By Matthew M. Reed
If President Ali Abdullah Saleh returns today he’s in for a rude awakening–perhaps a ruder one than the explosion that nearly killed him in early June. Yemen was broken before he sought medical attention in Saudi Arabia. But the fracturing process has accelerated in the six weeks he’s been gone. Perhaps most remarkable, other than Saleh’s uncertain condition and gross appearance, are his intentions. Saleh wants to regain control of the poorest country on the Arabian peninsula, one racked by rebellions, mass protests, a reeling economy, al Qaeda, destructive demographics, inflation, and water shortages. In March, northern Houthi rebels officially rejected Saleh’s authority–and took control of all or part of four governorates. And in recent weeks militants affiliated with or at least sympathetic to al Qaeda have taken chunks of territory in the south. There’s little doubt that the government’s writ is evaporating. This begs the question: what exactly will Saleh rule if he returns?
In the past seven years, northern Houthi rebels (of the Zaydi Shia variety) have fought six wars against the regime. The worst and last spat occurred in August 2009 and lasted through February 2010, after rebels crossed the fuzzy Saudi-Yemeni border, killed an officer, and took territory in the Kingdom. Historic animosities between the Houthis and the central government originally hinged on the purpose and legitimacy of the government in Saa’na. For a time, the Houthis demanded a religious state managed by a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Saleh and his predecessors never measured up. But, interestingly, the rebels ultimately dropped their preoccupation with religio-political leadership. They also shifted their grievances from the theological to the temporal, instead emphasizing the lack of services, attention, and respect granted to the Houthis, which they believe amounts to discrimination. The best evidence of this shift came in March of this year, when Houthi leaders championed a democratic transition in street protests and public statements. On March 24 they took Saada—a city of more than 50,000. Two days later they officially rejected Saleh’s authority. Today, thanks to the absence of government authority, the Houthis control significant territory including the Saada Governorate and parts of Amran, Al Jawf and Hajjah. Amazingly, the Houthis haven’t fought for these gains. Their acquisition of territory happened only because the regime was too preoccupied with Saleh’s health, streetfights in the capital, and militancy in the south, which the US and Saudis care most about.
Militants are enjoying gains similar to the Houthis but are fighting to keep them. Their capture of Zinjibar, capital of the Abyan governorate, made headlines last month. The regime responded with airstrikes and artillery shelling in an effort to underscore their value as partners against armed zealotry. The militants are rumored to have connections with—or at least be sympathetic to—al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. AQAP remains dangerous even though they’ve failed to strike intended targets in Saudi Arabia and the US in recent years. US officials have repeatedly stated their concerns about the group given the frequency of their attempted attacks and their creativity. These anxieties have pushed the US to be proactive in Yemen, where AQAP resides. Just last Thursday the US struck al Qaeda targets in Yemen–the fourth such attack since May. Also of note is a June 14 New York Times report claiming the CIA will soon run a base in the region dedicated to Yemen. These kinds of preparations reflect poorly on President Saleh. If he could control the country, one would see him as an equal partner, but–by building their own capacity in the region–the US is sending a strong signal: Saleh cannot be trusted to guarantee Yemeni or American security.
If Saleh returns his authority might not stretch beyond the capital. Even then, it might only extend to half of the city. Mass protests–unaffiliated with northern rebels and southern militants–continue daily and swell on Fridays after morning prayers. General Ali Mohsen, who joined the protests in March and pledged to protect them, now controls the northern districts of Saa’na; Saleh’s Republican Guard and loyalist forces control the south.
There’s a real danger that Saleh’s return could prove combustible for the capital and beyond. If or when he returns, Saleh will have to address autonomous tribes like the al Ahmar family, which leads the Hashid tribal federation. Back in in May the al Ahmar fought bloody street battles with regime forces after the tribe withdrew support and announced their desire for Saleh’s exit. Only a few weeks ago, Sadeq al Ahmar, head of the al Ahmar family, wrote to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. Saleh’s “return will lead to sedition and civil war,” Reuters quoted the tribal leader as saying. Civil war might also entangle the regime elsewhere. Earlier this year armed tribesmen cut the major oil pipeline to Aden which transmits approximately half of Yemen’s crude. Future disruptions are entirely possible and the government should be worried if it becomes a trend: 70% of government revenues come from oil and gas.
So what will he rule? The north is lost for now. The south is the scene of militant gains and fighting. And the capital is now crystallized along pro- and anti-government lines. Elsewhere, tribes threaten to cripple the oil industry–the regime’s lifeline. Saudi Arabia might not be a premium retirement spot but it’s better than Yemen. Saleh would be smart to stay there and not come back.