MS Risk Blog

Yemen Update: 25 March 2014

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Early this morning, five officials stated that Yemen’s embattled President Had had fled his Aden home for an undisclosed location as Shiite Houthi rebels near his last refuge. The officials spoke just hours after the Houthi controlled station announced that they seized near the city where Hadi had relocated administrative operations.

The Houthi rebels have issued a bounty of 20 million Yemeni rial ($100,000) for the capture of President Hadi as they near his last refuge. It has been reported that Hadi left Aden by helicopter, accompanied by diplomats from Saudi Arabia, from the Maasheeq presidential palace. Other sources, however, denied that Hadi fled Aden, and claim that he is still leading the armed resistance against the Shia militants.

Both the rebels and officials close to President Hadi both have also said that Yemen’s Defence Minister, Major General Mahmoud al-Subaihi, and his top aide, had been arrested by the Houthis. The Minister was reportedly captured while fighting the Houthis in Lahj province.

The Houthis captured al-Anad base, where U.S. troops and Europeans advised the country in its fight against al-Qaida. The rebels were reportedly advancing toward Hawttah, the capital of Yemen’s southern Lahj province. Hawttah is less than 19 miles, from Aden. President Hadi fled after escaping weeks of house arrest under Houthi guard in Sana’a. One source who lives near the air base said the Houthis were backed by “army soldiers.”

A day earlier, Hadi called on United Nations Security Council to adopt a resolution allowing “all willing countries” to take any necessary measures to stop the Houthis’ aggression. He did not rule out military action. The violence in Yemen is threatening to escalate into civil war. Yemen’s northern neighbour, Saudi Arabia fears that the kingdom will be drawn into the fighting.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said this week that Gulf Cooperation Council countries will take “necessary measures to protect the region” from the Houthis. The six-nation GCC includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain.

As a measure of defence, Saudi Arabia is moving heavy military equipment including artillery to areas near its border with Yemen. The Sunni kingdom and its Saudis and their allies say Iran’s Shiite dominated government is behind the rise of the Houthis. The Houthis are also reportedly loyal to Yemen’s ousted former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was removed from office in 2012. The conflict risks spiralling into a proxy war with Shi’ite Iran backing the Houthis, and Saudi Arabia and the other regional Sunni Muslim monarchies backing Hadi. The Houthis have denied taking material or financial support from Tehran, but last year Yemeni, Western and Iranian sources provided details of Iranian military and financial support to the Houthis before and after their takeover of Sanaa. US officials have said that Iranian has been largely limited to funding.

The weaponry and artillery being moved by Saudi Arabia could be used for offensive or defensive purposes, however two U.S. government sources said the build-up appeared to be defensive. Once source described the size of the Saudi build-up on Yemen’s border as “significant,” and said the Saudis could be preparing air strikes to defend Hadi.

U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Matthew said, “The Saudis are just really deeply concerned about what they see as an Iranian stronghold in a failed state along their border,” But a former senior U.S. official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the prospects for successful external intervention in Yemen appeared slim. He said Hadi’s prospects appeared to be worsening and that for now he was “pretty well pinned down.”

Riyadh hosted top-level talks with Gulf Arab neighbours on Saturday and offered “all efforts” to preserve the Yemen’s stability and Hadi’s authority. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said on Monday Arab countries would take necessary measures to protect the region against “aggression” by the Houthi movement if a peaceful solution could not be found.

The United States and United Kingdom have had evacuated all its remaining personnel in Yemen, including about 100 special operations forces, because of the security situation. The end of a U.S. security presence inside the country has dealt a blow to Washington’s ability to monitor and fight al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate.

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