Continued Houthi Expansion in Yemen Raises Questions about U.S. Aid

Middle East and North Africa

In Yemen, the international backed political transition “has unraveled in the wake of the September 21, Houthi takeover of Sana” according to a recent article by International Crisis Group expert April Longley Alley. As Alley notes though, unlike other countries in the region that went through uprisings, Yemen is currently experiencing something in between the full-fledged counterrevolution in Egypt and the ongoing civil wars in Libya and Syria.

Shortly after the Houthi takeover, the United Nations helped broker the Peace and National Partnership Agreement (PNPA) signed by the Houthis, a Zaidi-Shiite group that has been engaged in a low-level insurgency in the north since 2004. The agreement has already produced a new, inclusive technocratic government and has called for significant security and economic reforms. However, as Alley indicates, Yemeni “confidence in and commitment to the existing political process is at a new low.”

The Houthis have gained popularity beyond their Zaidi base in northern Yemen for their willingness and ability to take on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and government corruption, but their recent expansion southward and along the Red Sea coast and failure to disarm is breaking the spirit of the accord.

For the United States, the continued Houthi expansion also raises concerns about the stability of a partnership with Yemen in the fight against AQAP. According to a recent Security Assistance Monitor country profile on U.S. Security Assistance to Yemen, the United States has allocated $343 million in military equipment and training to Yemen aimed primarily at countering AQAP from FY 2011 to FY 2014. And for FY2015, the State Department requested $32 million and the Defense Department said it may allocate $200 million from the new Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund to Yemen, which was recently allocated $1.3 billion for FY 2015-FY 2016.

Despite their aggressive actions against AQAP, the Houthis have continually expressed anti-American rhetoric. And AQAP has used the Houthi’s Zaidi-Shi’a roots, a sect of Shiite Islam, to frame their battle as a Sunni-Shiite conflict. Recent reports indicate the tactic may be working as an increasing number of disenchanted Sunni tribesman are joining AQAP.

The increase in Houthi power is also complicating Saudi Arabia’s support for Yemen according to Alley. Saudi Arabia, a traditional and strong backer of the Yemeni government is increasingly viewing the Houthi takeover “through the prism of its regional struggle with Iran, in which the Houthis are seen as Tehran’s proxies” and has reportedly suspended the majority of its financial assistance to Yemen. However, Saudi Arabia is critical to averting a complete collapse of the Yemeni state. If the Saudis continue to expand their suspension of aid or support anti-Houthi proxies it will only “[worsen] security conditions” and further weaken the government.

Despite the ongoing turmoil, President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi recently reviewed a completed draft of the new constitution, which he suggested, “represents all segments of Yemeni society.” While Houthi officials have already refused to approve the constitution because of the clause that divides the country into six regions, the new power sharing agreement and transition process hasn’t completely collapsed.

Seth Binder is the Program Assistant for the Security Assistance Monitor and covers many Middle East and North African issues.