The USA is getting overstretched again; the Islamic State (IS) is proving extremely difficult to degrade and destroy, Russia continues its proxy war against Ukraine, Boko Haram is on the rampage in Nigeria, the Sudanese conflict intensifies by the day and nuclear negotiations with Iran progress slowly. All this whilst the Obama administration attempts an awkward ‘pivot’ to East Asia to confront the rising power of China.
Given this, the toppling of the pro-American government in Yemen has come at a bad time. This is particularly so given that Yemen is home to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in Paris amongst other atrocities and thrives on the insecurity of its host state. The overthrow of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi by Houthi rebels has therefore been seen as yet another blow to US strategic interests in the Middle East.
On closer examination, however, this latest development may turn out to be a blessing for the US and its allies. Firstly, despite American financial and technical assistance, Hadi’s government was completely incapable of countering the rise of AQAP, with US drone strikes the only ploy to eradicate the blossoming terrorist organisation. Secondly, the Houthis are no supporters of Al-Qaeda, not by a long shot.
The Houthis follow the Zaidi Shia branch of Islam, in stark contrast to the radical Sunni version trumpeted by Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Shiiites form a minority in Yemen and the Houthis organised as in insurgent group in 1994, not long after the Shia-dominated North Yemen was amalgamated into the South.
Zaidism is a sect of Shia Islam named after 8th century Imam Zayd ibn Ali. In 740, Zayd led a failed rebellion against the Umayyad Dynasty, which had taken over the Islamic Caliphate in 661 and whose rule was deemed unjust by early proponents of Shia. Zayd was following in the footsteps of his grandfather Husayn ibn Ali (the third Shia Imam and himself a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad) who had refused to pledge allegiance to the Umayyads and was subsequently beheaded in 680 at the Battle of Karbala.
Zayd would also lose his life during the rebellion of 740, becoming a martyr like his grandfather. Yet his actions were not in vein for they exposed the corruption of Umayyad rule, weakening it sufficiently so that the empire had collapsed by 750.
The Zaidis, therefore, have an historical precedent for resisting the forces of injustice. Whilst the Houthis may lead Yemen away from another traditional US ally, Saudi Arabia, and towards Iran, they are likely to prove more effective than Hadi’s regime in resisting the advances of AQAP.
At a time when the US cannot fight every war that it may ideally wish, the prospect of the Shiites and Al-Qaeda tearing each other apart in Yemen may seem more appealing than a weak and unreliable Sunni ally.