What's Going On In Yemen?

Jan 20, 2015
Originally published on January 21, 2015 7:42 am

Even in the best of times, it's hard to tell if anyone is in control of Yemen.

It's a particularly pressing question Tuesday amid reports that Shiite Houthi rebels have seized the presidential palace in the poor, unstable nation at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Some government officials called it a coup, while the rebels said it wasn't. But there's been no official word on the status of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

The larger question is what all this could mean as Yemen goes through its latest upheaval. Here's a quick look at some of the potential ramifications:

A Weak President: President Hadi has never been able to fully establish his authority since he came to power in 2012 in the wake of sustained protests that forced out Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled for more than three decades. Like most other Arab uprisings, Yemen's revolutionary spirit has faded as the country lurches from one crisis to the next.

Houthi rebels, known as the Partisans of God, seized on Hadi's weakness and reached the capital, Sanaa, last September. The two sides negotiated an awkward deal that allowed the rebels to control parts of the city.

The Houthis had checkpoints at some government buildings, at the airport and near the presidential palace itself. This unusual arrangement was fraught with problems and collapsed when the Houthis abducted the president's chief of staff on Saturday.

Even if Hadi somehow survives this drama, it has only reinforced the notion that he has limited power at best.

Who Are The Houthis? The Houthis are an offshoot of Shiite Islam that is known as Zaydism, and they have put together a militia that has been fighting the central government on and off for the past decade.

The Houthi leader, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, 33, is considered a saint by his followers. The militia, which is widely believed to be backed by Iran, says it is willing to work with other groups in Yemen and would like a democracy.

But the majority Sunnis feel threatened by the minority Houthis, whose rise could easily lead to increased sectarian friction in Yemen, the poorest of the 22 Arab countries.

"Yemen could become another Afghanistan — a failed state dominated by warlords and extremists, and with even fewer prospects for the young revolutionaries who just three years ago thought their nightmare had ended," Middle East analyst Robin Wright wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

Setback For The U.S.: Just four months ago, President Obama described Yemen as a success story in the fight against terrorism. The U.S. has been working closely with Hadi, and the clear priority has been targeting al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

This took on added urgency following the recent mass shooting at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. AQAP claimed responsibility for the carnage.

Al-Qaida in Yemen has been linked to several major international plots and is widely seen as the most dangerous al-Qaida franchise at present. The U.S. has carried out more than 100 drone strikes against militants in Yemen since 2002, including 23 last year.

The U.S. says it needs a reliable partner in Yemen, and the latest sign of chaos could make it even more difficult for the U.S. and its allies to track al-Qaida in Yemen.

A Blow To Saudi Arabia: Aside from Yemen itself, Saudi Arabia is probably the country most distressed by the turmoil in Yemen, its southern neighbor.

The Saudis are always nervous about Yemen's instability seeping across the border. The Saudis strongly backed Hadi as president and are staunchly opposed to the Houthis. Last year, the Saudis declared the Houthi militias to be a terrorist organization.

Yemen is also a key battleground in the larger regional conflict between the Saudis, who see themselves as the leader of Sunni Islam, and Iran, the center of Shiite Islam. Tuesday's developments just made the fight a little more intense.

Greg Myre is the international editor for NPR.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregmyre1

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.