In 2011-2012, Yemen was one of the few Arab Spring countries to undergo a political transition with minimal violence. President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down after ruling the country since it was unified in 1990. Saleh’s government had been considered one of the most corrupt in the world.
Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi assumed the presidency in early 2012 after winning an election as the only candidate. The transfer of power was organized mainly by Saudi Arabia, which was eager to maintain its influence in Yemeni politics. The Houthis, who make up about 40% of Yemen’s population, never accepted the deal and launched a rebellion that has since overtaken the capital San’aa and much of the country.
A long history of conflict
In the 16th century, an Ottoman official wrote:
“We have seen no foundry like Yemen for our soldiers. Each time we have sent an expeditionary force there, it has melted away like salt dissolved in water.”
When the Ottomans invaded Yemen in the 1500s, they experienced constant set-backs as their forces were gradually defeated and driven out by local warlords. They returned in force in the mid-1800s, but continued to suffer attacks from Yemeni tribes. The Ottomans didn’t achieve a stable occupation until they reached a deal to give independence to Zaidi tribes in the northern highlands. Holding Yemen while fighting these tribes was always losing battle. This was a lesson that would be learned later by Britain, and is being learned now by Saudi Arabia and the United States.
The tribes that repeatedly drove out the Ottomans were from a Shia sect called Zaidiyya. They have been alternately dealing with and fighting against foreign powers in Yemen for centuries. During the Ottoman occupation in the 16th century, a Zaidi Imam reported a divine dream of war against their occupiers, and soon the Ottomans were driven out of all but one city.
Today, Zaidis make up between 30-40% of Yemen’s population. Since 2004, a group of Zaidis known as the Houthis have been fighting against the Yemeni government. The group is named for Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, and they are currently led by his brother. While Saleh accused the Houthis of trying to bring down the government, the Houthis contended that they were only defending themselves from government attacks.
In September of 2014, Houthi rebels began a takeover of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. As the insurgency progressed, Hadi’s government attempted to negotiate a new constitution. The proposed constitution would have given some autonomy to the Houthis by splitting the country into separate federal regions, but it would also have prevented the Houthis from forming their own political party. The Houthis rejected the proposal and kidnapped a high-ranking member of the government in January 2015.
By February, President Hadi and his government had fled from Sana’a. The Houthis have set up a new constitution and government. The new government faces internal opposition, especially in the south, and it has not yet been recognized internationally.
As the Houthis overtook his government, President Hadi fled to Aden, a coastal city in the south. When he resigned, it was suggested that officials in the south of Yemen would seek independence from Sana’a. Yemen had historically been divided between North and South, only having unified in 1990
From Aden, Hadi gave a speech in February, reclaiming the Presidency and condemning the Houthis.
The current civil war is mainly between Houthi forces loyal to Saleh and the southern separatists loyal to Hadi. The Houthis have extended control from their territories in the north all the way to Aden in the south.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (ISIS) have also carried out attacks, and AQAP controls some sparsely-populated areas in the east. This is particularly significant because countering AQAP has been a key U.S. interest in Yemen for years.
The civil war has provoked military involvement by Saudi Arabia because Hadi represents Saudi (and U.S.) interests in Yemen. The Saudis have been conducting airstrikes to slow the Houthi advance, and several other Arab League countries have joined them. The United States has provided indirect support, helping with aerial refuelling. The campaign was declared over on April 21, but airstrikes have continued.
Most recently, the Yemeni ambassador to the U.N. has called for intervention by ground troops to reverse Houthi gains in the south.
The conflict has created a dire situation for millions of Yemeni civilians. Estimates suggest 100,000 have been displaced, and that 13 million lack access to drinking water. The Saudis have pledged aid through the United Nations, but several aid agencies have considered rejecting the aid because they feel it would help justify the campaign.
Proxy war? Sectarian conflict?
The conflict in Yemen has been characterized by some as a sectarian conflict — a conflict between two sects of a religion — between Sunni and Shia. Houthis are a part of the sizable Shia minority in Yemen, but the majority of Yemenis are Sunni. However, the conflict between the Houthis and the former government has clear regional and ethnic characterists and calling it sectarian conflict is incomplete and even misleading.
Others describe the conflict as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Since the U.S. began to withdraw from the region, with Obama winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia have begun jockeying for dominance. At the same time, this reinforces the idea of sectarian conflict because Iran — which supports the Houthis — is Shia, and Saudi Arabia — which supports Hadi — is Sunni.
The governments Hadi has been a vessel for Saudi influence. Before the U.S. and Saudi Arabia organized Saleh’s stepping down, his government also represented U.S. and Saudi interests. But although Iran has had dealings with the Houthis, most analysts downplay Iran’s influence and emphasize that the Houthis are acting autonomously — they don’t take orders from Iran.
This is only a brief overview of the key events and players in the ongoing conflict in Yemen. The ideological and political questions raised by the events of the last few years call for a deeper analysis. The wider geopolitical significance of developments in the country add another layer of complexity. As has been the case throughout history, the interests of more powerful players are being exerted in Yemen, yet Yemenis have not as whole been passive witnesses. From the Arab Spring protests that erupted in 2011 and set off this most recent chain of events, to the Houthi offensive that rolled over the major provinces in the north and south, Yemeni groups have played major roles over the past four years. With the potential for an international intervention with ground troops on the horizon, Yemen’s future is more uncertain than ever.