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War in Yemen

Abdul Rahman Ansari ( teaches at the School of Livelihoods and Development, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad.

Civil war in Yemen cannot be seen merely from the prism of sectarian conflict as its roots go into the historical political positions of different groups and geostrategic interests of regional powers. Hegemonic designs of Saudi Arabia backed by the United States have intensified the conflict, leading to thousands of deaths and acute humanitarian crisis. It remains to be seen how far the recently concluded Stockholm Agreement between warring camps would contribute to a durable peace.

It has been more than four years since the civil war broke out in Yemen between the Houthi forces (Ansar Allah or partisans of god) and the forces of the exiled Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi government, supported actively by the Saudi Arabia-led alliance of eight countries. Though on the surface it looks like a straight two-way fight, on the ground that is not the case. Ansar Allah is also fighting Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and several other small splinter groups. Most of these groups are fighting against Houthis, sometimes directly but mostly in collaboration with the Saudi-led alliance. Because of the involvement of so many factions and groups the Yemeni civil war has acquired a complex nature. It has become one of the bloodiest wars in the region with thousands of people dead and millions starving. The core reason of the war lies in the persistent hegemonic manoeuvres by the Saudis in collaboration with the United States (US) in Yemeni politics.

Failure of the National Dialogue

Though Yemen has a history of local conflicts, the present war started in September 2014 when Houthi rebels located in the northern Saada province moved to the capital city of Sanaa. The Houthis were disappointed with the slow and undemocratic progress of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). The NDC was initiated during the Arab Spring (2011) agitations in Yemen when most of the members of the Ali Abdullah Saleh’s (1979–2012) government came out openly against his rule and demanded his resignation. The protests in the streets and the opposition from within the government led by powerful leaders such as Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and Sadiq al-Ahmar with active intervention of the US and the Gulf countries led to Saleh’s resignation in 2012. The transitional government headed by Mansour Hadi had representatives of all these factions in Yemen. The mandate of the NDC was to involve all the stakeholders in Yemen and come up with a new constitution. However, the proceedings of the NDC were marred by frequent Gulf interventions due to which most of the parties, including the Southern Separatist Movement and the Houthis in the north had suspicions regarding its proceedings (Schmitz 2014). After two of its delegates were assassinated during the proceedings of the NDC (BBC 2014), the Houthis demanded greater representation in the transitional government and questioned its right to take crucial policy decisions. The dominance of the Al-Islah Party members with pro-Saudi inclinations also created distrust among the Houthis who see it as a Salafi party.

The Hadi government’s failure to control the factional war in the capital city and the rise of Al-Qaeda and ISIS forces provided the Houthis an opportunity to march against it. They also demanded the Hadi government to reverse the withdrawal of oil subsidies and opposed the proposed federal structure of the future Yemeni state in the NDC (Al Batati 2015). They termed it as an agent of the imperialist forces and were supported by Saleh loyalists in the army and the government. Saleh’s turn towards Houthis was primarily an attempt to get a greater share in the post-Arab Spring administration, which he thought the Saudis had denied him unfairly. He later turned against the Houthis after the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) approached him in November 2017 and in turn was killed in December 2017.

Once Sanaa was under Houthi control, they tried to dictate policies much to the dislike of Hadi and his supporters, who moved to the southern port city of Aden in March 2015 This provided the Houthis an opportunity to control the rest of the country and their forces marched south. Hadi appealed the Saudis and the Emiratis to intervene. These countries started air raids in the Houthi-controlled areas. Though Houthis could not control Aden and most of the eastern regions, they were in full control of most of the north and west of the country. They have also been able to capture the crucial port city of Hodeida in the Red Sea. This city is the entry point for most of the crucial food and other imports and a major export hub for Yemeni goods. In one estimate, Hodeida is a gateway for almost 80% of goods trade to the country. Given its strategic significance, the Hadi government and the Saudi-led alliance wanted to take control of the port. The control over the city would have strengthened the Saudi alliance’s bargaining power vis-à-vis Houthis, in the United Nations (UN)-led negotiation. The Houthis, however, had firm control over the city and did not want to lose a strategically significant post. The war for Hodeida went on for months. This delayed the much-needed UN-led peace negotiations initiated by the special envoy Martin Griffiths. The refusal of both the parties to participate in the talks originally proposed to be held in October compelled the UN to postpone it till the end of the year.

Geopolitics and Deeper Roots

Yemen’s location on the southern coast of Arabian Sea and eastern cost of the Red Sea has geostrategic significance. The Red Sea is crucial for international trade. It connects the Suez Canal. According to a Guardian report, around 8% of the worlds’ trade happens through the Suez Canal. Yemen also shares a fairly long (almost 1,800 kilometres) land border with Saudi Arabia. Houthis, who are mainly Zaidi Shias, located near the Saudi border can stimulate Shias in Saudi Arabia where the ruling family claims legitimacy on the basis of its being the custodian of the holiest shrines of Islam. It also prides itself as a protector of Sunni Islam. The emergence of Houthis as a powerful entity in the so-called “backyard” of Saudi Arabia is seen as a potential advantage to a Saudi rival for regional hegemony: Iran. Houthis are seen as allies of Iran in the same way as the Syrian Ba’ath regime, Shia political entities in Iraq and the Hezbollah in Lebanon (Economist 2015). Saudis fear that the rise of Houthis in Yemen will strengthen the Iranian grip in the Arab world. Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman has high stakes in the Yemen war because if he fails to defeat the “Iranians” in Yemen he might lose his legitimacy. The Saudi ruling family cannot afford yet another humiliation in the region as they think they have failed to contain the Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq. Hence, the Irani angle is used to justify the Saudi bombings in Yemen. In fact, in all the international media the war in Yemen is already referred to as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The so-called Operation Decisive Storm led by Saudi Arabia includes countries such as Egypt, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan and Senegal. Most of these countries are long-term US and Saudi allies in the region. Since Saudis and Emiratis are US allies, and one of the biggest arms buyers, the involvement of the US in the war is more than conspicuous. The US has reportedly sold or has agreed to sell weapons worth more than $12 billion since 2015 to the Saudis. Besides selling arms to the Saudis, the Trump administration has also been providing refuelling of aircrafts bombing Yemen mid-air (Ivanova 2018). The US has more than one interest in Yemen. Apart from securing the safety of the oil and other trade to Europe through the Red Sea for its allies, it wants to contain Iranian influence in the region. After the scrapping of the Nuclear Deal signed and enacted by the Obama administration in its last days in 2015–16, the defeat of Houthis will help further contain “the so-called Iranian threat.”

Instability caused by popular agitations during the Arab Spring has escalated the current phase of war in Yemen. However, the roots of the conflict go deeper and longer in the history of the country. Unification of Yemen in 1990 was not based on any popular consensus. It took almost four years of war (1990–94) to pacify the southern Yemen. The southern part, which has had a history of colonial rule and later a Marxist government, could not adapt with the more conservative north ruled by the Zaidi Imamate which turned republic after the failure of United Arab Republic experiment in 1961–62. This short-lived entity was an attempt to realise Gamal Abdel Nasser’s dream of Arab nationalism and anti-imperialism. Saleh came to power in north Yemen in 1979 in a military coup and after the unification became the leader of the united Yemen in 1990. The Republic of Yemen had several economic and social problems, and most important among them was the virtual divide in the outlook of the north and south. Separatist tendencies in the south are still there, and during the Arab Spring and even the current war there are occasional separatist demonstrations in the streets of Aden known as al-Hirak. In fact, post 2015, the control of the south Yemen is in the hands of Aidarus al-Zoubaidi who is the leader of al-Hirak (Salisbury 2018). The Houthis see the Hadi government as soft towards the separatists in the south. Their opposition to the NDC’s proposal of federal structure in Yemen is based on their fear of partition of the country.

Yemen has oil reserves but they are not substantial enough to make it self-dependent. Its economy is based on ports and remittances coming primarily from the Gulf countries and majorly from Saudi Arabia. This gives the Saudis enough power to manoeuvre Yemeni politics. In 1990, when the newly formed Yemen Republic refused to support the war against Iraq in the First Gulf War, Saudis punished Yemen by expelling millions of Yemeni workers and virtually destroying its economy. Henceforth, the Saleh government was forced to accept the structural adjustment programmes of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in order to revive the economy (Ali 2018). That created yet another set of issues in terms of rising economic disparity and greater unemployment. Despite all these “reforms,” the poverty in Yemen increased between the years 2009 and 2012 from 42% to 55% as per the World Bank reports.

As Lackner (2017) points out, post September 2011 attacks, the Saleh administration turned to join the global war against terror which got him the aid of $400 million from the US to fight terrorism as the Al-Qaeda was considered to have a strong base in the country. However, this created a multipronged opposition to the government, including by the Houthis.

Conflict and Humanitarian Crisis

Yemen has a mix population, with around 35% of its population being Zaidi Shias. Ansar Allahthe Houthi movement—was formed in the 1990s in order to counter the rising Salafi influence in the country. Saudi Arabia funded the Salafi and Wahabi movements throughout the world as purist Sunni movements. Salafis termed Shias as infidels. The Houthi armed movement was formed in 2002 by Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi in response to the pro-US and pro-Saudi turn of the Saleh regime. He saw September 2001 attacks as Israeli conspiracy against Muslims (Lackner 2017). Their slogan, which is prominently pasted all over the places in their controlled area is called Sarkha (scream) which reads, “Allah is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curses on the Jews and Victory of Islam.”

Though the appeal of the Salafi movement was limited, it did create ground for future Al-Qaeda activities. The attacks on the US ship USS Cole in Aden in October 2000 and in different other parts of the country were taken out by this group. The Houthi attempt to secure a more autonomous, anti-Salafi and anti-US stand provoked the Saleh government leading to six wars between them between 2004 and 2010. As mentioned above, widespread economic distress, rise of Salafis—both inside the government and in the society, Saleh’s preference of his family and relatives for official positions, corruption in the administration and its pro-American stance made the common people in Yemen rise against the Saleh regime in 2011, providing Houthis an opportunity.

The distrust among the warring factions in Yemen is primarily a result of differences in the historical political positions cemented due to the external backings of these different groups. In the fight against the Houthis, Saudis have compromised with al-Hirak, AQAP and ISIS leadership. Even if they are able to defeat the Houthis in future, the violence in Yemen might continue as the alliance is made up of completely opposite and mutually hostile ideologies.

The point that the war in Yemen is a conflict between Zaidi Shias (Houthis) and Sunnis is not wholly correct. The differences between Shias and Sunnis in Yemen are not as clear as in other parts of the world, and Yemen does not have any significant historical example of sectarian clashes. Saleh was a Zaidi himself who ruled Yemen for almost three decades despite it being a Sunni majority country. This is a very different experience if one compares it with the Syrian one where Sunnis have opposed the Assad regime whenever they could. Another argument that Iranians are helping Houthis because they share the same religious dogma is only partially true. The myth of Iranian influence in the Arab world was created after the Iranian revolution in 1979. Since most of the Gulf countries are monarchies, they saw the rise of the idea of Islamic Republic dangerous and tried to contain it through supporting Saddam Hussein’s eight-year long war (1980–88) against Iran. Since then, the regimes and movements led by Shias were seen with suspicion. In post-cold war times, there is growing pro-democracy and pro-Palestine sentiment in the streets of the Arab world, much to the dislike of the regimes and their external supporters. In this context, the notion of the “Shia Crescent” provides people a distraction.

Since the war in Yemen started, more than half of its population of total 22 million is suffering due to the lack of adequate food and medical supplies. Yemen imports more than 70% of its food requirements from other countries. More than 1.8 million children are malnourished and cholera is killing hundreds of thousands of people. Short supply of medicine and doctors, and destruction of health infrastructure during the bombings have created a desperate situation for the injured and the sick. The bombings are indiscriminately killing both combatants and non-combatants alike. The poorest country in the Arab world is suffering the greatest human catastrophe in recent years, and yet international media does not move beyond its proxy war narrative. Every attempt is made to hide the real suffering of the people, which is why even after four years of the war the official figure of death has not been updated since 2016 and is frozen at 10,000 (Cockburn 2018). As per the UN reports, the number of the displaced within the country is around 3 million and almost 3 lakh people have taken asylum in other countries so far (Al Jazeera 2018). The international community has time and again failed to stop the war. The UN had appointed Martin Griffiths as a special envoy for the peace efforts in the country. He was a replacement for Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed who led the earlier round of negotiations in 2016 in Kuwait, which failed to materialise on the ground. Griffiths has, in the course of one year, tried twice for a ceasefire but vested interests in the country and in the region do not want the war to end.

Stockholm Agreement

Jamal Khashoggi’s murder has shifted the focus of international media. The consequent media attention pushed the US and the United Kingdom to reconsider their support of the Saudi alliance. This has helped the UN peace efforts. In the current phase of UN-led negotiations held in Sweden from 6 to 13 December 2018, the parties in Yemen have agreed for a ceasefire deal. The deal is known as the Stockholm Agreement of 13 December 2018, and the agreement talks about transferring the control of Hodeidah from the Houthis to a local authority by the end of the month. Though the terms of the treaty are limited mostly to control of the cities of Hodeidah and Ta’if, and other major issues such as control over the capital Sanaa have been kept out of its scope, it will facilitate greater reach of international aid to the affected areas and people. It may help in reducing the impact of malnutrition and curable diseases. The cessation of air strikes will significantly reduce the deaths of non-combatants. This might also create the possibility for a longer peace in the country. But given the prevailing deep-rooted mistrust among the parties and lack of strong guarantees to the provisions of the treaty, it would be a difficult task ahead. The need of the hour is to create moral and political pressure on the warring sides to adhere to the terms of the treaty. The success of the Stockholm Agreement can provide a chance for further negotiations on more crucial issues for the future of Yemen and any stability in the region.


Al Batati, Saeed (2015): “Who Are the Houthis?” Al Jazeera, 30 March,

Al Jazeera (2018): “Key Facts about the War in Yemen,” 30 March,

Ali, Tariq (2018): “Yemen’s Turn,” New Left Review, 111: 129–38.

BBC (2014): “Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference Concludes with Agreement,” 21 January,

Cockburn, Patrick (2018): “The Yemen War Death Toll Is Five Times Higher than We Think–We Can’t Shrug Off Our Responsibilities Any Longer,” 26 October, Independent,

Economist (2015): “Iran and Shia Militias: The Shia Crescendo,” 28 March,

Ivanova, Irina (2018): “Saudi Arabia Is America’s No 1 Weapon Customer,” CBS NEWS, 12 October,

Lackner, Helen (2017): Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-liberalism and the Disintegration of a State, London: Saqi Books.

Salisbury, Peter (2018): “Yemen’s Southern Powder Keg,” Chatham House, London,

Schmitz, Charles (2014): Yemen’s National Dialogue, Middle East Institute, 10 March, http:// 

Wearden, Graeme (2011): “Q and A: Suez Canal,” 1 February. 

Updated On : 3rd Jan, 2019


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