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Yemen and competing powers in the Middle East

Kersten Knipp / glb
March 9, 2015

The foreign ministers of the Arab League will be meeting on Monday in Cairo to go over ways to help Yemen avert political chaos. The conflict on the Arab Peninsula has reached international dimensions.

Image: M. Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

Yemen is falling apart. The president and prime minister of the small nation on the southern tip of the Arab Peninsula have stepped down in the past year - under pressure from the Houthi rebels who have largely taken the government's place.

For months, they besieged the government in the capital, Sanaa, and ultimately were able to oust Yemen's leaders. Ever since, the country has found itself in a kind of freefall: state institutions like the police and judiciary barely function.

Western states, including the United States, Great Britain and Germany, have closed their embassies. The German Foreign Ministry has urged citizens to avoid Yemen at all costs. On its website, the ministry warned of "considerable risks due to internal conflicts, tribal battles, mass demonstrations and terrorist attacks."

Jemen Sanaa Anti-Houthi Protest
Anti-Houthi protests have taken place all over Yemen, despite their claims to legitimate leadershipImage: picture-alliance/epa/Y. Arhab

The Houthi claim to power

Arab League foreign ministers will be meeting in Cairo on Monday to go over ways to coordinate action on Yemen. The only problem is that there are no simple solutions: the Houthis, a Shiite tribal group, have been waging their rebellion for months. Their main objection to authority concerns the federal separation of the country proposed in the new constitution - such a separation would block their access to the Red Sea.

Their demands have grown over time. "In the course of their advancement, it became quite clear that they sought control of the entire country," researchers at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs wrote in a recent study on the country's political crisis.

At the moment, however, the Houthis have proven to be just as incapable of leadership as the ousted government. A lack of transparency, poverty and corruption have permeated the image of the government, resulting in a loss of trust within the population. The Houthis themselves continue to defend their claim to power, with their flags and signs still flying throughout the capital: "God is Great! Death to America! Death to Israel! Damnation to the Jews! Victory for Islam!"

Their main adversary remains al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has concentrated mainly in the south of the country. The organization is responsible for a number of abductions, and they claimed partial responsibility for the terror attacks in Paris at the end of January. A past edition of their Internet publication called for the murder of one of the illustrators of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Al-Kaida in Jemen übernimmt Verantwortung für die Anschläge in Paris 14.01.2015
Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the January attacks in ParisImage: Reuters/YouTube

Iran's claim to power

But the Arab League diplomats will also be looking into Iran's role in the Yemen conflict.

"Yemen is now within Iran's sphere of influence and is viewed as a new member of the 'axis of resistance' that encompasses Syria, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militants," wrote Shahir ShahidSaless for Al-Monitor, an Internet magazine that focuses on the Middle East.

Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri, who heads Iran's Office of Inspection of the House of the Supreme Leader, has also added Yemen to Iran's new sphere of influence, maintaining on January 31, "We witness today that our revolution is exported to Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq," Al-Monitor quoted the politician as saying.

Just as alarming, perhaps, are Yemen's Sunni neighbors. "There is complete international consensus that the Houthis can be pushed back," said Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal this past week.

The civil war in Syria has shown that a military solution to such conflicts simply isn't plausible. And, as in Syria, the Arab ministers will be hesitant to open up any form of armed conflict with Iran. But indirect intervention - similar to the arming of the Syrian opposition - is unlikely in Yemen, given the developments in Syria.

In the end, the arming of the Syrian opposition led directly to the rise of the jihadist group in northern Syria and Iraq that calls itself the "Islamic State."

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