The rise of the Houthi upended the tribal political alliances that formed the backbone of republican Yemen in the north but without altering the dominance of tribes and tribalism. The Houthi adroitly manipulated local tribal politics in the north during many years of conflict to defeat the Houthi enemies in the tribal leadership that had dominated the north under the Saleh regime. At the same time, the Houthi attacked the political bases of the Islah party and the allied military forces of Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar. The Houthi reordered northern tribal politics and undermined Saudi influence but did not weaken the predominance of tribes and tribal social order in the north.
But Houthi power in the north is built upon tribal power because tribes dominate the north, not because tribes dominate Yemen. The Houthi originate from where tribes are powerful. The plunder of Sanaa by the tribes allied with Imam Ahmad in 1948 and Abdallah bin Hussein al-Ahmar’s massing of the tribes around Sanaa at the end of the Hamid regime helped create a modern legend that tribes are the key to power in Yemen.
However, two recent events show that tribes are not the key determinant of national politics. In June 2011, Sadeq al-Ahmar, Abdallah’s son, pressed tribal supporters to descend upon Sanaa to support him in the armed conflict in Hasaba district against forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh. But the advance of al-Ahmar’s tribal fighters was blocked by the Republican Guard under the command of Ahmad Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president’s son. In December 2017, Ali Abdullah Saleh called upon his supporters among the tribes around Sanaa to block Houthi reinforcements headed for the capital during Saleh’s insurrection, but Houthi reinforcements entered the city unimpeded, and Saleh paid for his miscalculation with his life.
In both cases, the tribes did not act as a single bloc. Tribes are fractured and built upon internal and external rivalries that prevent a united tribal stance in politics. In December 2017, Saleh’s alliances failed him because the Houthi had carefully guaranteed that the tribes around Sanaa either supported the Houthi or did not support Saleh. Only a few individually dedicated tribal leaders responded to Saleh’s call for help and they also paid for their loyalty with their lives.
Tribes are important in Yemen. Since 2011, the government has largely ceased to function, and many people turned to traditional tribal leaders and village elders to maintain order and provide what services they could. Tribal social organization increases in importance in many areas of Yemen, not just the north, when the government collapses: the tribal areas of the north of Yemen do provide men with martial skills that can contribute significantly to a military conflict, such as in the civil war of 1994. But tribes are far from a unified bloc; tribes by their nature are fractured along myriads of local, small conflicts. Indeed, in tribal Yemen, all politics are local: the Houthi know this very well.
The Houthi are not tribesmen, but the Houthi leaders hail from the far north where tribalism is dominant, and they know the tribes, their history, and their politics intimately. This intimate knowledge allowed the Houthi to very carefully redraw the lines of tribal politics to their advantage and to the disadvantage of the Saudis. The Saudi leadership was most irritated with the Houthi not so much because Iran supported them, but because the Houthi overthrew the constellation of tribal alliances in the north that the Saudis depended upon for influence inside Yemen. The Saudis regard their loss of leverage in Yemen as a critical threat to the Kingdom, a menace that the Houthi obligingly realize by launching missiles into Riyadh.
The Houthi reordering of tribal politics in the north was accompanied by an attack on the Islah party. In fact, the al-Ahmar family’s leadership of the Hashid tribal confederacy was also a pillar of the Islah party, so the Houthi assault on the al-Ahmar’s tribal leadership in the north was also an attack on Islah. But the undermining of the wider apparatus of the Islah party brought the Houthi out of the tribal north and into the national politics of Yemen. In 2012, when the GCC agreement removed Saleh from power and installed Abd-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi over a transitional government tasked with preparing new elections, most felt that the Islah party was poised for an electoral victory like that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after Mubarak’s resignation.
But Islah is a coalition comprised of the al-Ahmar leadership of Hashid, the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, and includes Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar’s (no relation to Sadeq or Abdallah bin Hussein) military units. Ali Mohsin’s military units and Sadeq al-Ahmar’s tribal allies in Hashid were the forces of the government against the Houthi in the six Saada wars of the 2000s, and Saleh supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s version of activist Sunni Islam to counter the Houthi’s Zaydism in the north.
As the Houthi advanced from Saada towards Sanaa, they pointedly destroyed the political foundations of the Islah party in the north, symbolically sealing their victory by dynamiting the ancestral home of Abdallah bin Hussein al-Ahmar in Amran Governorate and killing the commander of Ali Mohsin’s forces in the city of Amran. Islah’s leaders are now in exile or arrest; the Houthi still today hold Islah leader, Mohammad Qahtan, since his arrest three years ago by Houthi militias. Islah retreated to Riyadh, Istanbul, Doha, and the eastern desert of Marib, an Islahi stronghold. From Marib, Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar commands a Saudi backed military that pressures the Houthi from the east but has failed to advance into the mountainous highlands that surround Sanaa.
Islah was further weakened by the Saudi and Emirati persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudis and especially the Emiratis fear the use of Islam by their domestic political opponents and have set out to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood. Out of political expediency, the Saudis excluded the Yemeni Islah from the list of blacklisted political groups associated with the Brotherhood, but the Emiratis still harbor deep suspicions about Islah, despite recent high-level meetings between Islah and the Emirates after Saleh’s death. Some of the troubles of Hadi’s government in the south result from the Emirate’s resistance to Islah. For Hadi, Islah is an ally not only in the eastern desert of Marib but also in the south and in Taiz, because Islah insists upon Yemeni unity and rejects calls for southern secession, as does Hadi.
The Emirati support for the secessionist Southern Transitional Council stems first from the council’s popularity and second from Emirati mistrust of Hadi’s government and its ties with Islah. However, many southerners share Emirati suspicions of Islah because of Islah’s role in the war of 1994 against the south. True, the initial hero of the resistance against the Houthi in Aden was Naif al-Bakri, an Islah supporter who Hadi appointed governor of Aden in recognition of his leadership. But Islah lost most of its support in the south after the 1994 war because it became identified with Saleh’s repression in the south. Southerners are particularly suspicious of Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, who commanded (along with Hadi) the northern invasion of the south in 1994 and who now leads the Saudi backed troops in Marib. From its dominant position in 2012, Islah has been exiled from Houthi controlled territory and from the south and now remains strong only in Marib and Taiz. To further complicate Islah’s position, the party is racked by internal dissention that erupted most recently in the official censoring of Nobel Prize recipient Tawakol Karman by the party’s leadership in Riyadh, because she sharply criticized the actions of the Saudi-Emirati coalition.
The war tore the familiar political map of Yemen into unrecognizable pieces. In addition to Islah’s troubles, the Yemeni Socialist Party lost its former dominance in the south to the southern secessionist movement embodied in Aydarus al-Zabidi’s Southern Transitional Council. The General People’s Congress has been ripped apart by repeated splits beginning in 2011, when Saleh violently resisted the protests of the Arab Spring. Hadi’s transitional government garnered the support of many in the GPC who saw Saleh’s regime finished, but Hadi’s government in Riyadh gains its strongest support from Islah. The GPC split again when Saleh supported the Houthi against the Saudis. Hadi’s prime minister, Ahmad bin Daghr, left Saleh’s side to join Hadi in Riyadh when the Saudi bombing began. Saleh’s demise hurt the Sanaa faction of the GPC not only because of the leadership vacuum but also because the Houthi remain suspicion of GPC leadership in Sanaa.
Currently, the Emirates seem to support the rehabilitation of Saleh’s son, Ahmad Ali, and the rebuilding of the Republican Guard under the nephew Tareq Saleh to use against the Houthi in the north. Bin Dagher welcomed his former colleagues from the GPC despite their siding with the Houthi for three years. However, most are doubtful of the Emirati effort to rebuild the Saleh family’s military in the south. If a settlement ever manages to revive political life in Yemen, the participants and parties will be completely transformed, even if some of the same faces remain.