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Yemen's complex politics pose a major problem for the US and Saudi

The political situation in Yemen has been declining steadily for some months now. On Thursday, 22 January, it collapsed, with the Houthi rebels effectively seizing control of the government in the capital Sana'a. The entire government of Western-backed President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi resigned; power was basically handed over to the Houthis.

The coup has been seen by many as a victory for Shia Iran, which supports the Houthis, over its greatest regional rival, Sunni Saudi Arabia. The two countries are engaged in a regional cold war, vying for influence across the Middle East. Yemen shares a long border with Saudi Arabia, and the victory of a Shia group affiliated to Iran will be of grave concern to the kingdom. Historically, Saudi has exerted a strong influence on Yemeni politics, given its close proximity. Now, Riyadh fears that Iran will aim to establish a state like Lebanon, right on the Saudi border. It is worth noting that the full extent of links between the Houthis and Iran are unclear, and that some analysts have suggested that Saudi Arabia and the previous Yemeni government have overplayed these links in order to muster greater US support. Most, though, concede that there is certainly some connection.

One might also expect that the victory of the Houthis would be of concern to America. While Hadi's government was willing to work with the West, the Houthis regularly chanted "death to America" at protests, and the Iran connection is hardly likely to reassure Washington, given its long-running animosity with Tehran. Since the US is allied to Saudi Arabia – a fact thrust into the public spotlight this month after the accession of the new monarch, King Salman and the visit to Riyadh of Barack Obama – it might seem that the American position is clear: oppose the Houthi coup.

However, this does not appear to be the case. Although America has suspended consular services in Sana'a there have also been reports that Washington has made contact with the Houthis. The Undersecretary of Defence for Intelligence, Michael Vickers, said that there is intelligence cooperation with the Houthis against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (the Yemeni off-shoot of the group) and that the war against terror in Yemen, meaning US drone strikes, will continue as planned. This is far from the outright condemnation that the Saudis would like to see. The reason for this tentative diplomatic outreach from the US is that the Houthis are seen as a useful partner in the fight against Al-Qaeda.

The situation in Yemen is nothing if not complicated. This impoverished nation has been plagued not only by the Houthi rebellion, but also by a violent Al-Qaeda insurgency (the men who attacked the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris this month were affiliated to AQAP, allegedly), separatist conflicts and sectarian and economic crises. Against this chaotic backdrop, the Houthis have emerged as one of the strongest groups. It has been engaged in a head-on confrontation with Al-Qaeda affiliates.

It all presents a difficult balancing act for the US, which also needs Saudi cooperation in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq. The government in Riyadh views increased Iranian influence in its southern neighbour as at least as much of a threat as the rise of ISIS. Other Gulf States feel the same way.

It certainly appears that US counterterrorism operations will continue for now; airstrikes went ahead as normal this week, for example. The Houthis are certainly no friends of Al-Qaeda, and have no interest in allowing the group to gain power. Nevertheless, the nature of this US programme is likely to change with no trusted partner on the ground in Yemen. Previous years have seen close cooperation between US-trained units of Yemeni Special Forces, but now more missions may be carried out unilaterally. There is also the distinct possibility that the Houthis will choose not to work with America on counterterrorism programmes.

In the long term, the ongoing problem of Yemen's instability poses a major problem. Even if the Houthis oppose all US involvement in Yemen, a strong and healthy government with popular support would be no bad thing for regional security. Yet the chances are that this will not be achieved. Successive governments in Yemen have long been dependent on cash from Saudi Arabia, which is likely to be withdrawn from a government perceived as hostile; a Houthi-led administration almost certainly will be. This will mean that the economic difficulties that led to this crisis – rising fuel prices and cost of living coupled with high unemployment – will only worsen. If authority in Sana'a is not clear, groups like Al-Qaeda and separatists in the south will have space to push their objectives. IN addition, if the Houthi government takes on a sectarian flavour, it could push Yemen's Sunnis towards extremism.

Yemen's politics have long been defined by a complex web of contesting interests, both domestic and international. This looks set to continue; it's a dangerous situation that could backfire at any moment.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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