On January 22, Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and Prime Minister Khaled Baha resigned amid an ongoing dispute with armed Houthi rebels, who seized the Yemeni capital Sana’a last September, and took control of the presidential palace on January 21.
Named for the rebel leader Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, who was killed by the Yemeni army in 2004, the Houthis are Zaidis, members of a branch of Shiite Islam that accounts for the faith of about a third of Yemenis. A Zaidi imamate ruled Yemen until 1962. The Yemeni government has accused Iran — the largest Shiite power in the Middle East— of providing the Houthis with arms and funding.
Charles Schmitz of the Middle East Institute, a professor of geography who began his academic career as an American Institute for Yemeni Studies Fellow in Yemen in the early 1990s, spoke to IranWire about the consequences of the crisis for Iran and its chief regional rival, Saudi Arabia.
What are the causes of conflict between Houthi rebels and the Yemeni president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi?
The Houthis are technically part of this transitional government. In September the Houthis took the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, and forced some changes. What we’re seeing right now is an extension of their influence.
A Yemeni delegation has been in the United Arab Emirates, writing the constitution. When the final draft came back, Hadi’s chief of staff, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, headed to the president’s office to celebrate the new constitution, but was kidnapped by the Houthis.
The Houthis object to some clauses in the constitution — in particular, the way Yemeni states were drawn. Yemen has a federal system and there are six states. There has been no agreement on the question of how to divide Yemen in a federal system. Hadi basically did it himself. His decision weakened the Houthis.
That was the spark that set it off. President Hadi has become a symbol of resistance to the Houthis. But the Houthis need a national government, and they can’t rule alone. Even if they replace Hadi, it won’t be with somebody from the Houthis, but someone from a part of the country that the Houthis don’t control.
What kind of relationship did Iran have with President Hadi?
It wasn’t a great relationship. Hadi is the president of the interim government put together by the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the GCC is not friendly with Iran. Hadi often said that the Iranians were disruptive, and he often said publicly that the Iranians should stop interfering in Yemeni affairs.
Two Iranian agents were captured in Yemen. There was an Iranian ship with armaments that was captured, and its crew was held in Yemen. He was president during that time. Those people were all released last September when the Houthis took over Sana’a.
The Yemenis had no problems with Iran until they started trying to gain influence in Yemen, not only with the Houthis, but with everybody. They invited communists, student activists, and all kinds of people to Iran so that Iran could try and gain support in the country — because they are trying to harass the Saudis.
What kind of relationship does Iran have with the Houthis?
Everybody’s asking that question. Iranian support for the Houthis has increased dramatically in the last year, and most of that has come in the form of money. The Houthis are expanding greatly and recruiting large militias, and they recruit them by paying them. Where are these funds coming from? That’s probably the biggest benefit the Iranians are giving the Houthis: funding.
But the Houthis are quite independent. They are a homegrown group, and their power is homegrown. It’s not a relationship like the one Iran has with Hezbollah. It’s not like Iran’s relationship with the Iraqi government. It’s much looser. The Iranians claim that they took a fourth Arab capital, but the Iranians didn’t do that, the Houthis did that.
What is Iran’s main interest in Yemen?
Harassing the Saudis. The Iranians feel paranoid. They are in a hostile environment. The fact that Iranians are Persians makes it easy for Arab states to use that ethnic divide against them. They are Shia, and much of the Arab world is Sunni, and so the sectarian card gets played against them all the time as well. They have had a hard time gaining ground in the Arab world. They have always tried to gain influence through Hezbollah, and their relationship with the Syrians, and now the regime in Iraq. Now they are very happy that they have some influence in Yemen.
What are Saudi Arabia’s main interests in Yemen?
Saudi Arabia is the most influential player in Yemen, and they don’t really consider Yemen a foreign country, they consider it their backyard. They want to maintain influence there. It doesn’t matter who it is, they will deal with them. The Houthis are the derivation of the ancient regime in Yemen that ruled for a thousand years, the Zaidi imamate. The Saudis backed those guys [in the Yemeni Civil War] in 1962, so for them, dealing with the Houthis is not a sectarian issue.
When the Houthis took Sana’a in September, the first thing the Saudis did was to invite them for an audience. The Houthis said, “We will get back to our Saudi brothers when we have time to give proper attention to their words.” In other words, “Thanks but no thanks.” That concerns the Saudis greatly — that there might be a power there, with Iranian backing, that doesn’t want to deal with them.
How do you see Saudi-Iranian competition for influence playing out?
It could turn into something very bad. The conflict is big, and unfortunately the way it seems it’s going to play out, at least temporarily, is that we will see a de facto division in Yemen, along various lines. The Houthis control the north. In the east, in the Marib region, the Islah Party, and the tribes there, backed by Saudi Arabia, are preparing for a major confrontation. There may be a big war in the east, where all the oil is, along territorial, sectarian lines.
The Gulf States have said that the Marib is a red line. About a week ago the Houthis massed armor and troops on the border region, and they looked like they were going to go into the Marib region. If they do, they will probably be able to take it, but they won’t be able to hold it, and there will be a large war of attrition that will be very bloody and go on for a long time. The Saudis will be involved in that. They will back the forces that are harassing the Houthis.
How do Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Islamic State fit into this crisis?
The Houthis are the number one enemy of Al Qaeda, and they have been the main target of Al Qaeda attacks. They have gone after Al Qaeda like no Yemeni force has before. They ran Al Qaeda out of the Bayda region, which was one of their strongholds, at great cost to themselves. Al Qaeda is very fearful of the Houthis taking over. There is also a coincidence of interests between the United States and the Houthis. On Wednesday [January 21] someone at the Pentagon sort of admitted covert US coordination and intelligence sharing with the Houthis.
Al Qaeda is in the Marib region as well. Al Qaeda has taken the mantle of Sunni resistance to the Houthis, and so people are pointing out that the Saudis and Al Qaeda have mutual interests, just like the United States and the Houthis have mutual interests. That is true, but the Saudis are afraid of Al Qaeda. The Saudis have been fearful for some time about coordination between Al Qaeda in Yemen and Islamic State. They will be very careful about ensuring that any support they give the tribes in Yemen’s east doesn’t bolster Al Qaeda in any way.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s most successful attack was on Saudi Arabia, not on the United States. They got a bomb to Prince Neyef, the interior minister. It didn’t kill him but it came close. Other than burning up somebody's penis over Detroit, their most successful attack was in Saudi Arabia. In the Paris attacks, Cherif Kouachi claimed that he was from Al Qaeda in Yemen, but that was opportunistic. He was radicalized in French prisons by Algerians, not by Yemenis.
Cosmetically at least, we have seen the Iranian government — President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif — reaching out to the Saudis. How is this crisis going to affect Saudi-Iran relations?
People are curious about Saudi-Iranian thaws, and people are curious about US-Iranian thaws. The thaw between Saudi Arabia and Iran is pretty limited. The Saudis don’t trust the Iranians.