TIME Saudi Arabia

King Abdullah’s Death Shows Saudi Arabia’s Declining Clout

King Abdullah, left, with then-Crown Prince Salman, right, in 2010.
King Abdullah, left, with then-Crown Prince Salman, right, in 2010. AP

The death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has momentarily grabbed the world’s attention, but the real story is that his kingdom matters less than it used to

Ten years ago, the death of a Saudi king would have sent shock waves through Washington. Today, as the Kingdom recovers from the death of King Abdullah yesterday, Saudis don’t carry the same clout. In part, that’s because the U.S. is much less dependent on Middle Eastern oil than it was a few years ago, as U.S. companies have reinvented the way oil and natural gas is produced. Hydraulic fracturing has opened access to liquid energy deposits locked inside once-impenetrable rock formations, and breakthroughs in horizontal drilling methods have made the technology more profitable.

By the end of this decade, the United States is expected to produce almost half the crude oil it consumes. More than 80% of its oil will come from North or South America. By 2020, the United States could become the world’s largest oil producer, and by 2035 the country could be almost entirely self-sufficient in energy. Relations with the Saudis are no longer a crucial feature of U.S. foreign policy, and the surge in global supply, which has helped force oil prices lower in recent months, ensures that others are less concerned with the Saudis as well.

In addition, outsiders are not worried that King Abdullah’s death will make the Kingdom unstable. Newly-crowned King Salman is plenty popular, and other key players—Crown Prince Muqrin, National Guard head Prince Miteab, and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef—have pragmatic working relations with the new king and with one another. The succession process will appear uneventful from the outside, but Salman will spend the next several months consolidating his authority and building a stable balance of power among factions within the family and across the government.

Another reason the Saudis matter less: They’re now bogged down in the region. Saudi worries that Iran can make mischief even under harsh sanctions only raises fears should a deal be made with the West later this year over its nuclear program, which would ease those sanctions, Tehran would only become a more troublesome rival. But even if there is no deal and sanctions are tightened, Iran will probably become more aggressive to demonstrate its defiance, creating new headaches along Saudi borders.

How will the Saudis manage its local security worries? Along the border with violence-plagued Iraq, the Saudis are actually building a 600-mile wall complete with five layers of fencing, watch towers, night-vision cameras and radar. Terrorist violence in neighboring Yemen and the fall of its government this week add to the Saudi’s sense that their country is under siege. They’re building a wall along Yemen’ s border as well. Fights with ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will demand attention and money.

King Salman is 79, and he’s been central to Saudi policymaking for 50 years. One day soon, we’ll see generational change in the Saudi leadership. When that happens, we might see a fresh approach to the Kingdom’s two biggest problems: Its inability to build a dynamic, modern economy to harness the energies of Saudi Arabia’s millions of young people and its growing marginalization as an international political and economic force.

That day has not yet come.

Foreign-affairs columnist Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. His next book, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, will be published in May

TIME Yemen

U.S. Downsizes Yemen Embassy Staff as Crisis Builds

Houthi fighters ride a truck near the presidential palace in Sanaa, Jan. 22. 2015.
Houthi fighters ride a truck near the presidential palace in Sanaa, Jan. 22. 2015. Khaled Abdullah—Reuters

U.S. officials say that the embassy won’t be closing

The U.S. has decided to reduce its embassy staff in Yemen following the collapse of the nation’s government at the hands of rebel Houthi fighters.

“The safety and security of U.S. personnel is our top priority in Yemen,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement. “We are evaluating the security situation on the ground on an ongoing basis. We call on all parties to abide by their public commitments to ensure the security of the diplomatic community, including our personnel.”

The move comes four months after U.S. President Barack Obama lauded Yemen as a model for “successful” counterterrorism partnerships.

The reduction of embassy staff, mainly in response to the security situation, comes at a time when Washington is trying to secure partnerships in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria while trying to limit Iran’s influence in the region, according to Reuters.

The situation is alarming neighboring Saudi Arabia, which sees Tehran’s military and financial support for the Shi‘ite Houthis as a sign of their growing regional clout.

Former Yemeni President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who resigned Thursday along with a slew of government officials, was seen as a key ally in the war against jihadist groups like al-Qaeda. However, the Houthis, who now control the capital, are said to loathe al-Qaeda as much as they do the U.S., reports Reuters.

Hadi’s resignation will “absolutely” limit drone strikes and counterterrorism operations in the immediate future, a former U.S. official told the news agency.

TIME Foreign Policy

Why Saudi Arabia’s Neighbor Is the Real Concern for the U.S.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah receives U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the king's Riyadh Palace on April 6, 2011 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah receives U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the king's Riyadh Palace on April 6, 2011 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

A smooth succession is all but guaranteed in the Kingdom — but that won't help imperiled U.S. allies in Yemen

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died Thursday of natural causes at age 90, leaving in place what appears to be a well-laid succession plan that U.S. analysts hope will assure continued stable relations between Washington and the oil-rich country that dominates most of the peninsula.

Unfortunately, in neighboring Yemen, the government of U.S. ally President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi also died Thursday, leaving nothing but the prospect of a failed state and increased sway for Iran-backed Houthi rebels and a powerful and dangerous branch of al Qaeda.

On balance, the bad news outweighs the good.

Abdullah’s successor, Crown Prince Salman, is an established figure in U.S.-Saudi affairs, with a history of collaboration on national security matters dating to his fundraising for the Afghan Mujahedeen during their war against the Soviets in the 1980s, says Bruce Reidel of the Brookings Institution. One of Salman’s sons, Reidel reports, “led the first RSAF mission against Islamic State targets in Syria last year.”

But while oil futures soared on the news of Abdullah’s death as traders worried about potential instability in Saudi Arabia, former U.S. officials viewed the collapse of central governing authority in Yemen as the real cause for concern. “Rule number one of contemporary national security policy is allow the emergence of no new failed states,” says former State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Amb. Daniel Benjamin.

The power vacuum is most worrying because it imperils U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism operations against one of the few al Qaeda off shoots that retains the U.S. as its primary target. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has a talented bomb-maker in its upper ranks, a Saudi fugitive named Ibrahim al Asiri. U.S. officials believe al Asiri is behind several near-miss attempts to bring down Western airliners, at least one of which was foiled by a Saudi double agent who had penetrated the group.

The Houthis are only a threat to the U.S. insofar as they appear to have effected the ouster of the U.S.-backed Hadi and left a collapsed state in his wake. “We were banking on a guy who was very pro-American, but had far less support in his country than we thought,” says Whitley Bruner, a former CIA Baghdad station chief who previously served in Yemen and has worked as a security consultant there in recent years.

The Saudis dislike both the Houthis and AQAP, which dispatched al Asiri’s brother in a suicide attack that nearly killed the Saudi Interior Minister in 2009. But the kingdom has little chance of putting its neighbor back together again: with Yemen’s history of sectarian, tribal and ideological violence, “it’s going to get worse,” says Bruner. AFP reported late Thursday that “four provinces of Yemen’s formerly independent south, including its main city Aden, say they will defy all military orders from Sanaa” now that the capital has fallen to the Houthis.

TIME Yemen

Yemen’s Tumultuous History in 12 Pictures

As Sana'a is again rocked by unrest, TIME looks back at key moments in Yemen's turbulent history

Yemen’s embattled President Abdel-Rabbo Mansour Hadi resigned Thursday after failing to reach a power-sharing agreement with Shi’ite rebels who have held Sana’a, the capital, since September.

Hadi’s departure leaves Yemen’s fate in the balance. The poorest nation in the Arab world is fractured by tribal fighting, a separatist movement in the south, a robust Al-Qaeda presence, and the rising influence of the Shi’ite rebel group known as the Houthis.

But Yemen is no stranger to turmoil. In the images above, TIME looks at key moments in the country’s past that provide a historical context for the unfolding unrest.

TIME Yemen

Yemen’s President Resigns as Capital Remains in Hands of Rebels

File photo of Yemen's President Hadi stands attending a reception during the holy fasting month of Ramadan at the Republican Palace in Sanaa
Yemen's President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi stands during a reception ceremony during the holy fasting month of Ramadan at the Republican Palace in the Yemeni capital, Sana‘a, on July 7, 2014 Khaled Abdullah—Reuters

President Abdel-Rabbo Mansour Hadi has been a key U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaeda

Yemen’s embattled President reportedly relinquished power on Thursday amid ongoing turmoil in Sana‘a, the capital, leaving the fate of the highly fractured country unclear.

The Associated Press and Reuters each reported President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s resignation, citing unnamed Yemeni officials. Shi‘ite rebels known as the Houthis had held the city since September while allowing Hadi to remain in his post, but the collapse of negotiations this week prompted violent clashes and led to the seizure of the presidential palace by the Houthis, and Thursday’s reported resignation.

The Yemeni Cabinet also resigned on Thursday as the government’s standoff with the Houthis showed no sign of letting up, despite indications on Wednesday of a deal to accelerate power-sharing reforms. The Houthis now appear to be pulling the strings in Sana‘a.

The turmoil in the capital threatens to further divide the impoverished country, where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the terrorist network’s most powerful affiliates that claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris earlier this month, has a foothold in the south.

Hadi was among the U.S.’s most important regional allies in the fight against al-Qaeda, and his ouster threatens to upend U.S strategy there. The Houthis, members of a Shi‘ite minority in northern Yemen, oppose the Sunni extremists, but are also unlikely to seek an alliance with the U.S. They have been critical of Hadi’s dependence on U.S. support, and their motto reads in part, “Death to Israel, Death to America.”

Meanwhile, the rebels’ growing influence in Sana‘a threatens to marginalize Sunnis in the deeply fractured country and boost support for al-Qaeda. “The Houthis victory also ironically benefits AQAP by polarizing Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, between Shia and Sunni, with AQAP emerging as the protector of Sunni rights,” Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a blog post earlier this week.

[Reuters]

Read more: Houthis’ Rise in Yemen Risks Empowering al-Qaeda

TIME Yemen

Houthis’ Rise in Yemen Risks Empowering al-Qaeda

Houthi Shiite Yemeni wearing army uniforms stand atop an armored vehicle, which was seized from the army during recent clashes, outside the house of Yemen's President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in Sanaa, Yemen, Jan. 22, 2015.
Houthi Shiite Yemeni wearing army uniforms stand atop an armored vehicle, which was seized from the army during recent clashes, outside the house of Yemen's President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in Sanaa, Yemen, Jan. 22, 2015. Hani Mohammed—AP

It’s clear who is pulling the strings now in Sana‘a

Yemeni President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi said Wednesday that he was ready to agree to a deal with Shi‘ite rebels that would bring violence in Sana’a, the capital, to a temporary halt. But the turmoil has left Hadi clinging to power by a thread and threatened one of the U.S.’s most important alliances in the fights against al-Qaeda.

The militants, a group of Shi‘ite Muslims called the Houthis, first swept into the city in September, when they overran military forces and demanded to share power with Hadi’s government. A breakdown in negotiations this week prompted some of the worst violence in the city in years, which left at least nine people dead and culminated in the Houthis’ seizure of the presidential palace on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, in a statement reported on by Reuters, Hadi indicated that the contentious draft constitution was open to amendments, a key rebel demand, but that he would remain in his post. Still, it’s clear who is pulling the strings now in Sana‘a.

MORE Yemen’s President Resigns as Capital Remains in Hands of Rebels

The Houthis are members of a northern minority Shi‘ite sect known as the Zaidi, and they have waged a decade-long on-and-off insurgency against the government calling for greater rights for their people. But since the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011 amid the wave of popular protests that swept the region, the Houthi movement has gained wider traction as self-proclaimed reformers, capitalizing on dissatisfaction with the poor economic and security situations under Hadi’s U.S.-backed government.

The movement’s surge has posed a particularly thorny problem for the U.S. as it fights al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based terrorist group that is among al-Qaeda’s most powerful affiliates. AQAP claimed responsibility for the Jan. 7 terrorist attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and has been linked to three failed attempts to take down U.S.-bound airplanes.

For years, the U.S. has struck at AQAP in Yemen with drones and Special Ops, but it has also invested in the Yemeni government to help repel AQAP on the ground, pouring nearly $1 billion of economic, military and humanitarian aid into the country since 2011. That strategy has been hailed as a success by President Barack Obama and was used as a blueprint for the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). But as the government has focused on the Houthi rebellion, AQAP has regained a foothold in southern Yemen. U.S. officials now fear that a prolonged power vacuum in Sana‘a could give AQAP free rein to grow—and to pose new threats to the West.

“Yemen was supposed to be a role model for this smarter approach of building local capacity and getting our allies to do more,” Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a blog post. “It’s a sobering reality that it’s not working.”

MORE America’s Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing

The Houthis, though, are no friends of the Sunni al-Qaeda militants. The group, which is believed to be backed by the Shi‘ite leadership of Iran, has clashed with al-Qaeda in Yemen and criticized Hadi’s failure to quash Sunni extremism. The problem for the U.S.’s counterterrorism operations is that it also has no interest in an alliance with the U.S.; it has been equally critical of Hadi’s dependence on U.S. support, and it’s motto reads in part, “Death to Israel, Death to America.”

Meanwhile, its growing influence in Sana‘a threatens to marginalize Sunnis in the deeply fractured country and boost support for al-Qaeda. “The Houthis victory also ironically benefits AQAP by polarizing Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, between Shia and Sunni, with AQAP emerging as the protector of Sunni rights,” Riedel writes.

Washington now faces a dilemma in Yemen. If a weakened Hadi stays in power, the U.S. must assess how it can leverage its influence against that of his new partners. On Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a regular press briefing that the “legitimate Yemeni government is led by President Hadi.”

But if Hadi is removed, the U.S. will either have to compete with Iran for the support of a Houthi-dominated government, or make do without a key counterterrorism ally in the region.

Read next: Japan Says It Can’t Reach ISIS to Resolve Hostage Standoff

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Yemen

Yemeni President, Rebels Reach Deal to End Standoff

A Houthi fighter mans a checkpoint near the presidential palace in Sanaa, Jan. 21, 2015.
A Houthi fighter mans a checkpoint near the presidential palace in Sanaa, Jan. 21, 2015. Khaled Abdullah—Reuters

One presidential adviser said Yemen has reached the "point of no return"

(SANAA, Yemen) — Yemen’s state news agency is reporting that the country’s embattled president has reached an agreement with Shiite rebels to end a violent standoff in the capital.

The SABA news agency said the agreement late Wednesday called for the armed Houthi rebels to pull out from around President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s home and the presidential palace, which they besieged Tuesday. SABA said the deal also calls for them to release a top aide to Hadi they had kidnapped in recent days.

SABA said the agreement also included a clause that would answer the rebels’ demands to amend the constitution and expand their representation in the parliament and in state institutions.

Aides to Hadi said earlier Wednesday that he was “captive” in his home.

Earlier:

Shiite rebels in control of Yemen’s capital now hold the country’s president “captive” at his home, his aides said Wednesday, putting in question who actually rules the Arab world’s most-impoverished nation.

President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi “cannot leave his house” after Houthi rebels removed his guards and deployed their own fighters there Wednesday, one aide said.

Another described the country being at the “point of no return.” Hadi can’t resign as president as the Houthis have threatened to prosecute him, that aide said. The two aides spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to speak to journalists.

The embattled Hadi — a top U.S. ally in the war against al-Qaida in Yemen — appears to have run out of options to continue governing the country, months after the Houthis began a blitz across the country in September. It also raises the danger of al-Qaida in Yemen, which claimed the recent attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and failed assaults on the U.S. homeland, could grow more powerful in the chaos.

Advisers said Wednesday that Houthis issued a list of demands to Hadi, asking for the post of vice president and several key government offices, during a meeting Tuesday with Hadi’s advisers.

The collapse of Hadi’s powers is rooted in Yemen’s fractured armed forces, torn between Hadi and his predecessor, deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Saleh — removed from power after 2011 uprising— is accused by many as orchestrating Houthis’ seizure of Sanaa and speeding Hadi’s failure. Critics also say the Houthis have the backing of regional Shiite power Iran, a charge they deny.

TIME Yemen

Yemeni Rebel Leader Vows Escalation If Reforms Stall

Eid al-Ghadeer Holiday in Sanaa
Houthis listen to a televised speech by Abdel-Malek al-Houthi featured on a large screen during the celebrations of Shiite Muslims' Eid al-Ghadeer in Sanaa, Yemen on Oct. 12, 2014. Mohammed Hamoud—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

(SANAA, Yemen) — The leader of the Shiite rebels who control Yemen’s capital and seized the presidential palace on Tuesday warned of a further escalation if President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi stands in the way of political reform.

In a lengthy speech aired by the group’s TV network, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi said “all options are open” and that escalation “has no ceiling” if the president does not “speed up” implementation of a U.N.-brokered peace deal.

That deal would grant the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, greater power and shake up a committee tasked with drafting a new constitution.

Houthi also voiced defiance to the U.N. Security Council, which held a closed-door meeting on the Yemeni crisis on Tuesday, saying “any measure you take to force this country to succumb … will not benefit you.”

TIME National Security

As Yemen’s Government Falls, So May a U.S. Strategy for Fighting Terror

YEMEN-UNREST-POLITICS
A Shiite Houthi fighter outside Yemen's presidential palace Tuesday. GAMAL NOMAN / AFP / Getty Images

Rebels launch coup against vital U.S. ally

As the nation awaited President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday—and any new decision on how he plans to wage war on Islamic fundamentalism—one of his key approaches seems on the verge of collapse in Yemen.

Shiite Houthi rebels attacked the home of Yemen’s president as they rushed into the presidential palace in Sana’a, the Yemeni capital. Government officials said a coup against President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was underway. “The President has no control,” a Yemeni government spokesman told CNN.

Hadi is a key U.S. ally in the war against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but his grip on power has been pounded by Houthi forces over the past four months. Fighting between Hadi’s Sunni government and the Shiite Houthis has created a vacuum that experts fear AQAP will exploit to expand its power base in the increasingly lawless nation.

Saïd Kouachi and Chérif Kouachi, French brothers of Muslim descent, said they carried out their attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, on behalf of AQAP. “Tell the media that this is Al Qaeda in Yemen!” the Kouachi brothers shouted outside the magazine after their massacre.

Washington has cited its relationship with Yemen as breeding success in the war on terror. On Sept. 10, as Obama announced the start of a bombing campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, he heralded his lighter approach to dealing with terror by citing Yemen.

“I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he told the nation from the White House. “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” But 11 days later, Hadi’s government was driven from parts of the capital of Sana’a by the Houthis, who have since gained control of several ministries.

“U.S. counter-terrorism policies in Yemen worked in the short term to keep al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from engaging in some attacks on the U.S. that al Qaeda wanted desperately to carry out,” former top Pentagon official David Sedney said Tuesday. “But that short-term success was never accompanied by a long-term strategy, and the result has been horrific—a country that is now in chaos, dominated by groups with diverse ideologies but who share a common theme—they hate the U.S. and want vengeance for the evils they believe we have wrecked upon them.”

The U.S. anti-terror policy in Yemen of a “light footprint”—drones, special-ops units and training for local forces—isn’t working, Sedney says. “The drone strikes and fierce attacks by U.S.-trained and -mentored Yemeni special forces have created hordes of new enemies for the U.S. who see us as supporters of a decrepit, oppressive, and corrupt leadership,” says Sedney, who from 2009 to 2013 ran the Pentagon office responsible for Afghanistan, Pakistan and central Asia.

Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi meets with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon in July 2013. U.S. Department of Defense

“What is not clear is whether the Administration has learned any lessons as its failures mount,” he adds. “If the only U.S. response is to increase drone strikes and send in more special forces, then we better get prepared for some difficult, violent years ahead.”

Christopher Swift, a Yemen expert at Georgetown University, says U.S. efforts in Yemen have been lackluster. “Our relationships, whether they’re political or military, don’t extend beyond the capital,” he says. “The bad guys are out in the field, far away from the national capital, and to the extent we claim to have relationships out in the bush, they’re based on third-party sources or overhead surveillance.”

U.S. goals in Yemen have always been tempered. “We’ve been playing for very limited, very modest objectives in Yemen,” Swift says. “Yemen is still a place where people who want inspiration, or training, or a place to hide can go. AQAP isn’t going away. The Yemenis are not in a position to make it go away, and we’re not willing to help them defeat AQAP decisively.”

Between 2011 and 2014, the U.S. pumped $343 million into Yemen, largely to fight AQAP. The U.S. is slated to provide Yemen with $125 million in arms and military training in 2015, in addition to $75 million in humanitarian aid, according to the nonprofit Security Assistance Monitor website.

“Despite their aggressive actions against AQAP, the Houthis have continually expressed anti-American rhetoric,” Seth Binder of the Security Assistance Monitor wrote Jan. 9. “And AQAP has used the Houthi’s Zaidi-Shi’a roots, a sect of Shiite Islam, to frame their battle as a Sunni-Shiite conflict. Recent reports indicate the tactic may be working as an increasing number of disenchanted Sunni tribesman are joining AQAP.”

Sedney says the only way of transforming a society like Yemen’s is full-bore nation building, with the time and money required to make it work. “We always want to have an exit,” Sedney says, “and the problem with real life is there’s no exit.”

TIME

Shiite Rebels Seize Presidential Palace in Yemeni Capital

An armed member of the Shiite Huthi movement stands guard in a damaged area of Sanaa, Yemen on Jan. 20, 2015 ,
An armed member of the Shiite Huthi movement stands guard in a damaged area of Sanaa, Yemen on Jan. 20, 2015 , Gamal Noman—AFP/Getty Images

A Yemeni army commander described the move as a "coup"

(SANAA, Yemen) — A Yemeni army commander says Shiite Houthi rebels have seized the presidential palace in the capital, Sanaa, a move he described as a “coup.”

Col. Saleh al-Jamalani, the commander of the Presidential Protection Force that guards embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, says the rebels swept into the presidential palace on Tuesday afternoon.

He told The Associated Press that the rebels were aided by insiders and are looting arm depots on the palace grounds.

Hadi was not at the presidential palace during the takeover but at his residence.

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