Yemen on the Brink: As Houthis Rise, The State Unravels

January 9, 2015 Topic: SecurityDomestic Politics Region: Yemen

Yemen on the Brink: As Houthis Rise, The State Unravels

The fight for the unity of Yemen will be both a struggle for the survival of the present Yemeni state and a battle over control of resources.


Al-Jafari said “we will use all political means to gain our independence, unless someone attacks us." He warned of the dangers of delay because “others will enter the scene and disrupt things.” In an even more blunt comment, he added that tensions could rise if the world remains silent, although “we do not want our people to resort to violence.”

Hirak parties, according to Mr. Al Jafari, sent letters to the United Nations Security Council, the U.S. Congress, the European Parliament and the British Parliament condemning northern Yemen's “occupation of the South,” and urging their support for southern independence in the context of a confederation with the North.


The southern leaders are assuring the West in general and the United States in particular that south Yemen has a moderate society and culture that does not welcome extremism. Al-Jafari insists that the politics of Al Qaeda are alien to southern Yemen and that an independent state there would be a firm partner in the fight against terrorism.

The Houthis have been probing into southern territories and their triumphalist hubris might lead them to try to take control over all of Yemen. But many believe it would be a strategic mistake for the Houthis to enter southern Yemen. Al-Jafari said it will not be easy for the Houthis to begin operating in the south, and called on them to “stay in your geographic area—otherwise the situation will deteriorate for the worse." But others are concerned that Aden might not fare better than Sanaa if the Houthis launched a major offensive against it with their heavy weapons and allies in the north, who are adamantly opposed to southern secession.

This prospect is causing Yemen’s neighbors to lose a great deal of sleep. A Houthi controlled Yemen, with strong support and influence from Iran, will have significant strategic implications and further destabilize the region. Saudi Arabia still supports the Gulf Initiative and Yemen’s unity even though southern secession would mean that the borders of a new southern state would occupy 1,200 of the 1,800 kilometer border that presently exists between the two countries. The border with the Houthi-controlled north would then be much smaller—a mere 600 kilometers—and therefore much easier to control and defend, according to a Gulf expert.

This suggests it may ultimately prove in Saudi Arabia’s interest to have a stable and viable Southern Arab state in Yemen that limits the influence of Iran to North Yemen. The Gulf expert quipped, “it is better to lose half of Yemen to Iran than to lose all of it.”

Can the South unite?

A major test for the southern movement will be an all-party congress that was scheduled for the end of December or sometime in early January but seems to be a moving target. Whenever it takes place, all the major forces in the south are due to attend, and the question will be whether or not they can succeed in uniting under a shared vision and leadership. The conference will therefore be a bellwether for where the country is heading.

The United States still supports a unified Yemen, fearing that a division will lead to an even greater spiral of violence and instability in the country that could further destabilize the region. But American policy toward the Houthis, and U.S. actions, are confusing to most observers and fail to send any clear message about where Washington thinks Yemen ought to be going. The bulk of the attention Washington gives to Yemen is focused on drone strikes against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

That being said, back in November, the U.S. sanctioned two Houthi military commanders for their role in destabilizing Yemen along with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. At the same time, the United States allowed two Houthi leaders to come to Washington that same month to attend a UN-sponsored conference, fueling suspicion among Yemenis and some other Arabs about the real American position.

The Southern Hirak leaders are presenting themselves as natural allies for the Americans against terrorism and trying to dispel arguments that a divided Yemen will complicate and impede the fight against terrorism and extremism. They promise that a Southern state will be a civil, liberal and open state capable of defeating terrorism in its borders, unlike the Houthis, they point out, who are peppering Sanaa’s streets with slogans of “Death to America, curse on the Jews.”

Hirak leaders are also assuring the region that a Southern state would be economically viable because it will have most of Yemen’s oil reserves, strategic locations like seaports and other natural resources. This is exactly the reason it will be so difficult for northern Yemen to let the south go easily. The fight for the unity of Yemen will be both a struggle for the survival of the present Yemeni state and a battle about control of resources.

Amal Mudallali is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Fadi Benni/CC by-sa 2.0