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Oct 16, 2014 | 09:30 GMT

7 mins read

Yemen's al-Houthi Rebels Seize a Strategic Port

(MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Yemen's Zaidi al-Houthi rebels have gained control of the strategic Red Sea port city of al-Hudaydah, further strengthening their negotiating position in back-channel talks with the government of Yemeni President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi. Seizing Yemen's second-largest port is a dramatic move intended to pressure Sanaa into making concessions on key points of disagreement between the government and the rebels. The move also signals that the al-Houthis still retain key levers with which to threaten Hadi's economic interests — and legitimacy — if the government continues to stall in reaching a political settlement. 

It is likely that the fall of al-Hudaydah and the threat of further rebel aggression will force Hadi to accommodate al-Houthi demands. If he fails to do so, the rebels could respond with attempts to expand their territory or disrupt the country's vital oil industry.

A number of local Yemeni news outlets reported Oct. 14 that several thousand al-Houthi militants had rapidly — and facing seemingly little resistance — established control over a majority of al-Hudaydah, Yemen's fourth-largest city. The al-Houthis and their allies now control (or are in the process of gaining control of) al-Hudaydah's port complex and international airport, as well as several administrative buildings, a local armory and a military base. The rebels have also established checkpoints and have begun conducting armed patrols throughout most of the city. Reports conflict as to whether al-Hudaydah Gov. Sakhr al-Wajeeh — a former finance minister with reported links to Yemen's Muslim Brotherhood branch, the al-Islah party — has submitted his resignation or is mediating between locals and al-Houthi commanders. Initial indications show that local security forces were ordered to stand down as the al-Houthis entered the city. Rumors that elements of Yemen's 10th Brigade, made up of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's elite Republican Guard units, may have facilitated the takeover once again raise questions about Saleh's potential involvement in the conflict.

The Importance of al-Hudaydah

The port city of al-Hudaydah, once labeled by the World Bank as the "agro-industrial capital of Yemen," is a central node for Yemen's non-oil economy and handles the bulk of the country's total cargo imports. The city is an important transportation hub both domestically, with major highways running north and south along the coast and east to Sanaa, and internationally, with Red Sea shipping lanes. Al-Hudaydah is also surrounded by Yemen's most important agricultural region, the Tihama plain. Notably, reports indicate that the port city has long served as a critical smuggling hub for al-Islah leaders, particularly former Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. The al-Houthis have long perceived al-Islah, a party with Sunni tribal, Islamist and Salafist links, as their principal rival in northern Yemen.

Al-Hudaydah, Yemen

Al-Hudaydah, Yemen

Perhaps more important is the city's location a mere 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of the Ras Isa floating terminal, which exports oil produced in the vast Marib fields via the 435-kilometer Marib-Ras Isa pipeline. The pipeline transports between 70,000 and 110,000 barrels per day of the nation's average production of 125,000 barrels per day. Ras Isa and the nearby Saleef port complex have not yet fallen under al-Houthi control, but the threat of additional disruptions to an already troubled oil sector is certainly disconcerting for Yemeni leaders. With the country's oil revenues fluctuating wildly and the central bank severely strapped for cash, the al-Houthi occupation of such a critical economic hub would pose a serious threat to the government. It would also present an opportunity for the al-Houthis, who have long sought to control a major Red Sea port through which they could generate revenues and gain access to global transportation lanes.

Rebels' Motives and Next Steps

The al-Houthis are well aware of the panic their occupation of al-Hudaydah will cause in Sanaa, and they are likely expecting the move to spur progress in their negotiations with Hadi, as the al-Houthi occupation of Sanaa did. But since the Sept. 21 announcement of a U.N.-brokered cease-fire in the capital, Hadi has been slow to meet the demands of al-Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi. These demands include greater political representation, a larger share of the national wealth, restructuring proposed federalization boundaries and potentially incorporating Zaidi militants into state security forces. While the al-Houthis have managed to successfully install a neutral prime minister (over Hadi's objections), the decision took weeks of behind-the-scenes political jockeying.

As al-Houthi leaders look toward the next step in the movement's political re-emergence — the formation of a new Cabinet in Sanaa — the militants will seek to gain control of several ministries and access powerful deputy positions within key security, financial and energy posts. Doing so will enable the al-Houthis to manage the government from behind the scenes without being seen as the face of the new administration — a role not unlike that of Lebanon's Hezbollah or Iraq's influential Shiite militias. 

Yemen's Looming Water Crisis

Conflict Areas in Yemen

To achieve this goal, al-Houthi understands that he will need to strike at or threaten the regime's vulnerable points: the ports along the western coast and the oil fields in the country's center. By imposing a new military reality on the ground, the al-Houthi militants are hoping to avoid the deadlock they encountered with the prime ministerial selection process. In fact, there are rumors the group is preparing for a new offensive across the northwestern border of Marib province, home to a large share of Yemen's oil reserves. Meanwhile, militias aligned with the al-Houthis have begun to expand their security presence south of Sanaa in the mountainous Dhamar province, which lies at the southernmost tip of traditional Zaidi territory, occupying the provincial capital — again reportedly with the help of Saleh-linked elements — and forcing the governor to resign. Early reports also indicate that dozens of al-Houthi fighters seized the nearby city of Ibb on Oct. 15 and have begun advancing tentatively on Bayda and Taiz provinces.

Challenges Ahead

These strategies to gain leverage will increasingly draw the militants out of their traditional mountainous strongholds and into Sunni-majority territories. For example, the western coastline, though sparsely populated, is home to a Sunni Arab majority. The city of al-Hudaydah itself is overwhelmingly Sunni, and there are already reports of local resistance forming under the Tahami Movement, a Sunni organization based along Yemen's northwestern coast. Looking elsewhere, the al-Houthis risk encroaching on the heartland of the country's southern separatist movement by extending too far south of Dhamar province, into predominantly Sunni territory with a history of activity by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Likewise, if the al-Houthi militants attempt to seize the oil fields in eastern Marib province in Yemen's central interior, they would have to cross arid land that is home to some of Yemen's most notoriously territorial and fiercely autonomous Sunni tribes and an AQAP stronghold. In fact, Oct. 14 reports claim that tribesmen in Marib province have begun welcoming AQAP fighters from the nearby Hadramawt, Shabwa and Abyan provinces, perhaps seeking to bolster their defenses against a potential al-Houthi incursion. The risks of attacking these alternative targets likely contributed to al-Houthi's ultimate decision to target the coastline.

The Sectarian Divide in Northern Yemen

The Sectarian Divide in Northern Yemen

Al-Houthi militants also face the danger of overextending their manpower and resources by expanding too far, too fast. The rebels are currently engaged in heavy fighting against al-Islah supporters and tribesmen in the northern al-Jawf province while simultaneously occupying Sanaa, a city of nearly 2 million people. Expanding too far beyond their current territory could also open up a new front against heavier concentrations of state military forces. Marib province alone is home to some three battalions — an organized force larger than the force the militants encountered on the road to Sanaa. Meanwhile, AQAP has announced that it will begin targeting the Zaidi rebels more regularly; an Oct. 9 suicide bombing targeted an al-Houthi checkpoint in the capital and left more than 50 dead.

These challenges will likely constrain al-Houthi territorial ambitions for the time being, as their leaders focus on political negotiations and capitalize on the newfound leverage gained by the occupation of al-Hudaydah. Hadi cannot afford to let the Ras Isa export terminal, one of his country's most important economic lifelines, fall to the rebels. The president is also aware that the longer his government appears to be held hostage by the northern Zaidis, the further his credibility and legitimacy will decline and the more emboldened regional entities will become. The Southern Secessionist Movement already held demonstrations in Aden on Oct. 14, the 51st anniversary of southern Yemen's insurgency against British occupation. The demonstrations took place amid rumors that exiled southern leaders are beginning to return to the country to launch a new bid for independence, as well as reports of the secessionists demanding that all oil and natural gas firms halt exports immediately until they agree to operate under southern jurisdiction.

Hadi is likely to cave in the face of such overwhelming pressure, but the al-Houthis will be ready to respond should he choose to stand firm in negotiations. If the need arises, al-Houthi will likely choose to pursue the less risky option of asserting control south of the capital near Dhamar province and possibly in the crucial coastal port cities of Ras Isa and Saleef. The al-Houthis' ability to solidify their territorial control highlights their re-emergence in northern Yemen as a regional power broker and underscores Sanaa's rapidly declining ability to maintain its authority in the country's hinterlands.

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