The Houthi Takeover in Yemen: How Did We Get Here?

(IRIN/Hugh Macleod)

Yemen is facing one of the greatest periods of instability since it emerged from the Arab Spring uprisings. The Houthis have seized the capital, Sana’a, and President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah stepped down after being put under de facto house arrest by the rebels. As they did last September—when the Houthis first took over Sana’a—the Zaydi Shia’a rebels negotiated a withdrawal but then refused to abide by their side of the deal.

The Houthis now effectively control the capital as well as significant swaths of northern Yemen, which they tightened their grasp on during and shortly after the Arab Spring uprising. The group now appears to be moving to take over key oil and gas fields and pipelines leading to the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea export terminals. It remains too early to say what the Houthis want or how they will respond to suddenly owning—rather than merely intimidating—the halls of power. It is worth considering how Yemen got to this point. Below I lay out three factors which, while not all-encompassing, were particularly important.

First, the country has been without an effective and cohesive security apparatus for three and a half years. The army, most notably, fragmented during the Arab Spring uprisings with particular commanders aligning themselves with the demonstrators and others backing then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The fracturing of the security services was, at least in 2011, useful in generating a stalemate (a “balance of weakness,” as it has been labeled) that pushed key figures into UN-facilitated negotiations. However, sine 2012, the absence of robust security services has only served to undermine the country and allow myriad armed groups to flourish.

International support to Yemen—fixated primarily on a broader statebuilding and peacebuilding agenda alongside humanitarian aid—has not emphasized depoliticizing the Yemeni Armed Forces and the Central Security Forces. As a result, the government has had little ability to genuinely secure the capital, protect oil and gas pipelines, and counter al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Where President Hadi has engaged with the security services, it is not clear that his decisions were well-advised. His bold-but-unwise sacking of commanders aligned with the former regime and re-organizing key security forces in 2012 contributed to the weakening of the security sector and cost his nascent government allies it sorely needed.

Second, the Saudis have played an unhelpful role in Yemen and have contributed to recent events. This started in 2013, when Riyadh, in an effort to curb its 12 percent domestic unemployment rate, expelled 300,000-400,000 migrant workers from Yemen. This move contributed to rising unemployment in Yemen and a loss of remittances. Next, when the Houthis seized Sana’a last year—and essentially gained veto power over all major government decisions—the Saudis cut off the roughly 2 billion USD per year which was helping to keep the Yemeni government, economy, and security services afloat. The Saudis’ decision was based on their perpetually-exaggerated belief that the Houthis, who anxiously guard their autonomy and oppose foreign manipulation, are somehow an Iranian proxy intended to threaten Saudi Arabia.

More worryingly, the Saudis—both the government as well as religious figures—have continued to provide financial support and arms to conservative Sunni movements in Yemen and goaded them on into battle against the Houthis. This move clearly did not lead to the downfall of the Houthis. Instead it ensured that, rather than transitioning to a primarily political movement after the Arab Spring, the Houthis only half-heartedly engaged with political processes and instead focused on building up their militant wing, known as Ansarullah. One can hope, with the recent change in leadership in Riyadh, that the Saudi government can change course in Yemen.

Third, the UN missed opportunities to more fully pull the Houthis into the political process. While encouraging the group to join the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) and broader post-Arab-Spring transition underway in the country, the UN did not help the Houthis to participate fully. As a rebel movement, the Houthis were skilled in informal, tribal politics but not in the sort of structured, quasi-legislative processes that were involved in the NDC. As I wrote in a paper this past October with the International Peace Institute, the Houthis never felt comfortable with the transition and never felt a strong degree of ownership over its outcomes. They always felt that the better-prepared delegations from other factions, which included Ivy League-trained lawyers and international experts, were pulling the wool over their eyes. Hence, they never gave up their back-up plan, which has now gone into effect with the takeover of Sana’a.

So what lessons can the international community take away from this experience? Security sector cohesion and de-politicization require far greater attention during transition processes in insecure locations such as Yemen. In the case of Yemen, this will involve a combination of carrots and sticks for political figures, commanders, and the rank and file. It won’t be a pretty process. But the good news is that, with AQAP’s prowess and the economic importance of the country’s limited energy exports, it should be eminently feasible to get everyone belatedly on the same page.

Furthermore, every effort must be made to ensure that groups involved in political transitions and negotiations like Yemen’s National Dialogue have the capabilities and peace of mind to participate fully. In the case of Yemen this may have involved greater training and support for the Houthis as the political transition process got underway. More importantly, however, the UN may have designed a process which was less infused with UN-style bureaucracy and more oriented around small-group, customary negotiations and decision-making processes.

As for the Saudi role in Yemen’s current crisis, it was unhelpful and should have been more constructive. The Saudis should focus on paying tribes in Yemen—as they had long done—to remain peaceful and contribute to stability. Now is the time for the Saudis to return to that decades-old strategy and cut off any support to Sunni armed groups in Yemen, and to work with the US and allies in the Yemen Armed Forces and Central Security Forces to focus their efforts on AQAP. With fewer threats from Salafist and Wahhabist militias and AQAP, the Houthis will be far more willing to step back from Sana’a and avoid the rebel movement’s biggest fear: owning the state they have long sought to overthrow.

Steven A. Zyck is a Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute and a Senior Fellow with the Centre for Security Governance. He is the author of Mediating Transition in Yemen: Achievements and Lessons published by the International Peace Institute in October 2014.