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Yemen crisis heating up as al-Qaeda makes inroads in the south

The al-Qaeda advance stirs fears they could be trying to consolidate their power amid the political crisis engulfing Yemen
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula overran an army base in Baihan in Yemen’s Shabwa province (AFP)

Yemen’s southern secessionist movement on Friday accused the army of “surrendering” several of its bases in southern Yemen to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the group’s most feared franchises.

AQAP overran an army base in Baihan, a town in the far west of Yemen’s Shabwa province, on Thursday, sparking fears that the militants could be trying to consolidate their power amid a political crisis engulfing the country.

Yemen’s Herak movement, who are calling for independence for the country’s south, said in a statement Friday that Yemeni army soldiers had been involved in a “conspiracy” with AQAP which led to the militants taking over the base.

In response to the capture, armed fighters from local tribes advanced on Thursday and recaptured the base, local news site al-Mashhad reported.

The town of Baihan lies some 50 kilometres south of the border of the oil-rich province of Marib.

The province’s governor on Friday warned the Houthis, who last week took control of the neighbouring province of Bayda, against advancing into Marib.

“Defending oneself and territory is a legitimate right,” Sultan al-Arada said, warning that the Houthis would meet stiff resistance from local tribes.

Houthi militants, who are strongly opposed to AQAP, took control of Sanaa, the capital, in September, and last week dissolved the country’s parliament and installed a presidential council to run the country.

UN-sponsored talks are continuing in Sanaa to try and find a political solution to the crisis, with many denouncing the Houthi power-grab as a “coup”.

However, analysts suggest that, despite intense negotiations in the capital, the oil-rich province of Marib some 200 kilometres east could become the real flashpoint in the struggle for control of Yemen.

Eyes on Marib oil

“Marib will be the site of the biggest face-off,” according to Yemeni political analyst Abdul Ghani Iryani.

Marib, a small province just east of the capital in central Yemen, produces more than 70 percent of Yemen’s oil and gas, and it is the country’s primary centre for electricity generation.

Yemen is the poorest country in the region, and oil contributes an estimated 75 percent of government revenue, which makes Marib a highly important province.

"There is little doubt in most analsyts' minds that Saudi Arabia is funding the tribesmen," according to Katie Riordan, a reporter based in Sanaa who spoke to MEE.

"Photos have appeared on social media of tribes armed with expensive equipment ranging from guns to trucks. 

"Journalists who have travelled to Marib tell me that tribal leaders deny the funding claims, but have a hard time explaining where the equipment is coming from".

In recent weeks, Marib has become even more significant, according to Iryani, as negotiations to decide who will control Yemen continue.

“The Houthis aim to control electricity, gas and oil. They want to create de facto control so that when they negotiate for power-sharing with other groups, they can gain as much influence as possible”.

However, any attempted Houthi advance into Marib is expected to face stiff resistance from local tribes, as the stark warning from the provincial governor suggests.

“Marib is a strongly tribal area. The Houthis believe that resistance to them will not be so strong in non-tribal areas because the local communities do not have a tradition of martial mobilisation," Iryani said. "In Marib, however, the tribes have a millennia-old military tradition – they are much stronger and can mobilise”.

Rumours of proxy war

Marib’s local tribes also are thought to be stronger than those in other areas because they enjoy support from foreign powers.

Saudi Arabia has been channelling funding to tribal fighters in Marib through its southern border with Yemen, local officials told the Associated Press this week.

The admission came as Tehran admitted that it has had a hand in recent events in Yemen, in which the Houthis, a relatively small band of rebels from an offshoot of the Shiite sect, have effectively deposed the country’s president and seized power.

There has long been speculation that Saudi Arabia was supporting local tribes in Yemen to fight against AQAP, which has launched numerous attacks inside Saudi territory.

Now, though, analysts say the Saudi funding could be aimed at countering the threat from the Houthis, who many say have direct backing from Saudi arch-rival Iran.

The Houthis, said regional analyst Sharif Nashashibi, has directly fought with Saudi forces in the past, and it is likely that arms and funds would be sent to counter their threat.

According to Iryani, Saudi Arabia has an “exaggerated perception” of the threat posed by the Houthis, and is backing tribes who it hopes will root out the militants.

“They wanted the Yemeni government to fight the Houthis. But the government is not in a position to do that, so now Saudi Arabia is getting the tribes to do it,” Iryani told MEE by telephone from Sanaa.

“Saudi Arabia will fight to contain the Houthi movement,” Iryani explained, warning that the Gulf kingdom could authorise a ground invasion if they feel sufficiently threatened.

“I’m certain that we will not see the Houthi movement control the whole of Yemen – I wouldn’t be surprised if Saudi Arabia decides to intervene militarily.”

Armed intervention?

Recent reports suggest that Saudi Arabia is not alone in considering military intervention in Yemen.

Egypt, among Riyadh’s strongest allies, is said to be establishing a “special rapid deployment force” that would be able to intervene if the Houthis disrupt Bab al-Mandub, a lucrative shipping channel that runs from Yemen up past the Saudi and Egyptian coasts.

The Red Sea channel culminates in Egypt’s Suez Canal, a strategic man-made waterway that carries oil traffic from the Gulf.

If unrest in Yemen disrupts this channel, unnamed officials told the Associated Press, Egypt would be prepared for military intervention.

However, there is, so far, “no sign that the Houthis have disrupted shipping or are planning to”, Nashashibi told MEE.

Moreover, a military campaign in Yemen would be domestically unpopular in Egypt, which is struggling with a growing insurgency in its restive Sinai province.

Also, Egypt has a complex history when it comes to campaigns in Yemen, since a disastrous intervention in the country’s 1962-1970 civil war.

“Yemen is known as Egypt’s Vietnam,” said Nashashibi, and in a complex conflict in which all sides are heavily armed, any intervention “could end up being another quagmire for Egypt”.

Though a direct Saudi-Egyptian military campaign in Yemen is unlikely, Nashashibi suggests that media reports could be designed to warn the Houthis of the possible consequences if they do disrupt shipping channels in the Red Sea.

“If there was an imminent possibility [of intervention], the statements would probably be made by named officials, but for now they are all remaining anonymous.

“[Making these statements] could simply be a precautionary measure”, Nashashibi said.

Though a military campaign, a “risky undertaking” for both countries, is unlikely, Nashashibi suggests that it remains a possibility, explaining that “something really big would have to happen for Saudi Arabia and Egypt to put boots on the ground”.

Saudi Arabia, according to Iryani, is “building a coalition to intervene in Yemen when it becomes necessary.

“They are talking to the Egyptians to prepare for that eventuality”.