The Yemen dilemma and its discontents

The Houthi coup in Saana that has brought the religo-ethnic group to power is a fast-moving drama

Dr. Theodore Karasik
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The Houthi coup in Saana that has brought the religo-ethnic group to power is a fast-moving drama with possibly immense ramifications for the future of the Yemeni state as we know it. When Houthi fighters overran the presidential palace of Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi a few weeks back, this act set off a flurry of speculation of what will come next. Now we know: the Houthis are in charge, for now, with members of the Hadi government’s security apparatus. Yemen’s complex politics seem to have everyone, from policymakers to analysts, on tenterhooks as to what comes next. The Yemen dilemma is a strident problem that affects the state’s complex make-up.

Regardless of the Houthis’ plan to replace the dissolved parliament with a 551-member national assembly which would then elect a five-member presidential council, which would run the country for up to two years, major problems remain the same.



The struggle between the Houthis, southern separatists, controlling Sunni tribes and al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, are all vying for influence. Added to the volatile mix is the appearance of adherents to ISIS from the ranks of AQAP. ISIS supporters are emerging from a split in AQAP that is based on shifts in tribal allegiances according to an Arab official. That ISIS will be a potential force to be reckoned with in Yemen needs to be recognized quickly given that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called on Yemeni Sunnis to resist the Houthis, not AQAP. ISIS’ dogma plays well with those Yemenis who are disenfranchised from one tribe or ethnicity based on bloodlines in the current milieu. Their numbers are now in the hundreds whereas AQAP is in the thousands.

Finding policy solutions will ultimately need to rest on bloodlines and influence from immediate regional neighbors

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Gone, for now, are the days of a national dialogue first announced in 2012 and subsequently a six-region federation plan. The Houthis, who hail from the north, wrecked the plan because former Prime Minister Hadi and Hadi’s chief of staff, Ahmad Awad Bin Mubarak, are from the south. This is why the Houthis kidnapped Mubarak a few weeks ago in the first place; to send a message to Hadi saying game over.

Shifting sands

Yemen’s deposed leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was reportedly backing the rebels’ power grab, and urging Hadi’s successor to call early elections as a way out of the deepening turmoil in the country. He also advised him to seek “national unity.” Saleh seems to be up to his old tricks.

But what Saleh and his allies seek is to coopt, from their perspective, the Houthis as they were not a real partner but a temporary alliance of convenience now gone bust. Houthi advances to control Dhubab and Makha are seen as move to suffocate Saudi Arabia and Egypt by choking the main maritime supply chain through Bab al-Mandeb as well as controlling the countries’ oil and gas pipelines along the Western coast. But the surprise is on Saleh: the Houthi coup grabbed total control and that puts all parties in to a bind that is unstable and unpredictable.

I have written before about Yemeni tribal ethos in order to understand what will come next in Yemen. Yemen’s tribes are based on blood, not on geo-spacial location. Thus, paying attention to the actors in the Yemeni drama requires unique lenses. The tribal-religious system in Yemen is based on strictures. This fact brings about family drivers with local clerics. Whereas in Yemen’s south the citizenry is educated and secular, the remainder of the country adheres to the politico-religious or, in some cases, the religio-political nature of bloodlines. An Arab official told me that with the introduction of the ISIS creed and code in Yemen that there is likely to be a possible hybrid extremist group attracting members from the Hashid and Bakil federations.

Thus, the Yemen dilemma and its discontents is finding a way out of its current divisions. For outside observers, perhaps the Yemen factions need to fix their house first. But the Houthi solution is nothing but a step in the wrong direction.


Clearly, Yemen is at another crossroads. The Gulf Cooperation Council has slammed the Houthi coup. The GCC said: “This Houthi coup is a dangerous escalation which we reject and is unacceptable. It totally contradicts the spirit of pluralism and coexistence which Yemen has known. (The coup is a) the security and stability of the region and the interests of its people.” Currently, the GCC is asking for the United Nations Security Council to intervene as a first step. The idea may be stillborn but a step in the right direction. The remedy to the situation lies in the ability for key GCC states to use their influence with various Yemeni factions.

Now riots are the order of the day and there will be more violent spasms. Saleh will try to keep all parties off balance now with the Houthis in charge. And yes, AQAP and ISIS will rear their ugly heads, and the vicious circle will continue. We should be used to the Yemen dilemma by now. Finding policy solutions will ultimately need to rest on bloodlines and influence from immediate regional neighbors.


Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Senior Advisor to Risk Insurance Management in Dubai, UAE. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets: @tkarasik

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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