Saudi Ally Retreats in Yemen as Rebels Advance on Stronghold

Forces loyal to Yemeni President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi collapsed in the face of an offensive by Shiite rebel fighters, prompting his government to renew an appeal for military intervention by allies.

Saudi stocks dropped the most in the world after the Houthis captured a major military base near Hadi’s stronghold in the southern port city of Aden. The rebel group is backed by forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was removed from power after an uprising in 2011.

The government is urging allies “to send their fighter jets, their navies and ground forces if necessary” to stop the advance of the pro-Iranian Houthi militants, Riad Yaseen, Hadi’s foreign minister, said in an interview with Al Arabiya television. He said the Houthis would soon seek to consolidate their power with the help of Shiite-ruled Iran.

Yemen is emerging as the latest ground for a proxy confrontation between Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter that backs Hadi, and Iran, where officials have expressed support for the Houthi group. The prospect of a prolonged conflict increases the risk that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries may be drawn into the fighting though political analysts question the effectiveness of any military intervention.

“The broad story is the GCC doesn’t have many cards to play,” Steffen Hertog, a Gulf expert and associate professor of comparative politics at London School of Economics, said by phone Wednesday. “They don’t have any local partners. They have Hadi but if he’s thrown out, there’s nothing they can do to bring him back.”

Forces Withdraw

Some pro-Hadi gunmen are stationed near Aden, Sky News Arabia reported. Meanwhile, rebels captured the president’s defense chief, Mahmoud Al-Soubaihi, according to Houthi-controlled Yemen TV.

Hadi asked the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday to adopt a resolution allowing “all willing countries” to take any necessary measures, including military action, to stop the Houthis’ aggression, according to a copy of the letter the president sent.

As Yemen’s recognized authority, Hadi has legal power to request military assistance from the UN, according to a Security Council official, who declined to be identified since diplomatic negotiations are ongoing. No draft Security Council resolution will be prepared until Yemen and the GCC formulate the details of their request, the diplomat said.

There were conflicting reports about the whereabouts of Hadi on Wednesday after Houthi fighters took over Anad air base and were advancing toward Hawttah, the capital of Lahj province. Hawttah is less than 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Aden, where Hadi had fled after escaping weeks of house arrest in the capital under the rebel group.

‘Necessary Measures’

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said this week that GCC 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.

Saudi Arabia’s benchmark Tadawul All Share Index dropped 5 percent, the biggest drop since Dec. 16.

The Houthis marched from their northern base to capture the capital, Sana’a, last year. The group then moved to strengthen ties with the Shiite-ruled Islamic Republic, sending a delegation this month to Tehran to discuss economic cooperation and starting direct flights with the Iranian capital.

The Houthis, who follow the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam, say they operate independently of Iran and represent only their group’s interests. U.S. officials have said that Iran’s role in Yemen is a concern.

“I don’t see how the GCC can do much to balance the military advantage of the Saleh/Houthi fighters,” Charles Schmitz, a Yemen expert and professor at Towson University in Maryland, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “Money and equipment would probably go furthest to advance Hadi’s side, but I still see a big advantage for Saleh’s well-trained Special Forces and the Houthi militia,” Schmitz said.

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