Saudi influence diminished in Yemen as Houthis gain power

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Armed Yemenis loyal to the Houthi movement gesture during a tribal gathering at an anti-government protest camp on the northern outskirts of Sanaa on September 4, 2014. (Photo: AFP-Mohammed Huwais)

By: Fouad al-Ibrahim

Published Tuesday, September 23, 2014

With the downfall of the Saudi project in Yemen, dubbed a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative, the Kingdom realized it was no longer the main regional actor as it remains bogged down by internal conflicts and the ramifications of problems not far from its borders and as the world around it changes rapidly, with unforeseeable consequences.

In light of the sudden revolution in Yemen, Saudi Arabia embarked on several remedial steps, beginning with blessing the UN-sponsored political agreement between the Houthi umbrella group Ansar Allah and other Yemeni political factions on Sunday, which was attended by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. It then sent its new ambassador to Sanaa one day after the government's resignation and, according to Houthi sources, following the escape of Saudi strongman General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar to a Gulf embassy. Al-Ahmar is the head of the first armored division, dissolved by an unimplemented presidential decree.

On Monday, Yemen's history changed in favor of the popular revolution of February 2011. Its next phase has begun with overthrowing the government brought to power by the Saudi-led GCC initiative in 2011. The initiative was rejected by the revolutionaries at the time for providing legal immunity to deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh and for allowing him and his ministers to return through the national unity government. Yesterday, however, the revolution in its next phase confirmed the failure of the Saudi initiative. In his resignation speech, Prime Minister Salem Basindwa directed his criticism towards the GCC initiative and the president for monopolizing power and rejecting the power sharing arrangement enshrined in the initiative.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, which is tied down by its own domestic political quagmire and problems related to the situation on its borders, is more convinced today that is it no longer the main regional actor. The world around it is changing rapidly and the consequences are unforeseeable. Riyadh could benefit from some humility, after paying a big price for its "arrogant evasion" and the expected cost of ignoring the new formulas being created by competitive forces, big and small.

Both Saudi Arabia and the Yemenis are convinced that the second chapter of the revolution toppled the Saudi dynasty in Yemen. The quick reactions of the Kingdom add to these convictions and will impact the way Yemenis deal with the developments. Since the first demonstration on January 16, 2011, Yemenis knew that Saudi Arabia would be the first country to oppose the Yemeni youth’s revolution and will act quickly to keep the regime intact. But Yemen is not Bahrain, Peninsula Shield forces could not be sent to the cities of the Yemeni revolution to protect vital installations, or rather to safeguard the regime, as it did in Bahrain. The Gulf initiative was the counter-revolution set up by the Saudis and other Gulf actors to reproduce the old regime with new faces.

Yemenis from all over the country and its different religious sects saw the fall of the Saudi project. The revolutionaries, headed by Houthi group Ansar Allah, subdued the sectarian discourse, ready to be deployed in such situations. This was mainly for two reasons: the diverse popular participation in the revolutionary change and the quick and efficient political negotiations. The Houthis did not capitalize on their gains on the ground like other military formations, which is unique in Yemen. They are the most capable of fulfilling the role of an opposition in the next phase, which is to remain closer to the spirit and goals of the people.

In other words, they prefer to guard the revolution, rather than participate in reaping its rewards in power. They inherited this conviction from their later founder Sayyed Hussein al-Houthi, who often stressed to his cadre the need to control the ground and keep a distance from governance. This could be to reassure the Saudis, who are obsessed with [fighting] the "Iranian plot" in the region. However, the popular consensus in Yemen is that there should be no turning back. Saudi influence needs to be exchanged for the principle of "neighborly relations," "non-interference in internal matters," and "cooperation in the interest of both countries and peoples."

Saudi Arabia used to treat Yemen as its "backyard," sticking its nose in all its affairs and putting its political class, army command, tribal chiefs, and party leaders on its payroll. Yet the radical transformation currently taking place in Yemen compelled Wahabi Sheikh Abu Maria al-Qahtani, a former sharia sheikh in al-Nusra Front, to call for a Sunni counter-revolution against what he termed the revolution of al-Rafidah.

However, the recent revolutionary uprising involved all sorts of groups and several major cities (Taaz, al-Hadida, Shabwa, and others). Leaders of popular committees from all components of society coordinated their positions on the ground and in the capital, especially to protect government facilities.

Ansar Allah delivered several reassuring messages aimed at the Yemenis and the outside world. First and foremost, they preferred a minimal partnership rather than full involvement in power, in order to safeguard their popular base and due to their faith-based anxiety of the corruption of power, choosing to maintain the gains of the revolution. The Houthis are keeping the lines to Riyadh open. However, it is not to debate the goals of the revolutionary mobilizations, but to send a clear message that it does not threaten anyone. It is in Yemeni hands and in the interest of all Yemenis.

Whatever the perceptions of decision-makers in Riyadh about the situation in their southern neighbor are, the Saudi position seems to be unraveling, at least in terms of its relationship with Iran. Saud al-Faisal met the Iranian foreign minister and issued a memorable statement about dual influence and setting an appointment for his Iranian counterpart, Mohammed Javad Zarif, to visit Riyadh at a later date.

While political coincidences are rare, if not impossible, the meeting between al-Faisal and Zarif in New York was not merely seasonal. The revolutionary transformation in Yemen, the threat of ISIS, and other issues, such as the “popular revolution in Bahrain” and the Syrian crisis were also present at the meeting. In case the two sides decide to partake in serious negotiations, the dossiers of Lebanon, Iraq, and other countries will be added to the mix.

Until the date of the meeting, Riyadh will realize that the quadripartite alliance (Abed Rabbo Mansour – despite his southern socialist background, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and al-Islah party) announced in Riyadh months ago has quickly fallen apart. It has become difficult to speak of actual Saudi influence, especially with the popular decision, expressed by the revolutionaries, not to be fooled again by oil money.

Fouad al-Ibrahim is a researcher and political activist.

(Al-Akhbar)

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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