A divided Yemen would be a poison pill for the Houthis
On Sunday, the Houthi rebels announced a “national salvation” government based in the capital Sanaa, a direct rival to the internationally recognised government of president Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi. The country, for so long at war, is now a giant step closer to splitting.
Secession, long a dream of the south of the country, may now have acquired an unstoppable momentum – but, crucially, it may be the north that leaves first.
In the past, I have argued that southerners would regret a divorce from the north. That, admittedly, was before the Houthi-led takeover of the capital, with the result that the Houthis and allies of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh began raining missiles on cities in the south.
Yet the reasons why secession would be difficult for the South remain. The most notable reason is that the Southern Movement, or Hirak, is divided on what precisely should come after. And that is without taking into consideration the many provinces across the south and the power struggles within them.
Nor is there an established leadership in Aden, nor even a clear way of dividing the national army, meaning that any new leadership in Aden would have difficulty imposing its will across the rest of the south. Yet, as with so many big political upheavals, the country may yet sleepwalk into it.
But if a split Yemen would be bad for the south, it would also be bad for the north. With the Arab coalition unable to dislodge the Houthis from Sanaa, and the Houthis unable to make inroads elsewhere in the country, a stalemate is opening up.
The key figure behind this is, of course, Mr Saleh, who makes no secret about his wish to return to power. The best case scenario now for him, in the absence of a peace deal, would be to carve out a rump state in the north and along the coasts – a “Sanaastan” that he and his allies could rule.
Yet this Sanaastan would be a disaster for Mr Saleh – and not only for him, but also for the Houthis and their Iranian backers. None of these three would get what they want from a rump in north Yemen. Were Yemen to split, a newly formed Sanaastan would be a poison pill for everyone backing Mr Saleh.
Let’s start with Iran. Its enthusiastic backing for the Houthi rebels has less to do with shared religious views than political ones. Iran hoped to create a Yemeni Hizbollah – a political party with a militia that it could use to influence the politics of Yemen from behind the scenes, vetoing any action it disliked while avoiding responsibility.
But a Sanaastan would be a very different case. Having broken north Yemen, Iran would now own it.
Sanaastan would be a rump Zaydi Shia state, surrounded by Sunni states, at least two of which (Saudi Arabia and South Yemen) would be hostile to it. Armed with a sizeable military but deprived of the oilfields with which to pay for them (Yemen’s oilfields are mostly in the south), Iran would quickly find its treasury emptying just to keep Sanaastan afloat. Already it is struggling to maintain the expenditure of keeping Bashar Al Assad in power.
(That, by the way, is also a warning for the southerners, because heavily armed men who are not being paid do not make calm neighbours.)
Nor indeed would the Yemenis living in a Sanaastan welcome the Iranian presence. If some have welcomed the backing of Tehran in supporting Mr Saleh, it is only temporary: Iran, after all, is a faraway country with whom Yemeni Arabs have few links of language or kin.
On the other hand, for all the current antipathy towards the south, there are long-standing ties of family and business between the two. Elation at separation would rapidly turn to anger at division – aimed squarely at Iran and Mr Saleh.
Mr Saleh, too, would find ruling a Sanaastan, in concert with the Houthis, to be a very different proposition. Firstly, he would be unable to sideline them, as they would wield greater influence in a shrunken northern Yemen state. And their views, as expressed by their slogans against America, are difficult to square with entry into the global order.
But most frightening for Mr Saleh ought to be the possibility that the Gulf states, having fought a war against the north, would decide to retaliate against a Sanaastan by expelling northern Yemenis from their countries.
When Saudi Arabia expelled a million Yemenis in 1991 after Mr Saleh disastrously backed Saddam Hussein, it tipped Yemen’s economy into a nosedive. That could happen again, and the blame for that division, would, again, find its way to Mr Saleh’s door.
Worst of all would be the situation of the Houthi rebels. To most Yemenis, the Houthis are a minor religious group from the north, not a ruling class in the capital.
As the junior party to Mr Saleh in a new country, the group would soon find itself blamed for everything that went wrong – or, having outlived their usefulness, a disposable militia for the ruthless Mr Saleh.
A split Yemen would not be the dream Mr Saleh, Iran or the Houthis believe. By the time they discover that, however, it would already be a living nightmare for most of Yemen.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai
Updated: October 3, 2016 04:00 AM