Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
People demonstrate against the Houthi movement at the Change Square in Sanaa, Yemen, January 23, 2015. Yemen's President Abdu-Rabbu Mansour Hadi resigned on Thursday, days after Houthi rebels battled their way into his presidential palace, plunging the unstable Arab country deeper into chaos and depriving Washington of a key ally against Al Qaeda.

Passing of Saudi King Abdullah felt in Yemen's chaotic descent

As the regime in Yemen crumbled this week, the normally attentive Saudis were absorbed with their own leadership transition: the passing of King Abdullah.

Amid the chaos in Yemen, which resulted Thursday night in the resignation of President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, many in the Gulf region wondered out loud: Where are the Saudis?

After all, Yemen’s leadership transition after the Arab Spring had been closely stage-managed in Riyadh. 

“They’re just letting it go,” Theodore Karasik, senior adviser to Risk Insurance Management in Dubai, told the Monitor earlier this week. Yemen “is screaming for a policy.”

On Friday morning, one likely reason for the silence became clear: King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler for nearly a quarter century who had been ill with pneumonia, had passed away overnight.

For now, King Abdullah’s passing means Riyadh is unlikely to be able to play a high-level role in resolving Yemen’s political crisis, leaving that country under the control of Iranian-allied Houthi rebels. 

While lower-level envoys and diplomats are likely to continue their work, the Saudi foreign policy establishment will be tied up with mourning and a political transition.

Containment with a fence

The timing of Abdullah’s passing also reinforces what has been the Saudi policy of containment: trying to limit the fallout from Yemen’s turmoil, rather than addressing it directly. The kingdom is currently building a fence along the two countries’ 1,060 mile land border.

Saudi Arabia had helped to steer Yemen’s transition after 2011 Arab Spring protests. Under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Riyadh shepherded a negotiated power transfer in November 2011, handing the presidency from President Ali Abdullah Saleh to his vice president, Mr. Hadi. In addition to providing political support, Saudi Arabia pledged more than $3 billion in economic aid to give Hadi’s government a fighting chance.

The new government was meant to lead a national dialogue and draft a new constitution. Then came a military offensive last fall by Houthi rebels opposed to the draft charter, arguing that it would marginalize them. 

Saudi Arabia, exercising its economic veto, suspended aid to Sanaa last year after Houthi rebels took control of most government institutions. Riyadh views the rebellion as a satellite of Iranian influence in the region – something it has opposed not just in Yemen but across the Arab world – and is likely to withhold aid unless Houthis pull back. 

Risks of security focus

This means that the Saudis’ emphasis will have to fall on security: keeping not just the Houthis, but also Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – the terrorist group’s most competent wing – out of Saudi territory.

That’s a risky stance. The ongoing events in Yemen are “going to be serious for them for their security,” says Abdulhamid Mulhi, an adviser to Hadi, describing the Gulf countries’ collective position as “very weak.”

Meanwhile, for the United States, AQAP will remain the priority. On Wednesday, US Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers acknowledged that it has an intelligence relationship with the Houthi rebels and will seek to continue efforts to combat their mutual enemy AQAP.

One place to watch for signs of how things will move forward is in Marib, where Houthi rebels appear to be gearing up for a battle against Sunni tribes, which the rebels say are sympathetic to Al Qaeda. Alarmingly for the Saudis, Marib is north of Sanaa – and just that much closer to the border, where a fence is far from completed.

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