Zaidis Re-Emerge on Yemen's Political Scene

7 MINS READOct 2, 2014 | 09:15 GMT
The Re-Emergence of the Zaidis on Yemen's Political Scene
Yemeni Zaidis shout slogans during a protest outside the headquarters of Yemen's national security service in Sanaa on June 10, 2013.

For the first time since the fall of its imamate in 1962, northern Yemen's Zaidi community, which follows a branch of Shiite Islam, is poised to play a defining role in the country's political transition. Led by the charismatic Abdul-Malik al-Houthi and his tribesmen, the northern Zaidis have emerged as the best-organized and most effective fighting force in Yemen and have strong-armed the weak and divided regime in Sanaa into conceding to several key demands. With the regime's traditional backers in Riyadh lacking options and state security forces spread thin on multiple fronts, the al-Houthis will try to capitalize on recent victories to ensure a greater Zaidi political stake in Sanaa, as well as greater autonomy for their own mountainous region in the north. In due time, the re-emergence of the al-Houthis will provide Iran with a key point of leverage in negotiations with its Saudi adversary, but it could also lead to security and political vacuums that groups such as the Southern Secessionist Movement and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula could exploit.

Following weeks of demonstrations in Sanaa by thousands of Zaidis — many of whom were armed — that did not result in the Sunni-dominated government's capitulation, the al-Houthis adopted more aggressive measures. During clashes that left more than 150 dead between Sept. 18 and 20, al-Houthi militants besieged and occupied key government buildings, including the Defense Ministry, an army command center, the parliament building, the central bank and the state television compound. In part because local troops and security forces offered little resistance to the al-Houthis, Yemeni President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi's government had little choice but to sign a U.N.-brokered deal with the Shiite rebels Sept. 21.

Graphic: The Re-Emergence of the Zaidis on Yemen's Political Scene

Under the terms of the agreement, Prime Minister Mohammed Salim Basindawa would step down and be replaced by a neutral candidate within three days. Though Basindawa did step down, his replacement has yet to be named. Unpopular cuts to fuel subsidies, which had provided the initial impetus for al-Houthi demonstrations, were rolled back by around 25 percent, and Hadi is now required to take on a presidential adviser from both the al-Houthi and southern secessionist camps. More important, according to the agreement, a national unity government guided by a new constitution is to be formed within the month, with the al-Houthis reportedly set to take over several key Cabinet positions. In exchange, Abdul-Malik agreed to remove his supporters' camps from Sanaa's outskirts and to return occupied buildings to state control. Both sides have yet to follow through on many of their commitments, however, and heavy fighting between al-Houthis and their tribal and Islamist rivals continues in al-Jawf province, northeast of the capital.

The Saudi Factor

Saudi Arabia, which initiated an air campaign against the al-Houthis in 2009 when the group's military strength threatened to overwhelm Yemeni security forces, has remained strangely quiet over the past few weeks. Part of this may reflect the diminished influence the Saudis have had with their traditional partners in northern Yemen since the country's 2011 uprising. The Saudi policy of confronting regional Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organizations has alienated two of Riyadh's most important allies in Yemen: the powerful al-Ahmar tribal clan and former commander of the First Armored Division Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (no relation), both powerful players within Yemen's Muslim Brotherhood branch, the al-Islah party. Stratfor sources in Sanaa have highlighted Riyadh's deteriorating ties within northern Yemen's tribal landscape, which is increasingly identifying with Islamist and jihadist ideologies that pose immediate threats to the kingdom's interests.

More important, Riyadh is reluctant to intervene in northern Yemen because it is preoccupied with its involvement in Syria and fears Islamic State activity could spread to Saudi Arabia. Now a formal participant in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State in eastern Syria, Saudi Arabia cannot afford to be tied down militarily on two fronts and does not want to risk upsetting its own restive Shiite minority, which may sympathize with the al-Houthis, particularly those in southwestern Saudi Arabia. Riyadh also has an immediate stake in the future of Iraq's Sunni community, leaving the kingdom with little reserve bandwidth to deal with developments toward its southwestern border. In many ways, a resurgent Zaidi powerbroker in Yemen could satisfy Riyadh's short-term interests by ensuring some form of stability in historically restive northern Yemen and by keeping al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's activities focused on the Shia as opposed to the Saudis. At the moment, the al-Houthis may represent the lesser of two evils from the Saudi perspective, a concept supported by our Yemeni sources.

Another actor who has remained quiet throughout Yemen's crisis is former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, of Zaidi descent himself, who is rumored to retain clandestine ties with some al-Houthi elements and who has actively sought to counter Hadi's control of the state. As a result of his 22 years in power, Saleh reportedly enjoys a substantial patronage network within Yemen's armed forces despite Hadi's attempts over the past few years to replace senior commanders with his own cadre of supporters. However, the relative ease with which the al-Houthis managed to occupy a city of 2 million and the lack of direct confrontation between security forces and al-Houthi militants remains suspicious. Indeed, most reports indicate that there were instances where the military and police units simply handed over institutions and districts. In some cases, authorities reportedly ordered security personnel to avoid antagonizing the rebels. Hadi himself has described the developments as part of a well-planned coup, and Foreign Minister Jamal al-Salal alleged during his speech at the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 29 that the al-Houthis had received political and logistical support from the former regime. Stratfor will be closely monitoring Saleh's activities over the coming weeks in the event the former president attempts to capitalize on Hadi's current predicament.

Conflict Areas in Yemen

Conflict Areas in Yemen

At the moment, there is no other cohesive force that could effectively challenge al-Houthi military might in northern Yemen. The Yemeni armed forces are spread thin on multiple fronts, carrying out campaigns against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — particularly in Shabwa, Abyan and, most recently, Hadramawt provinces — while containing secessionists in the south and rebellious tribes in Marib. Brigades operating in northern Yemen who fall under the sixth military district have suffered humiliating and repeated defeats at the hands of the al-Houthis, and many remain fractured and scattered. Tribesmen loyal to al-Islah and the al-Ahmars have been pushed out of much of their traditional territory in the north by the al-Houthis and have struggled to contain al-Houthi offensives in al-Jawf province. It remains to be seen whether al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula can pose an effective challenge to the Zaidi rebels of northern Yemen.

Central Authority Erodes

The al-Houthis will work to take advantage of the existing security vacuum, and Saudi Arabia's lack of options will likely pressure Hadi into additional political concessions in the near future. To achieve this end, Abdel-Malik will use his ability to incite a new round of violence in the capital to his advantage and will continue military offensives in al-Jawf. When the new Cabinet is eventually announced, the al-Houthis will likely acquire several key ministerial positions. As Sanaa continues its constitutional drafting process, the al-Houthis will look to redefine the boundaries of their proposed federal region to include Hajja province, which will offer the group formal access to the Red Sea, and al-Jawf province, which is strategically located near central Yemen's large Marib oil fields. By expanding territory beyond their traditional capital-intensive, mountainous enclave of Saada and by forging a greater role in Yemen's political process, the Zaidis could ensure a degree of autonomy for themselves not seen since the times of the imamate.

For Iran, a country long suspected of providing funding, armaments and training to the Shiite al-Houthis, the rise of the Zaidis is a strategic victory in its proxy war against Riyadh. As Iran and Saudi Arabia vie for influence in states such as Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, the al-Houthi role in Yemen will be an increasingly important bargaining chip. In many ways, by combining a political stake in Sanaa with a powerful militia outside state control in the northern mountains, the al-Houthis are poised to play a role akin to Lebanon's Hezbollah. The al-Houthi's relationship with Iran, however, is far less overt and substantial than Hezbollah's, diminishing Tehran's ultimate sway within the group, at least in the short term.

Power is increasingly devolving away from Sanaa, carrying important consequences for the broader state and region. Regional movements such as the southern secessionists and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which see a weakened government that is preoccupied with events back in Sanaa and the collapse of security forces in the face of al-Houthi aggression, will be emboldened to reassert control in their own respective regions. In fact, according to independent newspaper al-Wasat, days after the al-Houthi occupation of Sanaa, the Southern Mobility Movement announced the establishment of a Southern Military Council for the purpose of seizing control of southern provinces and laying the foundations for the region's independence. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has also reportedly seized on paralysis in the capital to carry out a number of attacks on al-Houthi and state security forces in recent weeks. Regardless of how the fragmented Yemeni landscape becomes, it is clear the al-Houthi movement has catapulted itself into the national mainstream and is no longer just a regional sectarian rebel movement.

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