The Breakdown of the GCC Initiative

by Stacey Philbrick Yadav , Sheila Carapico
published in MER273

On September 21, 2014, fighters of Ansar Allah, loyal to the Houthi movement based in the northern highlands of Sa‘ada, conquered Yemen’s capital. Militants occupied the home of 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman, a leader of the 2011 uprising against the regime of President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih and a member of the Islamist party Islah. When the young men tweeted photos of themselves sprawling on her flowery bedspread with automatic weapons and bags of qat littered around them, the Houthi fighters conveyed a triumphal logic of coercive power, here sexualized for maximum impact. They later apologized, saying that the intent was to “guard” the Nobel laureate’s home. But the takeover of Karman’s house fell into a pattern of attacks on the homes of Islahi leaders, including the villa of the infamous Gen. ‘Ali Muhsin, commander in Salih’s wars against Ansar Allah. Many outside observers reported the advance of a ragtag militia into Sanaa and beyond as a struggle between the “Shi‘i” Houthis and assorted “Sunnis,” among them Islah. More than sectarian animus, though, the autumn turn of events demonstrated the political appeal of key Houthi positions, including critique of the excesses of Yemen’s established elite and rejection of the transitional mechanism advanced by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Western enthusiasts. It was, as journalist and youth activist Farea al-Muslimi observed, “a breakdown of the Saudi-backed order.” [1]

Mainstream Malapropisms

Most English-speaking journalists and policy analysts have advanced one of two main speculations about the Houthi advance. The first, dominant trope emphasizes the Zaydi roots of the Houthi movement, ahistorically framed as an “Iranian-backed Shi‘i militia.” In transposing an all-purpose Shi‘i vs. Sunni simplification from Iraq and Lebanon onto Yemen, this storyline deductively misidentifies all of the Houthis’ adversaries -- from the government to the tribes surrounding Sanaa -- as “Sunni.”

This notion is flat-out wrong. Zaydism is  related to the dominant Twelver form of Shi‘i Islam institutionalized in Iran in the same way that, say, Greek Orthodoxy is an offshoot of Catholicism -- the statement makes sense, maybe, in schismatic terms, but in terms of doctrine, practice, politics and even religious holidays Zaydism and Twelver Shi‘ism are quite distinct. Moreover, historically, the city of Sanaa and all points north were the Zaydi heartland. Resistance to the Houthi advance did not come from “Sunni tribesmen,” as so many reporters suggest, but from sons of Zaydi tribesmen who, when they joined the neo-conservative Islah, adopted or converted to a “Sunni” identity inspired by Saudi Wahhabism and/or the Egyptian Society of Muslim Brothers. The al-Ahmar clan, paramount sheikhs of the historically Zaydi Hashid tribal confederation clustered between Sa‘ada and Sanaa, and who detest the Houthis, are Zaydi by parentage and Sunni by denominational conversion via partisan affiliation with Islah. On the other side, the majority denomination in the coastal and southern midlands provinces are the Shafi‘is, who are Sunni (in the same way that Lutherans or Methodists are Protestant), but rarely identify themselves as such -- even if historically they distinguished themselves from the Zaydi regimes in Sanaa. Instead, to the limited extent that this conflict is “sectarian,” it is also institutional: It began with a rivalry between Houthi summer camps and the Saudi-financed salafi institute in the small, historically Zaydi town of Dammaj, which is a story rather more precise and interlaced with contemporary state power than the implied frame of “age-old” dispute between the two main branches of Islam allows. [2]

The second prevalent narrative, advanced from overseas by “brinkologists,” takes the Houthi advance as fresh evidence of Yemen’s imminent collapse. After forecasting state failure for more than a decade, this line of analysis has focused on micro-events, starting with the late October resignation of Prime Minister Muhammad Basindawa’s government and his technocratic successor Khalid Bahhah’s difficulties putting together a viable coalition. The corollary to brinkology is transitology, confidence in international experts’ ability to engineer transitions from authoritarianism to stable liberal democracy (as in Iraq). In this case the transitologists put great stock in, and were hired as expert consultants by, the so-called GCC initiative to stabilize Yemeni politics. The narrative that emerged went something like this: Yemen is on the verge of disintegration, but the GCC monarchies and Western advisers can save it from itself.

These two angles converged in a cockeyed view of the impact of regional and international forces. Iran is often said to be the bugaboo behind the Houthi militia, seen as a wannabe counterpart to Hizballah in Lebanon. Yet Saudi patronage of salafi elements within Islah and long-standing Saudi backing of the Salih regime have been bracketed off from explanations of purportedly purely domestic machinations. Furthermore, journalistic and think-tank reporting has tended to overlook the deleterious effects of US counter-terror airstrikes against al-Qaeda targets on state sovereignty and regime legitimacy.

In focusing on sectarian divisions, the Yemeni state’s (in)capacity to monopolize the legitimate use of force or stave off Iranian interference, and/or elite bargaining over cabinet positions, the mainstream accounts distract attention from fundamental renegotiations of the nature of the state and the regime as well as the government. The dominant narratives also misstate the threats to Yemeni sovereignty, which abound, but are neither denominational nor purely endogenous.

Endogenous Dynamics and Exogenous Stasis

The Houthi militia’s advance from their base near the Saudi Arabian frontier through Zaydi strongholds in ‘Amran (seat of the Hashid confederation) into Sanaa -- and onward into Shafi‘i-majority provinces like Hudayda (on the Red Sea coast) and Ibb (in the mountainous midlands) -- must be read as positioning, an intent to renegotiate Yemen’s political regime. A regime is an intermediate stratum between the government (which makes day-to-day decisions and is easy to alter) and the state (which is a complex bureaucracy tasked with a range of coercive functions). As such, a regime is understood by political scientists as a system of rules and norms by which power is distributed across and through state institutions. Yemen’s political regime is in the process of being rewritten. By engaging in armed conflict and political maneuvering around the composition of the new government and revolutionary populist appeals, the Houthis have hoped to influence Yemen’s future regime on several fronts.

On another level, Yemen’s convulsions can never be comprehended as separate from the power structures of the Arabian Peninsula, dominated by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the other filthy rich petro-kingdoms of the GCC, which in turn are protected by the US military. With average per capita incomes not much higher than the poverty level in Saudi Arabia, Yemen absorbs both migrant laborers expelled from the Gulf and desperate refugees fleeing East Africa. Millions subsist on less than $2 per day. And things are getting worse.

In some ways the Houthis represented subaltern aspirations. All along they objected to the agreement initiated by the self-consciously Sunni petro-monarchies of the GCC, formalized by the United Nations and facilitated by international experts, with its culmination in the National Dialogue Conference of March 2013-January 2014. The Houthis and other dissidents maintained that the GCC initiative sought to demobilize the mass 2011 revolutionary uprising by sanctifying an elite pact between members of the Salih regime and its formal, multi-party, cross-ideological “loyal” parliamentary opposition, the Joint Meeting Parties alliance, or Mushtarak. The Mushtarak, in turn, was dominated by a conservative northern alliance of Islah, the Sanaa old guard and the Hashid confederation. Given the GCC monarchies’ interest in stability in the most restive quarter of the Arabian Peninsula, the agreement contained a number of provisions to undermine populist demands for a democratic transition.

These measures included extending legal immunity for former President Salih and his family, requiring the uncontested election of his long-standing vice president, ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, as chief executive for the transitional period, excluding both the Houthis and the Southern Movement, or hirak, from the transitional governing coalition, and mandating the division of cabinet portfolios equally between Salih’s General People’s Congress (GPC) and the Mushtarak/Islah. The Houthis’ posture as “outsiders” let them stake out high ground as revolutionary challengers to the insufferable status quo ante. So the Houthis walked into Sanaa largely unopposed, mainly because people were fed up with the GCC’s repackaging of the ancien regime, and secondarily for primordial reasons (because Sanaa remains a largely Zaydi city where historically prominent local families are, like the Houthis, sayyids, or direct descendants of the Prophet). Far from a call for Houthi hegemony, or an appeal to Zaydi identity, the speech given by the movement’s leader, ‘Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, to mark Ansar Allah’s occupation of the capital was full of stirring populist, nationalist rhetoric and widespread complaints about corruption intended to appeal to southerners, other Shafi‘is and most Yemenis.

Domestic Power Politics

Surely control of state institutions is crucial. There was credible speculation that President Hadi decided against resisting the Houthi advance into the capital (alongside more conjectural rumors that Salih was encouraging Ansar Allah in order to disrupt the transition). As vice president, Hadi witnessed firsthand the perpetual triangulation that helped to sustain his predecessor’s power. In the 1990s, the GPC and Islah, both based in what had been North Yemen, ganged up against the Yemeni Socialist Party, which formerly governed the People’s Democratic Republic, or South Yemen, and later tried to renege on the unity deal. After vanquishing the south and diminishing the Socialists, Salih turned on his right-wing challengers and erstwhile allies in Islah. In response, Socialists, centrist elements in Islah and several smaller parties forged the Joint Meeting Parties as a unified counterweight to one-man military-based rule. Throughout the 2000s, Salih worked to neuter this parliamentary alliance by chipping away at Islah’s salafi edge and pitting it against the moderate opposition center. Never fully successful, this strategy depleted the energies of centrist members of the Mushtarak, straining the alliance and preoccupying its leadership at the expense of its grassroots. Salih’s triangulation helps to explain why, on the eve of the 2011 uprising, and during over a year of “youth” encampments, the loyal opposition enjoyed so little credibility.

This lesson was not lost on President Hadi. As the largest and most influential member of the Mushtarak, Islah benefited disproportionately from the power sharing deal brokered by the GCC. It was the best organized of the member parties, with the largest popular base and share of parliamentary seats (however moribund the parliament, elected in 2003, may have been), and the strongest backing from nearby petro-monarchies. Having simulated democratic empowerment of “the opposition,” Hadi returned to Salih’s playbook to cut Islah down to size. The Houthis eagerly played the role of long-suffering rivals with a history of conflict with Islahis and associated salafis in far northern Sa‘ada. When the GPC needed Islah, Salih’s party protected its religious schools, which were recruiting converts in the Zaydi heartland. When the Houthis protested -- and eventually took up arms -- some Islahi leaders supported Gen. ‘Ali Muhsin’s scorched-earth campaigns. The Mushtarak’s formal condemnation of human rights abuses fell by the wayside.

In 2011, centrist Islahis like Karman seemed to find common ground with Houthi partisans while camped out in protest squares for months on end to bring down Salih. As the GCC agreement became a reality, however, it was clear that conservatives in Islah, burnishing a “Sunni” philosophy favored by the Gulf monarchies and downplaying Muslim Brother republicanism, were rewarded by the transitional terms. Moreover, Salih’s ruling GPC maintained parliamentary and ministerial clout while he held onto party leadership even after relinquishing the presidency to his deputy. The Houthis were mostly excluded, along with the southern hirak and, for that matter, the millennial generation who dominated the 2011 uprising.

Fighting broke out between militias affiliated with Ansar Allah and tribal forces identified with Islah and/or backed by neighboring “Sunni” monarchies, first in al-Jawf and eventually during the siege of the salafi school in the village of Dammaj in Sa‘ada governorate in the fall of 2012. (These fault lines were on the frontier with Saudi Arabia, which was building a protective wall to contain them across the border.)

Islah’s reaction to the fall 2014 crisis showed its political experience relative to the Houthis, but also revealed its weaknesses during the transitional period. While condemning the Houthi aggression against Islahi infrastructure and leaders, the party nonetheless pledged not to fight the Houthis with force in Sanaa. Rather, leaders challenged the state to restore order by military means. When instead Hadi allowed Houthi militants to overtake security and infrastructural institutions, he signaled his own desire to clip Islah’s wings. Unable (or perhaps unwilling) to generate popular counter-mobilization, Islah quibbled over seats in the new government of Prime Minister Bahhah on the basis of an outmoded (2003) parliamentary portfolio.

The National Peace and Partnership Agreement signed by President Hadi, representatives of the Houthis and other political parties on September 21 called for a new, broadly inclusive and/or non-partisan technocratic government. To Islah’s dismay, space was made for the Houthis and the southern hirak, which includes but is not limited to the Yemeni Socialist Party, and through it to the Mushtarak coalition. Buoyed by the youthful majority, and people who live outside the capital, these groups are ascendant against Islah’s twentieth-century agendas, the despoiled Salih dictatorship and the status quo ante in the Peninsula.

Debates over government portfolio allocations masked more serious issues related to the nature of the regime. While the privileging of Islah by transitional institutions fomented conflicts in Dammaj and al-Jawf and inflected the conflict with a neo-sectarian tenor, the Houthis’ move into the capital coincided with mounting anxiety over the ongoing constitutional drafting process. The six new “federal” districts recommended by the National Dialogue Conference -- two in the former south and four in the north -- were avowedly designed to devolve some power to subnational units and also to stem the possibility of southern secession. In the abstract, or to outsiders, the federal proposal sounded appealing. Yet it was not anchored in local realities and reflected the advice of international consultants more than local constituencies. It seemed oblivious to the enormous technical, administrative and political difficulties to be faced in dismantling 22 existing provincial structures and creating new seats of authority. Pressure mounted on the constitution drafting committee to reconcile the demands of the Houthis, the hirak, entrenched political parties and external patrons.

As the Houthi military campaign pressed well beyond Sanaa, Ansar Allah fighters amassed heavy weapons in al-Bayda’, the northern province bordering several areas formerly part of South Yemen, and an important site of US drone strikes against al-Qaeda targets. There, Ansar Allah faced off against forces allied with Ansar al-Shari‘a, known in English as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP. Residents of al-Bayda’ and southern provinces sided variously with the Houthis, Ansar al-Shari‘a or the hirak based mainly on very local allegiances and grievances. To some, the Houthis offered greater political inclusion to the Southern Movement. Yet while southerners, Houthis and millions of other outsiders suffered from the symbiotic relationship between Salih and Islah, they found little common stake in the constitutional redrafting, beyond opposition to the specific parameters of the proposed federal boundaries.

Of National, Regional and Global Power

The transitional government, leaving the old regime untouched, has continued to cede the state’s sovereignty and thereby undermined its legitimacy, fueling the very crisis it has been tasked with addressing. Houthi criticism of US incursions notwithstanding, the movement’s growing influence does not amount to a takeover of the government. Nor is it likely to bring an end to a modus vivendi that has already brought so much death and destruction to Yemeni civilians. But Houthi efforts to fight AQAP on the ground may constitute a bid to “nationalize” resistance of AQAP and legitimize the Ansar Allah’s use of force at the domestic level. Because of the ambiguous relationship of the Houthis to the Yemeni state and transitional regime, the implications of such parastatal defense of sovereignty -- against AQAP and against the US drones -- were far from clear.

When youths in Sanaa, Aden, Hudayda, Ibb, Ta‘izz, al-Bayda’ and other parts of the country took to the streets in 2011 demanding “the downfall of the regime,” they meant the status quo ante dominated by Salih, his family, the GPC, the Hashid tribal confederation, Islahi conservatives, the northern security apparatus and the entrenched corrupt bureaucracy -- all rooted in the northern Zaydi heartland and all (nonetheless) backed by the Saudi kingdom, other GCC monarchies and, by extension, the United States. The GCC-brokered transition agreement kept this regime intact while politely inviting Salih to transfer the reins of power to Hadi (a native southerner and GPC member). American airstrikes against what recently seemed the main threat to both the Gulf monarchies and American hegemony in the Peninsula, the Sunni-identified Ansar al-Shari‘a, continued or accelerated.

Ansar Allah’s astounding military successes in, and then beyond, the northern Zaydi highlands confused matters -- all the more so against the backdrop of the formidable sweep of the nihilist, radically anti-Shi‘i neo-Sunni group in Syria and Iraq known variously as “the Islamic State,” ISIS, ISIL or Da‘ish, the Arabic acronym for ISIL. Within Yemen, Ansar Allah and Ansar al-Shari‘a, both declared by the Saudi kingdom to be “terrorist” (read anti-systemic) entities, have been presented as locked in mortal, antithetical, “sectarian” conflict. At about the same time, Washington called for sanctions against Salih and two Houthi leaders on the grounds that they were spoiling the GCC-sponsored transition plan. US policy in Yemen is, as ever, reactively aiming at a moving target, and strongly shaped by the US-Saudi alliance.

Like the strange selfies of Houthi home invaders luxuriating on Tawakkul Karman’s bedspread, these events are nearly inscrutable to outsiders -- or, indeed, to Yemenis, who are hardly of one mind amidst the dizzying twists and turns. One commentator, Haykal Bafana, described the “jarring bipolarity” between de facto US support for the Houthis via drone attacks on rival AQAP targets in al-Bayda’ even as other organs of the Obama administration appealed to the UN for sanctions against Houthi militia leaders, considering this juxtaposition an “elegant summation” of dysfunctional and probably ineffectual American policy. Farea al-Muslimi noted with irony that the Houthis have given al-Qaeda even “more legitimacy than [US] drones did in the past.” The Ansar al-Shari‘a present themselves as a bulwark “against this new gorilla called the Houthis,” he ventured, opposition to which “now sells” among the general public. Despite its origins in institutional conflicts and regime machinations, the “sectarian issue,” al-Muslimi observed, now has provided “more political capital than AQAP ever dreamed of.”


[1] Farea al-Muslimi, “A New Deal in Yemen?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 31, 2014.
[2] For informed background on the Houthi movement, see Gabriele vom Brück, “Revolution, Phase II? The Houthi Advance on Yemen’s Capital,” Le Monde Diplomatique, October 28, 2014; Charles Schmitz, “The Houthi Ascent to Power,” Middle East Institute, September 15, 2014; Iris Glosemeyer and Don Reneau, “Local Conflict, Global Spin: An Uprising in the Yemeni Highlands,” Middle East Report 232 (Autumn 2004); Shelagh Weir, “A Clash of Fundamentalisms: Wahhabism in Yemen,” Middle East Report 204 (July-September 1997).

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