Yemen and the US fighting al-Qaeda

Yemen and the US fighting al-Qaeda

The Shia Houthi rebels of Yemen occupied the presidential palace in the capital Sanaa forcing President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and his government to resign. This leaves de facto control to the Houthi rebels, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.

The Speaker of Yemen’s Parliament, Yahida Al-Rai, is likely to assume executive responsibility, according to the constitution. He is a political protegee of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced to relinquish power in 2011 following the Arab Spring uprising. It will be interesting to see what working arrangements the speaker employs with the Houthis.

The most dangerous section of al-Qaeda operates out of Yemen. President Hadi was a close ally of the US, which is fighting al-Qaeda with limited success.

Saudi Arabia also supported President Hadi and his moderate Sunni government.

Saudi Arabia is a rich country with some 29 million people. Yemen, its southern neighbour, is very poor and has a similar population of some 25 million. Saudi concerns are exacerbated by the fact that nearly 40 per cent of Yemen's population is Shia. The Saudis are therefore also worried about the influence of Iran.

The Houthi, one of Yemen’s largest ethnic groups living mainly in the north, are Shia. They are anti-American with sympathies towards Iran and Hezbollah, a fundamentally Shia organisation operating in Lebanon and Syria.

But the Houthis also fiercely oppose al-Qaeda.

Other warring groups are also operating in Yemen. Al-Islah is a fundamental Sunni Wahhabi movement clashing with the government and the Houthis. Al-Hirak is a southern secessionist movement, concerned at being overrun by the Houthis. They hope to exploit Yemen’s turmoil to achieve independence in the south.

America is dropping its former government allies and seems willing to collaborate with the Houthi rebels in the fight against al-Qaeda. This is in line with the general approach US President Barack Obama’s administration seems to take with its former enemy Iran. Washington appears to nourish the hope that the Houthis will follow the Yemeni government’s anti al-Qaeda strategy.

This poses a big problem for Saudi Arabia and its new king. It presents Iran with possibilities of a bridgehead in Saudi Arabia's south and could help destabilise the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen, and especially its southern part, the former British protectorate of Aden, has a pre-eminent strategic position, controlling the sea passageway from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.

Yemen is separated only by a narrow stretch of sea from the Horn of Africa. This is a strategically important area where the Sahaba terrorist movement operates.

The US decision to abandon its former allies almost immediately and support the Houthi rebels could prove to be very short-sighted. This will reinforce the perception in the area that America is an unreliable partner.

Related reports:

Yemen’s turmoil poses wider threat

Arab Spring fails to deliver peace or stability in the Middle East

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