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W(h)ither Yemen?

By Zach Paikin

While it appears tensions in Yemen have lessened since President Ali Abdullah Saleh was nearly killed in an attack on his presidential compound on June 3, the United States cannot take this relative quiet for granted. Having already lost regional partners this year - notably Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon -- the loss of a working relationship with Yemen would be a severe blow to regional security and to American interests.

Embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah SalehEmbattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah SalehYemen's importance to American security is critical, largely due to its strategic location athwart the Red Sea shipping lanes leading to and from the Suez Canal. Moreover, porous borders to Yemen's east and considerable lawlessness to its west on the African continent could allow for a collapsed Yemen to serve not only as a safe haven for terrorists - already the case in the vast, ungoverned areas of Yemen - but also as a stepping stone between Iran and large swaths African lands from Somalia and Sudan across to Mali. A freer hand for Iran and terrorist organizations in sub-Saharan Africa would increase the threat to Europe.

Yet unlike Egypt, whose cooperation with the United States since the Sadat days has been key not only due to its management of the Suez Canal but also because of its opposition to Iran's theocratic regime and to the Muslim Brotherhood, Yemen's instability had been visible for a considerable period of time prior to its present upheaval.

First, Yemen is a mishmash of several tribes that predate the state by centuries. Second, the current Yemeni state is the result of the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, following the decline of the Soviet Union and the communist South's loss of more than half of its aid from Moscow between 1986 and 1989. A civil war broke out in 1994 between forces of the former North and South in which the North was victorious and tensions still exist between the two.

While various tribes and the secessionist Southern Mobility Movement have indeed played a role in countering President Saleh's power from time to time, however, the principal opposition elements that should be taken into account by the White House are the Houthi rebellion and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Countering the Shiite Houthi rebellion against Saleh's government has been an area of cooperation between the United States, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Although the Houthis adhere to a different sect of Shia Islam than do the ayatollahs in Iran - the former to Zaidiyya and the latter to Ithna 'Ashariyya (Twelver Shiism) - Saudi Arabia fears Shiite uprisings on its borders.

Indeed, in addition to the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, the Shiite uprising in Bahrain against the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family could lead Iran to encourage Saudi Shiites - concentrated primarily in the Kingdom's Eastern Province - to rise up against Riyadh as well, as was the case during Iran's attempts to "export the [Islamic] revolution" in the 1980s.

Renewed American commitment to Yemen’s security, stability and development - if done properly - would have repercussions beyond Yemen's borders. It would do much to repair the ailing American-Saudi relationship that has been in bad shape since President Obama was perceived to have quickly abandoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak amid a popular uprising.

The Saudi royal family now worries that their cooperation with the United States does not guarantee American support for friendly regimes facing popular opposition. Furthermore, addressing the Houthi issue within a comprehensive framework for Yemen would be a step backwards for Iran, which stands to make gains in the region following many of the uprisings in Arab states.

Countering AQAP in Yemen is an obvious goal of the Obama administration, which has made the war against Al-Qaeda a top priority. Unlike the Houthi rebellion, however, Saleh does not view AQAP as a major threat. If anything, the presence of AQAP - one of the most successful branches of the Al-Qaeda franchise - within Yemen's borders gives Saleh leverage over Washington. At this time, America's ability to conduct or assist operations against Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in Yemen depends largely on Washington's support for President Saleh's regime and its principal security needs.

So long as Iran and Al-Qaeda remain direct threats to the United States, the Houthi rebellion and AQAP will continue to work against U.S. interests and security. This remains the case regardless of who governs Yemen. Therefore, the endgame for the White House must be the creation of a situation in which the Houthi and AQAP threats can be addressed the most effectively and directly.

It is increasingly clear that President Saleh cannot play a role in Yemen's future government if the United States is ever to ensure Yemeni stability. Saleh has already reneged on the commitment he made on May 18 to step down within a month and it is expected that internal tensions will increase if he attempts to re-enter Yemen from Saudi Arabia where he is currently receiving medical treatment. This does not mean, however, that members of the current governing regime should not remain a part of the new governing coalition.

The United States should push for a broad coalition that includes - but is not limited to - members of the current governing regime. Such a coalition will be able to mitigate the influence of Islamist actors such as Al-Islah - Yemen's principal opposition party, composed of Salafists, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and a tribal confederacy - and will preserve the basic U.S.-Yemen relationship of American-provided military assistance in exchange for Yemeni collaboration in the field of counter-terrorism. Furthermore, it will allow Washington and Riyadh to focus more effectively on fighting corruption and promoting economic development in Yemen without fear of another popular uprising that threatens their security.

Tackling such issues is the key to ensuring Yemen's long-term stability and is therefore the principal way to protect the interests and security of America and its allies.

Zach Paikin is a research associate at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

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