Is a Houthi takeover of Sanaa in the works?

The Houthis’ perseverance is paying off at this time because of their robust tribal ethos

Dr. Theodore Karasik
Dr. Theodore Karasik
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In recent weeks and days, the Houthis have marched into the capital of Yemen, Sanaa, and made their intentions clear. Tens of thousands of Houthi supporters have been rallying in the capital for a second week, setting up tents near ministries and sending their armed men to take positions on rooftops. The moves alarmed Yemini security authorities and prompted Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi to order the deployment of Special Forces to the capital. The Houthis are seeking to take over the city in a power play that portends dramatic consequences for the near future of the country and for the rest of the Arabian Peninsula region.

The Houthis waged a six-year insurgency in the north against former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh that officially ended in 2010. After Saleh's ouster, they have fought ultraconservative Islamists in several northern locations. Over the past weeks, the Houthis battled and defeated the Muslim Brotherhood group and its political arm, the Islah party.

The crisis between Hadi and the Houthis is destabilizing the country. Recently, Hadi said the power transition in the country is at the stake as the Houthis continue to mobilize their supporters to protest and threaten to topple the government by force. While the Houthis are considered a political partner and participated in the national dialog conference process, the Houthi, specifically the Hashid tribal coalition, are using the confrontation with Hadi to make political gains. For them, Hadi is a transitional figure and his implementation of oil subsidy reforms plus the six-region Yemeni federal plan, are drivers that help the Houthis gather more support. In addition, the Houthis are attempting to be the main force in the country and take control of policy making in Sanaa. Clearly, tribal politics in Yemen are going to trump external efforts to influence the outcome in Sanaa.

The Houthis’ perseverance is paying off at this time because of their robust tribal ethos

Dr. Theodore Karasik

The Houthis possess a well-thought out plan for taking Sanaa. They dug a tunnel near Saleh's property in an assassination attempt as Saleh still represents a substantial amount of influence in the capital. In a statement published by the state-run Saba News Agency, the Supreme Security Committee, headed by Hadi, said that “the security apparatus began investigating the matter and found a tunnel dug inside a warehouse to the north of Saleh's house on Sakher Street in the capital.”

There was a prior attempt on the former president’s life on June 3, 2011 during Friday prayers in al-Nahdain presidential mosque in Sanaa. Rumors circulated that the Houthis were responsible, however, the investigation committee which was formed shortly after the attack has yet to release any findings and no one has been tried. An Arab official said that other tunnels are being dug for offensive operations. The Houthis plan to divide the city into 10 sectors with 500 security forces each. This is why Houthis tribesmen now occupy rooftops in and around the city.

Of great interest in all of the Houthi action is what is to become of Yemeni Prime Minister Basindawa. The Houthis are reportedly seeking to oust Basindawa from his position. But, according to an Arab official, Basindawa should not be counted out. He argues that Basindawa’s ties with the Islah party as well as his previous Muslim Brotherhood connections makes him a potential candidate to be president; this issue provides extra context to disputes in the GCC. It is very possible that the Houthis will agree with Basindawa as the next President because of the sources of income and other support from nearby neighbors.

If the Houthis succeed

The main concern now is what happens if the Houthis succeed in their attempt to take over Sanaa and policymaking. There are two main points. The first point is that a Houthi-inspired government in Sanaa will set up an epic sectarian battle between the northern tribal group against the southern secessionists and al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). As we all know, the Houthis are Zaidi and the other groups range across the Sunni spectrum. What may possibly happen is not only fighting across Yemen but a further Balkanization of the country. One could also postulate that with some members of AQAP supporting the Islamic State, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may deploy some of his fighters to the Southern Arabian Peninsula thereby creating another “Iraq-like” situation and putting the Gulf states in a vice grip.

This outcome would bode ill for fixing Yemen and further perplex the international community in finding an outcome that prevents the country from spiraling downwards. The second point is that the “frozen conflicts” on the Yemeni-Saudi border in Jizan and Asir may erupt again.

Overall, the Houthis are making tremendous gains. Their perseverance is paying off at this time because of their robust tribal ethos. They have the means and the will power to gather more support in the coming weeks. The situation in Sanaa may be a bellwether for the rest of the country where time is running out for a political solution that works for Yemen and her neighbors.

Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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