powerful ‘Tribal-Islamist’ political party Al-Islah, which is closely associated with the Muslim Brothers. The subsequent accession to the movement of the general Ali Mohsin, an ally of Al-Islah, with his troops, gave it an armed wing that permitted it to depose President Ali Abdallah Saleh, with the support of the [Saudi-dominated] Gulf Cooperation Council.

It is the known presence of Saleh, the sly old man of Yemeni politics, behind the scenes of the Houthi show of force, that has given it a counter-revolutionary odor. Recall that the ‘president,’ ousted in the Arab Spring of 2011 not only stayed on as head of the ruling party, but retained the support of a substantial portion of the armed forces. He has clearly acted as a facilitator to the armed conquest of the capital in recent months. Notwithstanding the 25 who died during the assault of January 20 (the presidential guard having remained loyal to acting president Abd Rabbuh Hadi), the fall of the palace in fact elicited surprisingly little resistance.

While he was in power, Ali Abdallah Saleh fought the Houthis, and for very long contributed in a pernicious way to the sectarianizing of their image, their ‘Shiite-ification.’ But to take his revenge on the descendents of Abdallah al-Ahmar (leader of the tribe that forms the Al-Islah party’s popular base), Saleh has nevertheless switched to supporting the Houthis.

[…] In his long list of criticisms of former presidents Saleh and Hadi, the country’s new strongman, Abdelmalik al-Houthi has been most insistent in denouncing what he describes as their complacency with the militants of al-Qaeda; he accuses the transitional president of not fighting them with the needed determination, and allowing them to loot several of the country’s banks.

The Houthis have been demanding, throughout the constitutional debates launched in the beginning of 2014, more autonomy for their home region in and around the northwestern city of Sa’ada; they wanted it to be independent of the capital, with its own access to the sea. Now they are suddenly charging federalism with putting the country at risk of partition, and made clear their ambition to centralize from Sana’a their grip on a country where they already control a large number of the provinces.

Following an agreement imposed on president Hadi January 21 by force of Arms, they at first tried to mask their coup behind an institutional façade, by pretending to allow a constitutional process to play out. By formally keeping Hadi – a southerner and therefore a Sunni- in the game, the Houthis clearly were trying to mask both the illegality of their seizure of power and the sectarian nature of their base of support. They could also thereby hope to deflect the disapproval of the international community, which had been manifested by a UN Security Council vote on the evening of January 20.

On the evening of January 22, the president, forced against his will to legislate by decree, resigned. In consequence, the Houthi invasion of the capital will now likely be read as a simple armed seizure of the country by “Shi’ites.” And thus a real risk arises, one that the international community had better take seriously, that part of the country’s Sunni majority (two thirds of the population) will, as in Iraq and in Mali, begin to see in the most extremist jihadis a lesser of-two-evils guarantor of their own political survival.

Abdelmalik al-Houthi, this ‘Zaydi’ [Shi’ite] ‘Northerner’ has attempted as much as possible to erase the sectarian and regional nature of his political base. In a capital city which it should be underlined is far from completely hostile to him, he has insistently called upon the ideals of the 2011 revolution: equitable distribution of power, the fight against corruption, and above all the reestablishment of security and order. In this last area, the Houthi militias’ efficiency is generally recognized by the population. The Houthi leader has at the same time taken care to make certain encouraging gestures regarding the demands of various currents in the Southernist movement, in spite of sectarian differences.

For all this, is he capable of protecting the country from spiraling into sectarian division, or even simply regional cleavage? The challenge, which is big enough, will depend on his talent; but it will equally depend on the reaction of his rich and powerful neighbors: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and yes, Iran.

An Iranian parliamentarian is said to have claimed some weeks back that Tehran now rules four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and Sana’a. In the face of the progressive weakening of the Muslim Brothers, the neighboring Sunni Arab monarchies have appeared for a long time to adopt a very cautious strategy to counter the thrust of Iranian influence. Saudi Arabia’s existential fear of its opponents, whether they be radicals or, worse still, democratic, has long led Riyadh to adopt very pragmatic strategies in Yemen. The threat from its (Sunni) opposition has apparently outweighed the ancient rivalry with its regional Shi’ite challengers. The more so since, in the face of the immediate danger from the jihadis of the Islamic State organization, Tehran has been promoted as a potential ally of the United States, no longer in the category of absolute enemy.

And so the kingdom of Saudi Arabia seems to have done nothing at all to put a stop to the Yemeni counter-revolution. The Saudis may have even have covertly aided the Houthis, insofar as the rebels might help them counter the triple threat of the radical jihadis, the ‘quietist’ salafis of the Dammaj institute [extremist Sunni religious school near Sa’ada]which they were permitted to forcibly dismantle, and the moderates of Islah.

The Saudis and the other monarchies of the Gulf may well have launched themselves into an improbable alliance with the Shi’ite ‘devils’ as much to resist the ‘democratic menace’ of the Muslim Brothers as the jihadi menace of the Islamic State organization. The long line of Sunni monarchs in each state, including the newly crowned Saudi Salman, have always known that it is not their small Shi’ite minorities who threaten their dreams of political immortatliy.

It is for that reason that the Arab neighbors of Yemen might well passively regard – or even actively support- under the watchful eye of the United States- the ongoing downfall of their former ‘Sunni allies’ of the al-Islah party.

Francois Burgat Translated from French by International Boulevard