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Jul 20, 2011 | 21:34 GMT

7 mins read

The Yemeni Political Crisis Stagnates

AFP/Getty Images
The political crisis in Yemen has entered a new phase of stagnation: The clan of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is making a slow comeback, but neither the regime nor the increasingly fractured opposition has enough leverage to stabilize the country.

Getting Around the Constitution

Saleh remains in Saudi Arabia, where he has been since June 4 for medical treatment following a June 3 attack at his presidential compound. Saudi Arabia, through the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has been struggling to broker an accord wherein Saleh would leave office within 30 days, and fresh elections would be held within 60 days of its signing. Key to the deal's success is Riyadh's ability to render Saleh politically impotent. One way of doing this was to keep Saleh out of Yemen using the medical reasons as an excuse and wait out a constitutional mandate that calls for the president to fully transfer his powers if he is unable to return to Yemen or perform presidential duties within 60 days of his absence. That deadline would have fallen on the first week of August, but Saleh has circumvented this constitutional barrier by holding an official visit with White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan on July 10 in Riyadh. A Yemeni government source told STRATFOR that Saleh is using the Brennan visit to demonstrate that he remains active in performing his presidential duties, thereby rendering the upcoming deadline irrelevant and providing himself with more power to drag out the negotiations over a political transition. Though U.S. government officials involved in the Yemen issue still appear to be stuck on trying to make the GCC deal work, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the deal is largely defunct and that the Saudi government does not yet appear to have an alternate plan.

Opposition Splits and the Al-Houthi Factor

Further complicating matters for Saudi Arabia — and benefiting Saleh's faction — is the increased fracturing of the opposition. Two rival opposition interim councils have been formed thus far with the aim of serving as a shadow government in preparation for the potential collapse of the Saleh government. The first was formed July 16 by youth activists and former government officials, including former Prime Minister Haidar al-Attas and former Defense Minister Abdallah al-Iwah. Protest leader Tawakul Karman said the 17-member transitional presidential council would appoint a technocratic government and announce a 501-member shadow parliament to draft a new constitution. The creation of this council expectedly sparked condemnation by members of the Saleh regime but, more important, drew sharp criticism from the official opposition Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) coalition, which hastily announced July 20 the "National Council for the Forces of the Revolution" in an attempt to bring the opposition together. Even between these two rival councils, there are still substantial segments of the opposition that are left out, most notably the southern separatists and the northern al-Houthis. The southern separatists are highly fractious, but they are firmly opposed to any deal that favors the al-Ahmar clan, which has led the tribal revolt against Saleh's government. Al-Houthis are also extremely distrustful of the JMP opposition, especially those who pledge their allegiance to Yemen's most prominent army defector, Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who was the leading commander in the state's fight against al-Houthi rebels. Al-Houthis, concerned that they have been largely sidelined from the opposition negotiations, first attempted to broker a truce with the JMP around mid-June, but that truce had collapsed by mid-July. Al-Houthi rebels, who have already been taking advantage of Sanaa's distractions since mid-March to consolidate their hold in Saada province, have been attempting to seize control of neighboring al-Jawf province from pro-JMP tribes. As these deadly clashes have been taking place in the north between al-Houthis and the opposition tribes, STRATFOR has been told by a Yemeni source that al-Houthi leaders are now reaching out to Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president's son and commander of the Republican Guard, for a truce, providing the Saleh faction with a potential ally — even if only temporarily — against the opposition. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has an increasing concern over the escalation in al-Houthi militant activity, fearing that the al-Houthi rebellion could spill over into Saudi Arabia's southern provinces of Najran and Jizan, which are home to the Ismailis, who, like al-Houthis, are considered an offshoot of Shiite Islam. While remaining alert for signs of Iranian meddling in the al-Houthi conflict, Saudi Arabia appears to be relying principally on local Sunni jihadist groups to contain al-Houthi rebels. Yemen's main Islamist movement and driving force of the JMP, al Islah, has been attempting to dislodge al-Houthis from al-Jawf province with Saudi backing but so far does not appear to be having much success. If Saleh can manage to demonstrate some negotiating clout with al-Houthis, his faction has the potential to build up leverage in negotiating with Riyadh a political transition for Yemen that favors the Saleh clan.

A Bit of Financial Relief for the Regime

The Saleh regime also appears to be making some headway in rebuilding the necessary tribal support to restart vital oil production. Yemen only produces about 260,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude, but the country relies on oil revenues for roughly 25 percent of gross domestic product and 70 percent of government revenue. An attack by tribesmen seeking retaliation against the Saleh regime in mid-March on an oil pipeline in northeastern Marib province completely cut off crude to the 150,000-bpd coastal refinery of Aden in the south. Both the state and locals suffering from widespread fuel shortages were deeply affected by the cutoff, and the resulting backlash resulted in Marib tribesmen, led by Sheikh Ali Jabiral Shabwani, appealing to the Saleh government to repair the pipeline. The pipeline repairs reportedly have been completed, and the Saleh government intends to use the oil revenues, as well as 3 million-bpd gifts from both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to try to stabilize itself financially. The country's massive black market for fuel will continue to exacerbate Yemen's fuel problems, but the government hopes to use a lift in oil revenues to buy additional tribal and political support for the regime.

The Fight Against AQAP

Since the start of Yemen's political crisis, jihadist groups, most notably al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have taken advantage of Sanaa's preoccupations to expand their areas of operation in Abyan province, particularly in the districts of Zinjibar and Lawder. The Yemeni military has struggled to contain these groups, due in no small part to political divisions within the tribal landscape. There is also a strong political element to the conflict, as military defectors loyal to Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar were dispatched to the area to fight AQAP in an attempt to demonstrate to the United States that anti-Saleh military elements also are committed to fighting jihadists. Pro-Saleh military forces moved in quickly and in larger numbers to claim credit for the fight against a web of jihadists (going by different names like Aden-Abyan Army and Ansar al-Shariah) ambiguously grouped under the broad AQAP label, yet not necessarily under AQAP's command. This struggle will continue, but the Saleh government appears to have made some progress in building support among Abyan tribes to try to expel militants that the government claims are AQAP-affiliated. Clashes in the south between the Yemeni military backed up by armed tribesmen against Islamist militia groups have increased in recent weeks. It is unlikely that the military operations will put a serious dent in Yemen's jihadist movement given the prevailing chaotic conditions in the country that favor such groups. But it remains to be seen whether pro-Saleh military forces will be able to — at minimum — prevent these jihadist groups from expanding their tribal support base.

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