Wednesday’s tripartite meeting among Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), and two prominent members of Yemen’s Congregation for Reform Party (al-Islah) was an unexpected development in Yemen’s turbulent civil war and a serious setback for the Iran–Houthi axis. Up to this point, the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) opposition to al-Islah, which it views as a Muslim Brotherhood ally, thwarted cooperation between the organization and the Arab Coalition, despite the former’s hostility toward the Houthis. MBZ’s decision to put aside his suspicions is a clear indication that both he and MBS are committed to strengthening the credibility of the Arab Coalition in the eyes of the Yemeni public, in the hopes of turning back the Houthi offensive.
Although the Saudi–Emirati–Islah meeting convened just ten days after former president Saleh’s execution at the hands of his Houthi allies, it had been in the works for some time. Saudi Arabia took the lead in testing the political waters when MBS met with al-Islah President Mohammed Abdullah al-Yadoumi and his Secretary General, Abdulwahab al-Anisi, on November 10 in Riyadh. While the particulars of the MBS-Yadoumi discussion are unknown, it coincided with a concerted public relations effort by al-Islah to further distance itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, with whom it officially cut ties in 2013. This discussion was preceded by Saudi Arabia backing President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s decision to appoint General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, an al-Islah ally, deputy commander of Yemen’s armed forces in 2016.
Although long considered an opponent of the GPC, prior to the civil war, members of al-Islah served in Yemen’s parliament and benefited from President Saleh’s patronage network. The organization still enjoys widespread support throughout north and south Yemen and has warm relations with other Islamist, as well as Nasserist and socialist, currents. Al-Islah is also a major political power broker; in 2005, for example, it co-founded the Joint Meeting Parties, a politically diverse five-party coalition, to run against the GPC candidates in national elections.
Since the coalition’s 2015 intervention in Yemen’s civil war, al-Islah has been searching for an opportunity to coordinate with the alliance against the Houthis. Significantly, it was the only political party to voice support for the coalition at the onset of the war. However, al-Islah’s reputation as a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, an image cultivated by former president Saleh to discredit the organization, prevented it from doing so. Despite al-Islah’s repeated disavowal of its affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, the two groups’ shared ideology complicated efforts to achieve a rapprochement with the coalition in general, and the UAE in particular.
However, since Saleh’s execution, the Arab Coalition has been gaining credibility in areas nominally aligned with the Hadi government (Marib, for example) as well as in besieged northern cities like Taiz, Ibb, and even Sana’a. For the coalition, this shift in public opinion has weakened the Houthis’ strategic position. An alliance with al-Islah could help solidify this change in public opinion and help the opposition regain the momentum it lost with Saleh’s assassination. More importantly, the new alignment between al-Islah and the coalition, coupled with the GPC rebellion, has diminished the Houthis’ political legitimacy; absent a credible governing partner, it is extremely difficult for the Houthis to present themselves as something other than a foreign-backed sectarian interest group.
For al-Islah, allying itself with the Arab Coalition signals the triumph of the party’s anti-Houthi current over accommodationists like Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman. It also provides some measure of assurance that the coalition will not turn on al-Islah if the former succeed in defeating the Houthis. Most significantly, however, the removal of the UAE–Islah roadblock renews hope that the Arab Coalition will work to liberate Taiz, an al-Islah stronghold besieged by the Houthis. With Taiz’s al-Islah supporters outnumbering the Houthis, and with opposition forces advancing toward the city, many activists are talking about Taiz as the first step in a northeastern campaign that will move on to Ibb, Dhamar, and ultimately Sana’a, encircling the Houthis at Hodeidah. In other words, for the Yemeni opposition, liberating Taiz has become synonymous with national reunification.
On a regional level, the rapprochement between al-Islah and the coalition is clearly a blow for Tehran. After the GPC, al-Islah is the only other political force capable of providing a semblance of legitimacy for the Houthi government in Sana’a. By aligning themselves with the opposition, al-Islah denies the Houthis a coalition partner and the Iranians the opportunity to frame the Houthis as anything but an armed proxy. Al-Islah’s pivot toward the coalition is also a setback for Qatar. Doha has sought to bolster voices within the party that can advance the interests of Qatar, which include calling for dialogue with the Houthi government. The new alliance also means that al-Islah’s break with the Muslim Brotherhood, a major Qatar ally, may be permanent, in which case Doha’s ability to project its influence in Yemen would be diminished.
An accord between the Arab Coalition and al-Islah also suggests a temporary loss of influence for the United States, which has sent mixed signals to the Yemen opposition. On the one hand, the US has supported the opposition by providing refueling and targeting support for the air campaign and has helped make the case, as Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley did this week, that Iran is providing the Houthis with ballistic missiles and heavy weapons. On the other hand, Congress has introduced legislation to end US military support for the coalition, and the White House and State Department have called for lifting the blockade, just as opposition forces secured several critical wins against the Houthis. Worse, the Houthis have capitalized on these announcements, marketing them locally as tacit US support for their regime. If the Yemeni public’s shift in favor of the coalition persists and if the accord with al-Islah holds, the United States may be convinced to re-up its support for the Houthi opposition.
Any viable resolution of Yemen’s civil war requires consolidation among the Houthi opposition. Allying al-Islah, the GPC, and General Mohsen with the Hadi government and south Yemen leaders is a major step in that direction. For Yemenis, it is also the most hopeful sign since Saleh’s five-day rebellion that the dream of a pluralistic and unified Yemen is not yet dead.