Saudi Arabia has suspended financial aid to Yemen because of the pro-Iranian Houthi rebels’ takeover of state institutions. Gerald Butt argues, though, that the Gulf states cannot afford to turn their backs on this unstable corner of the Arabian peninsula and will have to draw up a new strategy towards it.
When representatives of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council devised a plan in 2011 for the peaceful transfer of power from President Saleh to a temporary president and the start of national reconciliation talks they appeared to have brought off a miracle. Here was a very poor and lawless Arab state that had been buffeted by a popular uprising accepting international help to prepare for a better future. There was talk of the Yemen experience serving as a template to help other states – even perhaps Syria – to move towards peaceful transfers of power.
But today that optimism has evaporated. The fabric of Yemen, it turns out, had been too damaged by years of misrule and neglect to cope with the range of factors that threatened suddenly to undermine state authority. While former President Saleh agreed to hand over power he remained in the country, with elements of the armed forces staying loyal to him. Fighters with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula exploited splits in the military to increase their hold on central and southern parts of Yemen. Southern secessionists viewed the weakening of state control in Sanaa as an opportunity to press their case to break away once more from the rest of the country. And the Yemeni people, among the poorest in the world, became still poorer.
Then the Houthis made their move. From being a small Zaydi/Shia group confined to the northern border region they became a force with much broader ambitions. The Houthis, too, saw the chance of crumbling state authority to expand their power and influence, as far as the capital and beyond. Today they have become the power broker in the Yemeni government, winning support from increasing numbers of the majority Sunni community with populist demands for the restoration of fuel subsidies, along with a rise in public sector pay and in welfare handouts.
But the subsidies were lifted and other belt-tightening measures introduced in the first place because Yemen, in a word, is broke. Its oil sector was in steady decline even before the recent slump in global oil prices, adding to the already large budget deficit.
Saudi Arabia, which has long been an influential player in Yemen, may be keen today to make the point that it is not willing to finance a Houthi-influenced government in Sanaa. The logic of that argument, from the kingdom’s perspective, is obvious. But, equally, turning a blind eye towards Yemen is a risky attitude for the GCC to adopt. As the Yemeni economy continues to deteriorate the expectation must be that the various armed groups will see further opportunities to expand their military and political aims. The central government and the army, meanwhile, will be less efficient in controlling Al Qaeda and other groups which view Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries as a whole as enemies.
In the end, there is no hope for the central government in Yemen without considerable financial support from the Gulf states. Failure to rally round Yemen would spell catastrophe for that country and much greater insecurity on the Arabian peninsula.
Even though the GCC’s main concern these days may be the developments in Iraq and Syria, Gulf leaders will also need to agree on action to help Yemen by encouraging another round of reconciliation talks, no matter how daunting that task might seem. The GCC can offer strong incentives in the form of renewed financial support. Ultimately they will have to find a way of enabling the funding of Yemen if they are to prevent a failed state emerging on their doorstep.
Gerald Butt, a former BBC Middle East correspondent, is an analyst and author on the region.