Should the Islamic Republic utilize the March 1 elections to end effective enforcement of the hijab law, it will remove a source of constant friction between state and society in Iran, but the regime will also lose an instrument of intimidating the urban middle class.
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Over the past year and a half, the war in Yemen has turned into a low-intensity conflict, punctuated by periodic clashes that have done little to alter the lines of control. In the northern highlands, the Houthis – a Zaydi Shia militia group – maintain control, much as they have since taking the capital of Sanaa in September 2014. In the south, a coalition of forces under the Presidential Leadership Council, which sometimes fights the Houthis and sometimes one another, is in charge. Neither the Houthis nor the Presidential Leadership Council are capable of imposing their will on the rest of the country. Saudi Arabia has held direct talks with the Houthis in recent months and appears more eager than ever to find an exit from Yemen.
All of this raises an important question: What does a postwar Yemen look like? If the war were to end today, the likely result would be the partition of Yemen into a North Yemen ruled by the Houthis and a South Yemen under the control of the Presidential Leadership Council. But are either the Houthis or the Presidential Leadership Council capable of governing a viable, peaceful, and independent state? This two-part series looks at the challenges facing both groups as they seek to move from ruling in war to governing in peace.
For much of the past decade, since the Houthis took control of Sanaa in September 2014, they have been preparing for the day the group would rule Yemen. In 2016, the group demonstrated its flexibility by partnering with its old nemesis, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, to form the Supreme Political Council, which was intended to jointly rule Northern Yemen. Not surprisingly, the alliance between Saleh and the Houthis didn’t last long. In December 2017, Saleh broke with the Houthis and, a few days later, the group executed him as he tried to escape from Sanaa.
Although the Supreme Political Council survived Saleh’s death and Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress, continued to hold half the seats on the council, the Houthis have effectively ruled unopposed in Sanaa since December 2017. The group has revamped the intelligence services, implemented an alternative power structure through the supervisory system, revised the tax structure, and rewritten government textbooks.
Most of these changes were made with both a short-term and long-term goal in mind. In the short term, the Houthis wanted to ensure their immediate survival in the war against Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen’s United Nations-recognized government. Longer term, however, the Houthis were laying the groundwork for the formation of a Zaydi state with themselves at the top.
The Houthis have obviously survived, and, in many ways, they have won the war. The Houthis still hold the capital they took in 2014 and, short of voluntarily giving up power in the North, there is no obvious way to compel the Houthis to accept any sort of a power-sharing agreement that would preserve a unified Yemen. But for all the Houthis’ success during the war, it is unclear if they can transition into an effective government. When the war finally does end, the Houthis will face a trio of interrelated challenges – political, governmental, and economic – that will determine whether the Zaydi state in the North will survive.
The first and most obvious problem the Houthis will face is political, namely the group’s lack of domestic allies. The Houthis needed help from Saleh and his GPC party to take Sanaa in 2014, and they needed the GPC again in 2016 to form the Supreme Political Council. Since Saleh’s death in 2017, the GPC has stayed out of the spotlight and has mostly gone along with whatever the Houthis have ordered, but recently cracks have begun to emerge in public. In late August, Sadiq Amin Abu Ras, the head of the GPC and a member of the Supreme Political Council, voiced support for Yemenis who were frustrated by the Houthis’ inability and unwillingness to pay full government salaries. Mohammed al-Houthi, a fellow member of the Supreme Political Council, responded to Abu Ras by suggesting that the Houthis seize and sell the houses and property of GPC members to cover budget shortfalls.
In recent weeks, the conflict between the GPC and the Houthis has intensified. No members of the GPC traveled with the Houthis to Saudi Arabia in September for direct talks on ending the war. Then, on September 27, citing the need for “radical change,” the Houthis dismissed the GPC-led government, headed by Prime Minister Abd al-Aziz bin Habtoor, a member of the GPC.
The Houthis have taken a similar approach to dealing with Hashid, Yemen’s largest tribal confederation. In January, when the head of the confederation, Sadiq al-Ahmar, died, the Houthis snubbed the family by failing to send a representative to the funeral. Some of this could perhaps be written off as bad blood, going back decades to the al-Ahmar family’s armed opposition to the Houthis in 2005 and 2006. But then, over the summer, the Houthis began hinting that it might be time to replace Sadiq’s younger brother, Himyar, who had taken over the Hashid leadership, and move on from the al-Ahmar family all together.
The Houthis are clearly attempting to neutralize potential domestic rivals while cementing the group’s unilateral control of the North. This overreach may come back to haunt the Houthis in much the same way the last Zaydi rulers of North Yemen, the Hamid al-Din imams, undermined their own rule in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Under the Hamid al-Din imams, the Hashid and Bakil tribal confederations were often described as the “two wings” of the imamate. Without their support, the imamate couldn’t function. This maxim was put to the test in 1959 when a Zaydi imam executed a member of al-Ahmar family, which then, as now, led the Hashid confederation. Three years later the Hamid al-Din imams were overthrown in a revolution strongly supported by Hashid.
The Houthis have relied on the support of both the GPC and Hashid to rule. If the Houthis alienate these two groups, they may end up in a situation similar to that of the Hamid al-Din imams: unpopular and unsupported.
The second challenge the Houthis face is how to move from a guerrilla organization, comfortable fighting a long-running insurgency, to a functioning government. Throughout the war, the Houthis have benefitted from a “rally around the flag” effect. By positioning themselves as the primary point of resistance to the joint Saudi-UAE bombing campaign, the Houthis have largely been given a pass on governing. Domestic audiences were willing to overlook Houthi missteps and political overreach as long as Saudi and Emirati planes were bombing targets in northern Yemen, but as the bombing has waned so has local patience with Houthi tactics.
The Houthis have never been accountable. The group began in the 1980s, forming summer camps aimed at both educating Yemeni youth on the tenets of traditional Zaydism and training them in how to defend the faith. For much of the past two decades, the Houthis have been at war, first with Saleh’s government and now with Saudi Arabia and its local allies. Changing its mindset from one of a group under siege and on the verge of political extinction, which is how the Houthis have felt since the group’s inception, to one concerned with the day-to-day details of governing will be difficult. Already the Houthis have shown little appetite to accept criticism. Absent an external enemy to combat, the Houthis may need to go in search of one.
The third and, perhaps, most important challenge the Houthis face in establishing an independent state in the North is economic. The Houthis simply don’t have the financial resources to support a government, pay salaries, and invest in the infrastructure and rebuilding that will be necessary in a postwar scenario. Nor does the group control the oil and gas fields in Yemen that would allow it to make money on the world markets. This realization is largely what has driven successive Houthi offensives on Marib since 2020. But each time the Houthis came up short, as Saudi air power proved decisive. Now with the war seemingly nearing an end, the Houthis are in a difficult position: The group holds territory but doesn’t have the finances to maintain it. Of course, the Houthis could always make another attempt on Marib after the Saudi withdrawal, but that would almost certainly invite renewed Saudi airstrikes.
Even if the Houthis were able to overcome their political problem of lacking domestic allies and learn how to govern, they still wouldn’t be able to create a viable state without a solid economic foundation. Prior to the war, roughly 90% of Yemen’s exports were oil and gas, none of which the Houthis currently control. This means that the Houthis would be dependent on domestic taxes, from an already overtaxed and underpaid population, or looking for handouts from international allies. At the moment, the Houthis only have relations with Iran and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, neither of which are in an economic position to contribute much to a future Houthi state.
In all likelihood, once the negotiations are finally complete, Yemen will be partitioned, and the Houthis will end up in charge of a state in North Yemen. But that doesn’t mean the group will be capable of governing or even holding the state. The Houthis may soon find that winning the war was the easy part.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, a former member of the United Nations’ Panel of Experts on Yemen, and the author of “The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia. He is currently the associate director of the Institute for Future Conflict at the U.S. Air Force Academy. His views do not necessarily represent those of the Air Force Academy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
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