On the surface, Yemen’s reaction to the Gulf crisis, in which Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, along with Egypt, have broken diplomatic ties with Qatar, was rather straightforward: On June 5, Yemen’s internationally recognized government cut ties with Qatar, accusing the country of backing the Houthis and Yemen-based extremist groups. The Qatari armed forces were expelled from the Saudi-led coalition battling the Houthis and their allies to restore Yemen’s government. In reality, however, the situation is far more complicated, and the crisis has made Yemen’s already convoluted conflict all the more complex. Certainly, it has highlighted some of the contradictions facing the anti-Qatar quartet and has exacerbated the existential crisis faced by Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Islah Party, historically one of the country’s most powerful political factions.
The latest crisis is far from the first time Qatar’s policy in Yemen has garnered attention. Qatar played a key role in mediating between the Yemeni government and the Houthis in 2007 and 2008, hosting cease-fire talks in Doha and offering to fund the reconstruction of the then (as now) devastated province of Saada. While the talks were welcomed by many in the international community, they provoked the distrust, if not ire, of then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who feared the Qataris were colluding with the Houthis to challenge his rule. These tensions between Saleh and Qatar reached a fever pitch in 2011, when Qatar vocally backed Yemen’s Arab Spring-inspired anti-government uprising, providing a platform and funding for many key opponents of the Saleh government. That said, following the 2014 Gulf crisis, when Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar in protest of many of the same policies that precipitated the current crisis, and after the launch of Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led military operation aimed at rolling back the Houthis’ effective takeover of Yemen, Qatar largely appeared to fall in line with the Gulf consensus on Yemen. Qatar deployed troops to serve in the Saudi-led coalition – including six who were injured in fighting on the Yemeni-Saudi border roughly simultaneously with the eruption of the latest crisis – while hosting coalition-backed humanitarian conferences and providing support for the coalition’s actions in its affiliated media. The Qatari government has also provided generous aid to Yemen, before and since 2011.
Despite this support, Yemen’s government, effectively based in Riyadh, quickly fell in line with the quartet’s decision – even though the Qatari government had, until recently, been paying the Yemeni Foreign Ministry’s salaries. In multiple cases, officials aligned with Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi moved nearly overnight from being frequent guests on Al Jazeera to denouncing the channel as a vehicle for terrorist propaganda.
The key exceptions, unsurprisingly, have come from those aligned with the Islah Party, which incorporates the bulk of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood. Vociferously anti-Houthi, Islah has long had ties with both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, leaving the party in an awkward place, prompting a slew of mixed messages that have laid bare divisions in the party. The party has freely expressed its opinion on foreign events in the past. Islah organized massive street demonstrations in support of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and in protest of his ouster by the Egyptian army. Islah-backed protests in 2011 frequently featured banners thanking Qatar for its support for Yemen’s anti-government uprising. In this regard, this comparative quiet reflects Islah’s increasing weakness: Under siege in Houthi-controlled areas and backers of secession in the South, the party has grown increasingly reliant on its foreign supporters. While numerous prominent Islahis – notably, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman – have vocally backed Qatar in the disagreement, many of the party’s traditional Yemeni patrons – such as Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the powerful military leader – have distanced themselves from the party, and many in the party’s leadership have minimized their ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. In short, the crisis has exacerbated longstanding generational, regional, and ideological divides within the party, which themselves were exacerbated by the divergent political paths of the party’s two primary bases in exile, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Unsurprisingly, the ongoing crisis has proved to be a boon for the adversaries of Islah and the Brotherhood in Yemen. While prominent Houthi leaders have expressed sympathy for Qatar, Saleh and his backers have vocally backed the quartet’s move to isolate Qatar, a reflection of their animosity toward the emirate for its support for the 2011 uprising. In a rally soon after the crisis began, the Southern Transitional Council, which has close ties to the UAE, declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, a move in line with the increasing suppression of Islah’s activities in the formerly independent South. Islah has not been the only party affected, however. The self-described anti-terror quartet added the secretary general of the Salafist Rashad Union Party, Abdulwahab al-Homaiqani, to its list of designated terrorists. The move wasn’t completely shocking as he is on the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of designated terrorists, but it was undeniably awkward owing to his frequent presence in Riyadh and his current position as an advisor to Hadi. Such decisions have served to highlight divisions between anti-Houthi forces; particularly, longstanding tensions between the Islah Party and the UAE have escalated into an open war of words – one that has been reflected in increasing reporting on alleged cases of extrajudicial detention and torture by UAE-aligned forces in southern Yemen.
While the case of Qatar may ostensibly be a matter of foreign relations, it has already had a significant effect on Yemen’s internal political dynamics – and may continue to do so as the crisis drags on. Yemen’s collapse into civil war has only increased its susceptibility to instability wrought by shifts in regional geopolitics. Even deeper than the current Gulf crisis, this vulnerability risks complicating any nascent peace efforts, leaving Yemen at risk of being a battlefield for regional interests for years to come.
Adam Baron is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.