As you have no doubt heard, there has been a revolt in Yemen, where Shi’ite rebels known as the Houthis have seized control of the levers of power.
About Yemen, President Obama — who, when it comes to foreign policy and a whole lot more, has been described of late as “King Midas in reverse” — had this to say back in September:
This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.
As always, up is down, black is white, etc. Meanwhile, this:
The collapse of the U.S.-backed government of Yemen on Thursday has left America’s counter-terrorism campaign “paralyzed”, two U.S. security officials said, dealing a major setback to Washington’s fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a potent wing of the militant network.
To be fair, Yemen is a hopeless basket case, and no imaginable foreign policy will produce anything resembling what we here in the West might think of as “success” (except in the sense, say, that one might “successfully” cauterize the stump of an amputated, gangrenous limb).
What is happening in Yemen is symptomatic of the whole Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region. The population was semi-starved until oil production began in the 1980s, when oil production began and wheat imports rose to feed a population doubling every 25 years. The situation now is that oil exports will cease in the next couple of years, the capital is being besieged by rebel groups and Islamists of various types, and groundwater is close to complete depletion because of kat production.
Saudi Arabia has been ponying up to keep the Yemeni population fed. But a day will arrive when the Saudis will be sick of that, or there will simply be no administration on the Yemeni side to handle the aid. The Saudis are still building a 1,100-mile-long fence to keep the Yemenis out. Completion of the border fence will give the Saudis more options on when to stop feeding the Yemenis. The fate of Yemen is to break up into its constituent tribes and for perhaps 90% of the population to starve. That is more than 20 million people and it is likely to happen in the next few years.
The death of the Saudi King Abdullah last week will probably affect this situation as well, and likely not for the better.
If you’ve been following the Houthi coup, you may be puzzled as to the restraint the rebels have shown since taking over. It all clicks into place, however, once you understand them properly as Iranian proxies, and understand the tactical care that must be taken in service of the broader Shi’ite strategy in the region. Writing at NightWatch, the indispensable John McCreary explains:
The Houthis control the capital, but have been careful to state that they have not taken over the government and will not comment on the situation until after parliament makes a decision. The Houthis consider Hadi the president of the country still.
Few news outlets have reported that one of the major Houthi grievances against the Hadi government is that the draft constitution would establish a federal state in Yemen. The leader of the movement, Abdulmalik al Houthi, insists on a unitary state because federalism promotes the creation and legitimization of regional fiefdoms.
Hadi’s draft constitution would have legitimated regional powerbases, including one or more Sunni states in the south, pro-Saudi tribal states in the east and the Houthis in the north. The political arrangement was rigged to favor the Sunnis under former president Salleh and under Hadi.
The Houthi leaders do not want to be seen as seizing power because that would lead to a Sunni uprising; deny them a share in oil revenues – the oil fields are in Sunni territory– and increase the risk of fragmentation of the state. It also would have large international consequences, especially involving relations with the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
All the elements of a government takeover are present in the situation (Group, Gripe, Guns, Plans, Wheels and Opportunity), but the Houthis seem to have a plan that does not require them to govern and deflects Sunni outrage for a while.
The followers of al-Houthi are Zaidis, a branch of Shiism. A Houthi government in Sana’a would represent the third pro-Iranian government in Arab countries. Establishment of another Shiite, pro-Iranian government in the Middle East would be incendiary in Yemen and in most Sunni Arab states.
It would be no surprise to learn that the Iranians counseled the Houthis against a government takeover. Iran stands to become the big winner from developments in Yemen, provided the Houthis can avoid civil war.
Read the rest of Mr. McCreary’s post for further insights into the Saudi succession.