In a now drearily familiar turn of events, the government of a populous and strategically vital Middle Eastern country is eroding into irrelevance.
On Oct. 2, the rebel movement that’s essentially occupying much of Sa’ana, the capital of Yemen, said it was forbidding the country’s finance ministry from spending money on anything other than salary payments of state employees. That rebel group, known as the Houthis, marched into Sa’ana in late September, taking over the Ministry of Defence and essentially forcing the government to sue for peace. Now, the Houthis have claimed the power of the purse as well, condemning Yemen’s already-weak state to an even more marginal role in determining the country’s direction.
Iraq and Syria have attracted far more of the public’s attention than events in Yemen, and understandably so. The US has been waging drone strikes against an Al Qaeda franchise in Yemen with the Sa’ana’s approval for several years now, but the country has never been the site of the kind of sustained, full-scale US action now underway in other parts of the Middle East.
But the country’s story is still significant. Yemen was one of the four countries to successfully overthrow its leadership during the Arab Spring, as protests ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled for over 30 years, in November of 2011.
The Houthi takeover of Sa’ana marks the end of yet another Arab Spring country’s democratic aspirations. Egypt’s Arab Spring ended in the dictatorship of Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, and the Libyan state has more or less collapsed. With the Houthis essentially holding the Yemeni government hostage, the country’s post-Spring transitional period looks like every bit of a disappointment.
On top of that is the Houthis apparent link to Iran.
They don’t buy into Iranian state ideology. The Houthis are a collection of desert clans who began their insurgency in the early-2000s in the hopes of protecting their traditional domain while protesting their historic marginalization within a majority-Sunni country. The Houthis fought six low-intensity wars with the Sa’ana government in a decade-long span. But they did it because of particular local concerns, and not in order to bring Iran-style clerical rule to the Arabian Peninsula.
These differences haven’t stopped Iran from throwing weaponry and other forms of encouragement behind their Shi’ite co-religionists in Yemen. And now, a militia movement with ties to one of the region’s more counter-productive actors has subverted or even totally ended Yemen’s post-Arab Spring transition.
It’s the latest disappointment in a region riven with violent confrontation. Yemen’s government is quietly disappearing — and a restive country of over 25 million people sitting on one of the world’s major oil chokepoints faces an uncertain and likely chaotic future.
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