International Crisis Group published a report on October 11, 2017 explaining that the ongoing tensions within the Houthi-Saleh alliance provide the opportunity for Saudi Arabia to resolve the war in Yemen with an inclusive regional initiative. The report suggests that Saudi Arabia should capitalize on this moment of heightened strain in the Houthi-Saleh relationship and promote peace, ending a war that is economically and diplomatically costly for Saudi Arabia itself and disastrous for the Yemenis.
The Houthi-Saleh alliance began out of convenience. When Saleh was president, he fought several wars against the Houthi movement. However, they united against President Hadi and the Islah party, a Sunni political party allied to Hadi, after the Gulf Cooperation Council alienated both former president Saleh and the Houthis. When Saudi Arabia intervened in the war, the alliance was further solidified. Tensions have continued to exist; according to the ICG’s analysis, Saleh and the GPC view the Houthis as an undemocratic, extremist religious organization riddled with corruption, especially in the use of detention centers and their monopoly on the resource flow to the north. On the other hand, many Houthis believe that the GPC isn’t fully committed to the war or to power-sharing.
These tensions peaked at the pro-Saleh rally on August 24, where Saleh referred to Houthi revolutionary committees “militias” (the Houthis portray their armed wing as a state institution, participating in the legal defense of Yemen against foreign invasion). The Houthis responded by calling Saleh a backstabber and claiming that Saleh was contriving a deal with Saudi Arabia to remove the Houthis from power. In the following days, several people were killed at Houthi checkpoints and the home of Saleh’s son. The Houthis and Saleh promptly deescalated the situation, even though the critical sources of tension remain.
An unraveling of the Houthi-Saleh alliance into violence is unlikely, according to ICG; both sides recognize that such a move would be catastrophic and undermine both of their respective positions. As direct military confrontation between the Houthis and Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) political party is unlikely, the Houthi-Saleh alliance will continue consolidating power in the north and creating shadow state institutions despite their internal tensions. Additionally, a breakdown in the alliance wouldn’t benefit Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition, because Hadi would likely be unable to govern the north, which is currently dominated by the Houthi-Saleh alliance, due to the weakness of his government and the resentment of the locals towards him. Instead, the north would probably fragment and attract extremist groups like AQAP who exploit the chaos in areas plagued by a vacuum of governance and power.
Saudi Arabia and its partners have long sought to pry the GPC away from the Huthis. However, now that divisions have become more apparent, Riyadh should forgo the temptation to push for military advantage or wait for its adversaries to fight each other, scenarios that...almost certainly will not give them a decisive advantage. Instead, along with regional partners including Oman, and with the encouragement of the Security Council and UN special envoy, it should champion a political solution.
The Houthi-Saleh forces continue to consolidate power in the north and prolong a stalemate despite internal tensions, while a violent confrontation between the Houthis and the GPC would allow extremist groups to proliferate. Neither of these situations is beneficial to Saudi Arabia. Therefore, the Saudi government must seize this moment of opportunity by championing a political solution. The GPC will likely consider a political deal, and this would pressure the Houthis into cooperating as well. Saudi Arabia, as the main powerbroker in Yemen, would need to foster inclusive regional dialogue, achieve a ceasefire, lift the blockade, support a transitional government, and assist in massive reconstruction. This is the best alternative for Saudi Arabia; the conflict in Yemen has thus far only harmed the Saudis economically and diplomatically.