Saudi Arabia and the Houthis

It’s the birth of a new Yemen, a new Syria, a new Iraq and a new Arab world

Jamal Khashoggi

Published: Updated:

How will Saudis deal with the new Yemen, a decade after the end of the conflict and the triumph of the rising power Ansar Allah who are allied with Iran and known as the Houthis? Their grandfather was Badr al-Din al-Houthi, who was previously the teacher of the al-Hamid family’s children who sought refuge in the Kingdom and settled there after the fall of the Imamate in 1970. Its princes, sheikhs and tribes were taken care of by the Saudi government. I intentionally brought up all the information in the questions above, information showing the amount of overlap, integration and opposition between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. We should realize the importance of the massive change that took place in Yemen last Monday. It is the birth of a new Yemen, added to the birth of a new Syria, a new Iraq and a new Arab world. However, I'll start the story from far away, from Italy to be exact.

From October 22-29, 1922, Italy witnessed the march towards Rome led by dictator Benito Mussolini. At that time, however, he was not a dictator but rather the savior of an Italy that was teetering and weakened by the Great War, strikes, political rivalries and the risk of Communism that was spreading. During those five days, Rome collapsed and the institutions of the state fell into the hands of the Blackshirts militia.

The situation in Yemen

A similar scenario took place last Monday in Sanaa. Just as Italy teetered and needed a revolution and a savior, so did Yemen. The February 2011 revolution was supposed to be Yemen’s lifesaver, especially as it was led by the youth and reformists who were excited about the prospect of a new democratic Yemen without tyranny, tribal sheikhs and a corrupted military. However, the deep state was more powerful than them. The youth protested for a whole year; they delivered provocative speeches and drew an image of the sort of Yemen they wanted to live in. Dozens of them were even killed while calling for the departure of the president who seemed to be the only barrier between them and their dreams. The president was overthrown but the regime did not collapse.

The youth, the transitional president, the political parties, the Muslim Brotherhood and tribal leaders have all failed to reach an agreement on implementing the requirements of the post-revolution transitional phase

Jamal Khashoggi

. They failed to set up elections during which people could choose their president, deputies and ministers, so they would then be able to hold them accountable. Subsequently, a lack of progress and frustration prevailed in the country after the promises of the revolution. As a result, someone had to fill the void and raise the slogans of the revolution. No one was able to change the situation, convictions, alliances or rivalries. In the end, the inevitable happened. The Houthis entered Sanaa in a melodramatic event, turning the tables on everyone and setting forth their conditions for a new Yemen. Their leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, did not only address his supporters, but all the Yemeni people via screens set up in the public squares of Sanaa the day after he established control of the city. He did not say what Mussolini said when he addressed the Romans in similar circumstances - “our program is simple, we want to rule Italy” - but instead he promised partnership and justice and stated that he was against the exclusion of anyone. However, the actions of his supporters towards his opponents expressed an imbalanced partnership; the strong partnered with the weak.

It is necessary for all Gulf countries to resort to Saudi Arabia before doing anything regarding Yemen’s policies

Jamal Khashoggi

Obviously, they wanted to govern Yemen and they got what they wanted. They are intelligent and they know that today’s situation can neither handle a dictator like Mussolini nor a fascist party. Zaidis do not control Yemen; they only represent one third of Yemen even if they had been in control for a thousand years before the revolution. This is why they were keen to keep the Yemeni structure as it is while seizing control of its pillars. Last Monday, they were able to storm the presidential palace and topple the weak transitional president who was abandoned by his army and government. Nevertheless, they acted in a wise manner and did not topple him because they knew that it would disintegrate Yemen and they would then only be able to control a part of it: Saada, Omran and Sanaa. Maybe they would have also expanded towards Hejja, the old stronghold of the Zaidi tribe which was home to Hashemite families that governed it just as the families of Hamid, Mutawakkil and Mouayed. However, they will not be able to reach Taiz and Aden, except in the case of a civil war, the outcome of which no one can guarantee. Therefore, they chose to let Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi remain as the president , similar to the successors of Baghdad at their weakest era, and ruled Yemen in his name. They issued, with his signature, decisions to appoint ministers, governors, army and security commanders, and set the date for elections.

At the same time, they were deployed in Sanaa, similarly to Mussolini’s Blackshirts militia, terrorizing their political opponents, taking revenge aginst their enemies and looting or blowing up their homes and businesses. This is not chaos. They knew very well that such actions was not in line with the speech of their leader, who promised his “people” that he will fight corruption, spread justice and perform charity for the vulnerable. Their actions are well calculated and directed toward the Muslim Brotherhood, the only political force that could pose a threat to their influence in the future. It is a fundamentalist ideological movement like theirs. It accepted defeat and avoided military confrontation, accepting the shift of the balance of power after the collapse of the first troop and its leader, Major General Ali Mohsen who fled with the rest of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its secretary-general, Abdulwahab al-Anesi, signed the Peace and National Partnership agreement prepared by the representative of the United Nations Jamal bin Omar.

It is clear that the Houthis will set the limits for the Brotherhood and its institutions to ensure that it won’t pose a threat to them in the future. It is also remarkable how the Houthis are targeting the February revolution’s supporters, from ministers to popular public figures, at a time when they did not attack former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his party despite it being a symbol of corruption and tyranny.

They plan their actions very well, as a politically healthy Yemen looming on the horizon in case they did not choose dictatorship and tyranny. Until now, they don’t seem to be heading down this catastrophic route. Therefore, it is better for them to marginalize the young revolution’s figures who could threaten them in any upcoming elections. As for the supporters of the former president and his party, they can easily move from one side to another.

In light of all these facts indicating that there is a new Yemen being formed upon the terms of the victorious Houthis, the choices of the countries of the region, specifically Saudi Arabia, can now be explained. First, we should admit that the party that has been most affected by the events in Yemen has been Saudi Arabia as it shares a troublesome border with the country.

Therefore, it is necessary for all Gulf countries to resort to Saudi Arabia before doing anything regarding Yemen’s policies. Secondly, Houthis are full-blooded Yemenis and no one has been able to exterminate them, even when they were simply a group of angry fighters in Saada. Therefore, it is impossible to exterminate them now, after they have become a dominant party in Sanaa. No one can correct the past’s mistakes and the Saudi kingdom cannot prevent an independent Yemen from choosing its friends and allies. It is no secret that the Houthis have strong ties with Iran; the latter share strong influence with Saudi Arabia in Yemen and Lebanon.

The best choice is to support the transition of Yemen towards a democratic system of governance and prevent the Houthis from opting for a quick solution to the conflict. If that were to happen, the Houthis would work on transforming Yemen (or an important part of it) into an Iranian reserve. Otherwise, it will be the spark for a civil war that will reach Saudi territory before reaching other countries which are unstable. We should deal with Yemen as if it is on the edge of a volcano that could erupt at any time, especially with the presence of irresponsible parties which could start the war. Such parties include al-Qaeda, which has begun with its typical suicide operations.

Establishing a democratic Yemen is the solution. If this were to happen, the Saudi Kingdom would then find an ally in Yemen, which needs its support and protection. The establishment of democracy would achieve a balance with the Houthis, preventing them from monopolizing power and making decisions that can harm the interests of Saudi Arabia. In the end, if one fails to do something, he should not give up on everything.


(Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.)

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