Yemen instability sets off alarm bells in GCC

The GCC this week condemned the Houthi's seizure of the Yemeni presidential palace as as an attempted coup and asserted its support for President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi.

Tribal gunmen hold weapons apparently to protect their province from possible attacks by Shiite Houthi militias, in the oil-rich province of Marib in Yemen on January 22, 2015. Ali Mohammed/EPA
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ABU DHABI // Houthi militants showed their preference for violence over political compromise when they occupied Yemen’s presidential palace, seized a missile base and attacked the president’s residence in Sanaa.

At an emergency meeting on Wednesday, the Gulf Cooperation Council condemned this week's assault as an attempted coup and asserted its support for President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi as the "constitutionally legitimate authority" in Yemen.

The Houthis actions, which came after disagreements with the government over a new constitution, increased tensions throughout the country, with militiamen deploying in Aden in the south and residents of Marib province, home to most of the country’s oil, preparing for a fight.

The Houthis are members of the Shiite Zaydi sect and their display of military power threatens to increase recruitment for Sunni extremist group Al Qaeda at a time when regional powers are already concerned about rising insecurity.

The GCC has a deep stake in stability returning to Yemen’s capital. The country shares long borders with Saudi Arabia and Oman and is located along important shipping lanes in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, potential targets for pirates.

“Very quickly we may see Yemen fall into further chaos where piracy is likely to erupt based on the Somali model,” said Theodore Karasik, a Dubai-based Middle East expert.

Most concerning of all, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen, could benefit from the instability.

AQAP, considered the extremist group's most effective branch, claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack on a satirical magazine in Paris earlier this month.

The Houthis have fought AQAP in recent months, but the group’s expansion also threatens to make more Sunnis turn to extremists for protection. While the violence in Yemen is concerning to all GCC states, Saudi Arabia, in particular, finds itself at risk.

On its northern border with Iraq, the country faces threats from ISIL. On its southern border, there has been occasional violence between Houthis and guards in the past. The Houthis’ strongholds are in Yemen’s north, and Saudi Arabia aided former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in his wars against the group after they began a rebellion in 2004.

Now that the Houthis, who are accused of being aligned with Iran, are running Sanaa, Riyadh is feeling increasingly under threat.

“The fear is that a Houthi dominated Yemeni state is going to be an outpost of Iran on the Saudi border,” said Mr Karasik.

The Houthis deny claims they receive aid from Tehran. However, an Iranian official told Reuters last month that Tehran did provide training to the group. There are also allegations that Hizbollah advisers are assisting the Houthis.

While the evidence for a substantial partnership with the Lebanese group is scarce, the clearest sign of Hizbollah’s influence is the Houthis’ model for ruling Yemen.

Their senior leadership prefers to rely on military might to influence state decision-making rather than taking on the burden of governing directly, protecting themselves from accusations of mismanagement.

Zaydi Shiites are also only about a third of Yemen’s population, while the majority of the country is Sunni, another reason the Houthi leadership is cautious about installing one of their own as head of state.

To solidify their power, the Houthis want greater representation in government institutions, something Mr Hadi, technically president, but still a hostage, agreed to on Wednesday. He also said that the draft constitution that had angered the Houthis is open to amendment.

The Houthis are now aiming to further consolidate their victory by seizing the central Marib province, where key oil infrastructure is located. While Al Qaeda is active in the area, Marib is also home to Sunni tribes that have said they will resist the Houthis.

Other parts of the country are also preparing for more unrest: in Aden, hundreds of pro-government militiamen have arrived from other southern provinces and are ready to defend the city from a Houthi attack. Southern Yemen has aspirations for independence and the gunmen deploying may prove to be part of a strategy for moving those plans forward.

GCC states played a crucial role in instigating a power transfer after massive protests against Mr Saleh’s rule in 2011. The council may want to show a strong response to this volatile mix, but their options appear limited.