In Yemen, the Gulf faces a new threat: the Americans

Allowing the politics of Yemen to be decided in foreign capitals will exact a heavy price, writes Faisal Al Yafai

A Yemeni woman has her hand painted in the colors fo the Yemeni flag with the words reading in Arabic ‘Yemen is safe’ during an anti-Houthi protest in Sana'a. (Photo: EPA/WADIA MOHAMMED)
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Yemen is, again, leaderless. Last week, on the day Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah passed away, the president of Yemen Abdrabu Mansur Hadi and his entire government resigned.

That was a smart move. Mr Hadi is a calculating politician, far better than his stone-faced public persona suggests.

By resigning, he has placed total responsibility for what now happens in Sanaa and the north in the hands of the Houthi rebels.

This is clever, but risky politics. In addition to the very obvious military battle engulfing the capital, there is also a public relations battle taking place in the country.

The Houthis, a rebel militia from the north that took over the capital in September, have sought to present themselves as the true defenders of the revolution, while working behind the scenes to consolidate power.

By resigning, Mr Hadi is ensuring the Houthis will no longer be able to claim victories as their own and pin failures on the central government. If the political process is gridlocked, if Sanaa is unstable, if the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh appears to have renewed influence, that will be the fault of the Houthis, not of Mr Hadi.

Yemenis, then, may soon fall out of love with the Houthis. And this is a crucial element. Because the Houthi takeover had many fathers, but one of the chief was the willingness of too many Yemenis to accept their control in return for support on political issues like subsidies. For that they must shoulder some blame.

Yemenis must recognise that constantly shifting alliances to gain temporary advantage, at the expense of the broader national interest is harming the entire country. This is the Lebanese disease, and it has wrought havoc with that country.

Long-term, the interest of all Yemenis is in a stable government, even if, in a country of limited resources, it seems easier to grasp whatever power is on offer.

Constantly shifting alliances have allowed space for three groups to gain influence in Yemen – the Houthis, Al Qaeda and the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, all three of whom most Yemenis would be happy to be rid of.

It has also allowed a space for Iranian influence, an influence that is drawing both the Houthis and Mr Saleh into political alignment. Yemenis were shocked this month at a leaked phone-call between Mr Saleh and Houthi leaders, in which they coordinated military and political strategy. But they should not be: Mr Saleh has never given up his view that he is the legitimate ruler of the country, regardless of what millions of Yemenis and the Gulf states think.

The end game for Iran is obvious. No one should be in any doubt what “solution” Tehran and Mr Saleh seek.

By allowing the Houthis to destabilise the capital, Mr Saleh hopes to emerge, once again, as the only guarantor of stability, the only man who can charm the snakes of Yemen.

It will not be him who wields power, but his son, so the dynasty will remain. For Tehran, having the Houthis inside the Yemeni political tent will give them veto power over what Sanaa does. The Yemeni state is not failing, but it is being reshaped – and reshaped on the Gulf’s watch.

Iran’s game is long but it can be countered. There is a greater immediate danger facing the Gulf in Yemen, and that is America.

Yemen’s failing as a state has been the same for decades: it is that, to paraphrase Henry Kissinger on Germany, the state is too big for the people, too small for the country.

The security state in Yemen was always too big, too corrupt, too brutal. Ordinary people felt the rule of the state too closely.

Yet Mr Saleh could never rule Yemen totally. He was not a dictator, in the way Saddam Hussein was in Iraq. Instead, he needed alliances – which is why he is quietly allying himself with the Houthis.

But there are other allies the Houthis could turn to. They could turn to the United States.

US interests in Yemen are limited to security, in particular the threat of Al Qaeda, and protection of shipping lanes through the Red Sea. Most of the rest is negotiable. The Gulf, however, has far more interests in its populous neighbour. The Houthis could accommodate the concerns of America, but they cannot accommodate the concerns of the Gulf.

This is the real danger for the Gulf states in Yemen. The country is becoming a battleground for other people’s wars, and that instability will reach its neighbours.

There is a strong possibility that, as it withdraws from the region, the US may simply decide its interests are limited to security rather than stability in Yemen, and allow the Houthis to run the show as long as Al Qaeda is contained. That is not unthinkable, as the recent rapprochement between Washington and Tehran shows.

Yemen may be leaderless once again, but the Gulf is not. Now, more than ever, it needs to assert its political interests in Sanaa and across the country. Allowing the politics of Yemen to be decided in foreign capitals will come at a heavy price.

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai