"The US has not imposed democracy in Yemen, its people have." - Ali Abdullah Saleh
Late Thursday night, reports began filtering in from Riyadh (the capital of Saudi Arabia) that Saudi King Abdullah had died after several weeks of hospitalization there. Naturally, world leaders began an outpouring of sympathy and condolences to the Saudi royal family, as well as congratulations to the new King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud (Abdullah's half-brother). I join these leaders in remembering the life and legacy of the late King Abdullah, who saw significant growth in the country during his reign (though not without controversy of course).
However, this post isn't about the Saudi succession (I've already covered its minimal effects on the oil market in another post). King Salman will almost certainly continue the policies of his predecessor. This is about something far more serious and with the potential to cause much larger problems. The same day King Abdullah died, Houthi rebels, who had stormed the presidential palace in Yemen's capital Sana'a the day before, announced the forced resignation of Yemen's president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. They now control key areas of the city and the action has plunged an already fractured and divided nation into extreme instability.
Yemen has never been much of a unified country. As one of the poorest and most malnourished countries in the Middle East (excluding areas of Syria and Iraq), its rampant poverty, political inequality, and religious tensions have made the country a breeding ground for extremists. The country only managed to cobble together a unified government in the early 90s, and this union has been tenuous at best. In 2012, the Arab Spring protests saw the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his replacement with Hadi, considered a weak and ineffectual ruler (for a more detailed history, see this Yemen country profile from TeachMideast).
Northern Yemen is home to a significant Shia Muslim population known as the Zaidis. Like nearly all Shia factions, they believe that the religious office of Caliphate should have passed among the family of Muhammad (specifically his son-in-law Ali) and venerate a series of (usually 12) prominent Imams (Ali being the first). Put simply, the Zaidis venerate the first five of these spiritual leaders.
Formed in 1992 and named for their former commander Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the Houthis follow Zaidi Islam. The Zaidis have long felt underrepresented in the Yemen's predominantly Sunni government, and officials have long suspected the Houthis of intending to take over the country. A coup in Yemen is all but certain now, and it is possible the Houthis will try to claim power for themselves. The country is fiercely split along religious lines as it is, this new move makes an impending civil war all the more likely.
Yemen has (understandably) been less than ideal in its reliability as a United States ally in the fight against global terror. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is based out of Yemen and the country has been fighting against rebels and terrorists among its own ranks for years. Though the Houthis are in no way supporters of the Sunni extremist AQAP, the further destabilization of Yemen increases the abilities of such extremist groups to recruit followers.
Naturally, Saudi Arabia is very worried about the situation in Yemen. Yemen's poorly-guarded border along the southwestern edge of the Kingdom allows militants easy access into the country. The Houthis are also loosely tied to Iran, increasing the likelihood of a proxy war developing between the two powers. Furthermore, the overthrow of Hadi calls into question the status of the U.S.-Yemen relationship (including the ever unpopular program of drone strikes).
All this means that things are probably going to get a lot worse in Yemen before they get better. At best, the Houthis will call for democratic elections and demand only minor political concessions or greater autonomy. At worst, they will proclaim themselves as the rightful rulers of Yemen and marginalize the Sunni population. The world (not just the United States) needs to start taking Yemen more seriously. Armed intervention by any nation certainly isn't the answer, but neither is indifference. Yemen is at a very serious turning point. Its time to start acting like it.
TL;DR: Saudi Arabia will be fine, Yemen is about to get complicated.