The current Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rift between Saudi Arabia and Qatar adds a new challenge to Yemen’s fraught political transition. As tensions escalate between Riyadh and Doha, Yemen’s central government is caught between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Qatar appeals to a number of actors within Yemen’s political arena because of its deeper pockets and less historical baggage in Yemen, which positions it well to mediate various local conflicts. However, Sanaa will find it difficult to move away from its long-standing strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s geographical proximity, wealth, and political weight render its influence in Yemen significant—and inescapable—and it is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
Although patron-client relations have always shaped Yemen’s political arena, the post-Arab Spring context of uncertainty has ignited a fierce competition between the country’s plethora of elite factions, not only over control of the state but also over external sources of legitimacy and support. Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been able to buy the loyalty of local actors with ease, aided by Yemen’s endemic state weakness, scarcity of natural resources, and its regional, sectarian, and tribal fragmentation. Saudi Arabia has a long history of intervention and political investment in Yemen, which grants it more leverage over domestic actors, but also greater room for creating enemies. For instance, the Saudi support in granting blanket immunity from prosecution to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh has angered Yemen’s revolutionary forces. Conversely, Qatar’s track record in Yemen has been less problematic. It acted, for example, as a mediator in the Houthi conflict and the southern movement issue and therefore has less baggage in Yemen.
For Yemen's interim President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, the timing of this intra-Gulf tension could not have been worse, coming as it does right at the beginning of the implementation of the outcomes of the stormy, ten-month National Dialogue. The Saudi-Qatari divergence over the Brotherhood poses a dilemma for Hadi, who is struggling to consolidate his legitimacy and deal with the country’s mounting security and economic grievances. In the post-dialogue confusion, Hadi is caught between the Houthi movement and his own political party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), on one side, and the Islah party on the other. He needs all the support he can get, particularly from Islah, which gained significant influence after mobilizing and sustaining the uprisings that forced former President Saleh to step down. Well-entrenched throughout the country, Islah has succeeded in recruiting thousands of its loyalists inside various government bodies, including those of interior, defense and local governance structure. The party, which includes a Muslim Brotherhood wing (in addition to its tribal elements headed by the al-Ahmar family and a Salafi branch), is pressing Hadi to maintain the role of Qatar in supporting the transition process.
Other factions are pulling Yemen toward Saudi Arabia. On March, 22, 2014, a large tribal gathering tied to the GPC—Yemen’s most ideologically diversified party, which remains under the leadership of former President Saleh—met in Sanaa to call for cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar. The gathering accused Doha of creating unrest and supporting Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood. The accusation came two weeks after the Saudi government formally designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, an act that was widely welcomed by the GPC and the Houthi movement. However, Yemen’s most powerful military figure, General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who also serves as Hadi’s military advisor since April 2013 and enjoys a large network of support within the Islamist camp, accused Iran of fueling the tensions between Riyadh and Doha. In doing so, he is attempting to appease the two countries; defending Saudi Arabia without upsetting Qatar will help him appear reconciliatory and resist the political fragmentation of the military.
Yet unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, where the main political battle is between nationalist and left-leaning groups on the one side and religious-right groups on the other, Yemen’s battle lines are blurred and constantly shifting. Even the military, the one institution pivotal to the present and future of Yemen’s security, remains dangerously divided and vulnerable to growing attrition. Yemen’s military is a reflection of the country’s multiple and overlapping power centers. Loyalty inside the military is more to the tribe, clan, region, and individual commanders than to state institutions.
The consequences of the Saudi-Qatari rift on the dynamics of politics and security in Yemen is of paramount importance given its proximity to the two players. Although Yemen provides an opportunity for Doha to put into practice its desire to project regional weight and international prestige, for Riyadh, Yemen is vital. Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen remains not about prestige or regional influence; rather, it is a national security matter. Yemen is perceived in the Saudi intelligence community as a peripheral extension that should be closely monitored and controlled. Riyadh will not tolerate a successful Brotherhood-led transition in Yemen, as that would cement Doha’s perceived success in supporting Islamist-led political change in the non-monarchical Arab states and pose an ideological challenge to Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism-based Islamic legitimacy.
Yemen’s relations and policies toward external players carry implications not only for the country’s political transition but also for stability and security in the Arabian Peninsula. The consequences of Saudi and Qatari diverging agendas in Yemen could be dire. The issue is not about Qatar carving for itself a powerful niche in Yemen or Saudi Arabia maintaining its influence there, rather it’s about avoiding the collapse of Yemen—which would affect the entire region. A major challenge for the GCC, therefore, is finding a way to prevent further descent of the southwestern corner of Arabia into anarchy; this would require Riyadh and Doha to be on the same page. If Doha can reconcile with Riyadh, at least regarding Yemen, it will help move forward with the implementation of the National Dialogue outcomes, which are currently the only way to keep the country’s delicate political balance.
Khaled Fattah is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center and a guest lecturer at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden.