The resignation of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi on 22 January worsens the protracted political crisis affecting Yemen. Parliament is yet to vote on whether it accepts the resignation and will hold an extraordinary session on 25 January to discuss the unfolding situation. In the short term, political instability and high levels of unrest will persist, particularly in Sana’a, and foreign companies are likely to maintain limited operations in the country following evacuations of staff ordered earlier in the week. The resignation is a negative step for Yemen’s political stability and threatens to worsen ethnic and regional divisions in the country, particularly if Houthi forces come to control key positions in a future government.
The deteriorating political situation this week has already affected security and business operations inside Yemen. At least 18 people died in clashes with security forces as Houthi fighters seized key government institutions, military buildings and the presidential palace. Aden port and the city’s airport were temporarily closed and border restrictions enforced around the region as part of protests against the expansion of Houthi control in the capital. Employees of several foreign companies were evacuated from the country earlier in the week, disrupting operations at oil and gas facilities in Shabwa and at the Balhaf LNG terminal. The US Embassy expedited the withdrawal of some staff following Hadi’s resignation and placed warships in the Red Sea on standby in the event that a full evacuation be deemed necessary.
Political uncertainty and high levels of unrest in Yemen will persist as parliament debates the developments, which also include the resignation of Prime Minister Khaled Bahah and the Cabinet. Yahia al-Rai, the speaker of parliament and reported ally of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, will act as interim leader. However, the political situation remains unsettled, with unconfirmed reports that parliament has rejected Hadi’s resignation and Houthi leaders warning that the president’s decision would have to be approved by an absolute majority of lawmakers at an emergency session of parliament due to convene by 25 January. Houthis will maintain considerable influence in the running of the capital and increased numbers of checkpoints have already appeared in Sana’a, while buildings released as part of the agreement with President Hadi on 22 January could again be seized amid the apparent power vacuum. Additional media outlets and government ministries could be held as the political transition proceeds. Houthi representatives will continue to exert demands of greater political representation inside the government, and a period of political wrangling and coalition making should be expected as the make-up of the next government is determined. Mass rallies in support of both President Hadi and Houthis should be expected in the capital in the next 48 hours, which could involve significant violent clashes.
Other cities will also likely witness large demonstrations and further attacks on military targets should be expected. Key personnel in the security forces and lower ranks will also remain subject to attacks, as witnessed by the targeting of a senior air force commander with a bomb in Sana’a on 22 January and reports of several explosions and targeted attacks by as yet unidentified assailants in the southern city of Aden.
A potential mass casualty attack by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants in the capital should also not be discounted. The group – at war with Houthi fighters – has repeatedly demonstrated its capability to launch attacks in the capital and an attack at this time of perceived success for Houthi interests would represent a symbolic gesture of intent. Such an attack would likely target Houthi interests such as rebel bases or checkpoints, but a more indiscriminate attack against large public areas or rallies is also credible. The power vacuum created by the president’s resignation and subsequent uncertainty of command in the military will also seemingly bolster AQAP outside the capital, which could seek to consolidate and gradually expand its area of operation.
As the political process unfolds, foreign companies operating in the country are likely to minimise staff presence in the country, disrupting production at core facilities and further damaging already weak investor confidence in Yemen. In the oil producing region of Marib, tribes are reportedly mobilising in anticipation of a Houthi assault on the region, something that could further disrupt the oil sector and have a detrimental impact on the economy. Although the Houthi capability to take this region is unproven and risks overstretching its forces, fighting in Marib has been intermittently reported in recent months, with security and tribal forces repelling a Houthi assault on a military base in the area on 22 January. Furthermore, Houthis have elsewhere demonstrated their intent to seize key national assets, as exemplified by the takeover of al-Hodeidah port in October 2014.
The events have again demonstrated the weakness of political institutions in Yemen in the face of armed opposition. The inherent weakness of the state will remain critical in the formation and sustainability of a future government. The past six months have demonstrated the capability of armed Houthis to undermine the government’s position and use their military capability to repeatedly exert demands on political institutions. This dynamic is unlikely to change, and political reconciliation and government building over the next month will remain vulnerable to the demands of rebel Houthi fighters and their political leaders.
A growing Houthi influence in government also threatens to reinforce regional and sectarian divisions within Yemen. Houthis and AQAP militants have been engaged in fighting and the history of clashes with Sunni tribes and the popular Sunni al-Islah Party risk reinforcing perceptions of a sectarian divide. Recent protests in Aden – a strategic city considered well beyond the reach of Houthi fighters – against rebel activity in Sana’a is indicative of the strong opposition the group faces in the south. The absence of a central government or one with a strong Houthi leaning could drive southern secessionists’ demands for a break-up of the country and reinforce existing informal divisions and lines of influence across the country.
The exact political ambitions of the Houthis remain unknown and political developments in upcoming weeks will help shape the longer-term direction of Yemen. Parliamentary events in the next 48 hours should be monitored closely, as should any announcement of an election and the coalitions of parties, including the potential re-emergence of ousted President Saleh or his loyalists. Irrespective, the fundamental weakness of political institutions is likely to persist and will leave a future government exposed to the violent competition for power that led to Hadi’s resignation. This threatens to drive sectarian tensions and regional divisions, pushing Yemen closer to break-up or spreading civil war.