The Houthis’ February 6 announcement that they will dissolve the Yemeni parliament and set up an interim governing body has heightened Riyadh’s concerns about Yemen’s political instability. For years, Riyadh has focused on preventing any major shift in the balance of power on Yemen’s northern highlands, favoring the Hashid tribal confederation, which includes Sanhan, the clan of former President Saleh, and the once-powerful Ahmar family. As Hashid enjoyed top military and security positions, contributing the lion’s share of middle ranking and senior officers, Riyadh’s patron-client tribal network provided the kingdom with unfettered access to the military establishment in Sanaa.
But the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, the Ahmar family’s loss of influence, and damaged ties with the Islah party—which brings together a broad range of Yemen’s Sunni Islamists—left Saudi Arabia with little influence in the Yemeni capital. Saudi Arabia has few options now but to engage with the Houthis, who are currently the most cohesive political and military force in Yemen. Riyadh is alarmed not just because this might impact the regional Saudi-Iranian balance of power, but mainly because the Houthi takeover has direct implications for the kingdom’s national security.
Saudi Arabia is most concerned about security along its border—especially following bloody clashes between Houthi fighters and al-Qaeda militants. Since the Houthis captured Sanaa in September and expanded their geographical control in Dhamar, Bayda, Ibb, and Hodeidah, they have stepped up their clashes with al-Qaeda affiliated militants. Last October, in the Radaa district of Bayda, 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Sanaa, the Houthis clashed fiercely with Ansar al-Sharia, the local arm of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and with Sunni tribes who allied themselves with Ansar al-Sharia against the Houthi fighters.
Further intensification of the Houthi-Qaeda clashes will allow AQAP to reframe the conflict as a Sunni-Shi’a one, increasing the appeal of radicalization among Yemeni and Saudi Sunnis alike. This could spark sectarian violence in Yemen and destabilize the kingdom’s southern provinces. AQAP’s leadership already includes several Saudis who fled to Yemen after Saudi security forces largely dismantled al-Qaeda’s branch in the kingdom in a massive counterterrorism campaign between 2003 and 2007. Moreover, a number of statements on jihadi forums have framed the Houthi conflict as a Shi’a attack on Sunnis, using this as a rallying point to increase their support bases. On September 23, two days after the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, AQAP released a communiqué that described the incident as an attempt “to complete the Shi’a project in Yemen.”
Further clashes between AQAP and the Houthis, together with the paralysis of the Yemeni state, could easily turn the country into a magnet for foreign jihadi fighters leaving the Iraqi and Syrian fronts. These fighters can provide AQAP with an influx of experienced militants who also have a profound antipathy toward Riyadh and Shi’a communities.
With threats on its northern Iraqi border and, now, on its southern Yemeni border, Saudi Arabia sees its relationships in Yemen as an increasingly important protective measure. In response to the unrest in Yemen that dates back to the 2011 Arab uprisings, Saudi Arabia has increased military checkpoints and patrols on its border with Yemen and accelerated work on their high-tech, 1,770 kilometer (1,100 mile) border fence, which will stretch from the Red Sea in the west to Oman in the east. The kingdom’s attempt to physically insulate itself from the chaos engulfing its northern and southern neighbors has made it the largest border fence market in the world.
Yet while Riyadh focuses on strengthening its border security, its regional competitor, Qatar, is already communicating with the Houthis. During a meeting in Washington with the Qatari Foreign Minister, Khalid al-Attiyah, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was grateful for the “many ways in which Qatar, the emir, and Dr. Attiyah have made themselves available in order to be of assistance.” He praised the Qataris for aiding U.S. policymakers in responding to recent developments in Yemen.
In the short term, Riyadh has too much on its plate to pursue a more active role in Yemen. The kingdom is focusing on fortifying its border with Yemen, leaving the complex political game to the United Nations and the Gulf Cooperation Council. But in the long term, Riyadh may ultimately have little choice but to open direct lines of communication with the Houthis.
Khaled Fattah is an independent consultant and expert on Yemen and state-tribe relations in the Middle East.