Coalition Government May Help Ease Tension in Yemen

War and Peace

The Obama Administration says it's determined not to send American troops to Yemen to fight Al-Qaeda. American equipment and training may be sufficient in helping the Yemeni army to push Al-Qaeda out, so a direct American military involvement may, indeed, be neither necessary nor desirable. However, U.S. diplomatic and civilian involvement may be needed in order to prevent Al-Qaeda from staging a comeback in Yemen in the near future. To ensure a lasting impact of the military operation that’s underway in Yemen now, Washington should help Yemeni President Saleh to redress the domestic grievances that enabled Al-Qaeda to gain traction in the country in the first place.

The U.S. could help broker a unity government in Yemen that would, for once, include Mr. Saleh's opponents. Cobbling together a coalition cabinet would be a tall order given the decades-long civil strife between Sana'a, the mostly Sunni separatists in the south, and the Shiite rebels in the north. Yet it may be the only way to stabilize the dangerously divided nation. After all, it was Mr. Saleh's political and economic marginalization of southern Yemen that spurred local resistance to his regime and enabled Al-Qaeda to proliferate in the area. Unless Mr. Saleh reconciles with his detractors by granting them greater political representation, Yemen's perpetual in-fighting will sap any U.S. effort to destroy Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Coalition-building becomes even more pressing now that President Saleh hopes to transfer power to his son, Ahmad. Washington is likely to favor Ahmad, who is considered a U.S. ally, just like his father. However, Ahmad is said to lack the charisma and the political instincts of his father, making him a weak leader for the Yemenis in the tumultuous period that lies ahead. Furthermore, a U.S.-supported initiative to stabilize Yemen would require the conduct of free and transparent elections, rather than some underhanded handover of power from father to son that will undoubtedly provoke an even stronger public backlash. If the Saleh dynasty wants to remain in the higher echelons of power, it must begin positioning itself as an inclusive political force without further delay. Otherwise, the Salehs' rule will continue to be confined to the capital, Sana'a.

President Saleh should also work on reconciling his family’s political ambitions with those of his former-allies-turned-rivals. That includes the Al-Ahmar clan which is grooming ones of its scions, prominent businessman Hamid Al-Ahmar, for the Yemeni presidency.

In addition to engaging the Sunnis in the south, the coalition government would also have to include representatives of the Al-Houthi Shiite movement in the north. The Houthi-led offensives against the Saleh regime dissipated the government’s resources over the past six years, while also emboldening the secessionist movement in the south.  While the Houthi guerillas invoked religious rhetoric as they sought to recruit more supporters, their principal complaints were about political and economic neglect from Sana'a, similarly to the situation of Sunnis in the south.

It may be problematic, however, to install a U.S.-friendly regime with the U.S.-averse Al-Houthi rebels as part of it. In addition, the Houthis regard themselves as Hashimi (descendants of the Prophet), thus believing that they have a divine right to rule Yemen, while the non-descendant Saleh family does not. This sense of religious entitlement has been a principal point of contention between President Saleh and the Houthi movement, both of whom belong to the Zaidi sect of Shia Islam.

Finally, a governing coalition involving the Shi'ite Houthis will also face opposition from neighboring Saudi Arabia, whose borderline territories in the south were infiltrated last year by the Houthi insurgents based in the northern Yemeni governorate of Sadaa. Given all the inherent complications associated the Saleh-Houthi union, President Saleh may have to seek out and establish an alliance with moderates among the Houthis.

Coalition-building efforts in Yemen will undoubtedly face many obstacles in the form of ingrained religious and political gripes. However, it is clear that strengthening Yemen as a nation can provide economic well-being and security for its citizens and the wider global community. Doing so will involve some hard bargaining and compromises on the part of its current elite.  

Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi, Ahmad Saleh, Al-Qaeda, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Hamid Al-Ahmar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen

Marianna Gurtovnik

Marianna Gurtovnik's interests lie in foreign policy, international security, and energy security. She has written on these topics for World Politics Review, Transitions Online, and the Congressionally-funded Project on National Security Reform (PNSR). For PNSR, she completed research studies on the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. Government's response to the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and the Suez Canal Crisis (1956). She holds a Master's Degree in Public Administration from American University in Washington, DC.