Understanding the war that has been raging in Yemen for three years at a very high human price. How it started, who is fighting whom and what is at stake

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:55:50

Yemeni civil war has been raging since 2015. The main actors involved in it are the Houthis, their domestic opponents, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.


Main characters

The Houthis are a modern movement born of very recent events but with deep historical roots in Yemeni religious tradition. It is important to distinguish between the Houthi clan and the Houthi movement. The former is a prestigious line of Zaydi scholars, a branch of Shiism that arrived in Yemen in the ninth century; the latter emerged in the modern context of the 1962 republican revolution that overthrew the Zaydi Imamate, the repressive tactics of the regime of ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Saleh, and the rise of Iranian revolutionary Islam opposed to American hegemony in the region.


The domestic opponents of the Houthis are diverse and disunited. They include southerners who perceive the Houthis as yet another wave of northern invaders intent upon subduing the South, the new Salafi movement, who oppose them on religious grounds, the Islah Party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, who fight the Houthis on political grounds, a broad array of nationalists, liberals, and others, who contest their rule by force of arms, and finally the remnants of Saleh’s supporters after his murder in December 2017. The opposition is thus united against the Houthis but desperately divided against itself.


The Saudis and the Emiratis are using Yemen to flex their new military muscle and impose their own security order in the Arabian Peninsula. In the past, the Gulf States relied primarily upon the United States to guarantee their security, but the newly assertive Saudi and Emirati leaders want to set the security agenda themselves. Their overarching goals in Yemen are repression of Islamic political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafi Sahwa that might challenge the rule of the Gulf monarchies on the one hand, and countering Iranian influence in the region on the other hand. The Houthis fall into both categories, as they are an Islamic political movement and at the same time friendly with Iran.


Finally, the United States, Iran, and Qatar play lesser roles in the war. Washington remains focused on combating al-Qaeda and sees instability in the country as a major contributor to al-Qaeda’s strength. It wants a political settlement in Yemen to stabilize the government, but it also strongly backs Saudi Arabia, whose military campaign in Yemen contributes to instability. The Trump administration has adopted the Saudi view that Iran is the primary source of troubles in the region. In fact, Iranians have little direct role in Yemen, but they do supply political support and inspire the Houthi leadership’s worldview. Although Iran may provide small but significant military support, its objective is rather to irritate the Saudis at very little cost. Qatar plays an even smaller role, supporting the traditional Islamic movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and is close to the Yemeni Islah Party, whose armed forces control the Eastern desert area of Ma’rib and are strong in Taiz. At present, Qatar is locked in a political stalemate with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and thus sometimes undermines Saudi efforts in Yemen.


Concluding the war will require first and foremost a reconciliation between the Saudis and the Houthis, and then a formula to restart a political process that includes the Houthis and their opponents in a national reconciliation government. Such proposals were discussed in Kuwait in 2016, but the parties failed to stabilize a working agreement. Yet, before we look at the present situation, let us take some distance from the events and examine their historical background.

Map of Yemen [Rainer Lesniewski-Shutterstock].jpgMap of Yemen [Rainer Lesniewski-Shutterstock]


Saudi interests in Yemen

In the late nineteenth century, Yemen was a battleground between the Ottoman empire and the British, who conquered the port of Aden in 1839 and established relations with tribes outside of Aden in what became known as Southern Yemen. In response to this British incursion, the Ottomans retook Sana‘a in the late nineteenth century. The collapse of the Ottoman empire at the end of World War I, however, left northern Yemen in the hands of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, the last Zaydi Shi’a Imamate.


In the interwar period, the Arabian Peninsula was the scene of competing emirates. The rising ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Ibn Saud competed with the Hashemite ruler of Mecca, the small Idrisi emirate of ‘Asir (currently a province in south-western Saudi Arabia), and the Yemeni Zaydi Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din for control of the Peninsula. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz defeated the Idrisi emirate and then the Hashemites in 1926. Shortly after, Faysal, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s son, led Saudi troops against Yemen and soundly defeated the Imam’s forces in 1934. In the post-war settlement, the Saudi Kingdom took the three provinces of ‘Asir, Najran, and Jizan.


By World War II, the Saudis had established their dominance over the Arabia Peninsula. Instead of a competitor for power as in the inter-war period, Yemen became a source of insecurity. From then until the present, Saudis have sought to assure their position as the dominant power in Yemen, in order to prevent the rise of any threat. They built their influence by alternatively backing tribal leaders, the Yemeni state, and sometimes the political opposition, depending upon the circumstances. Saudi policy is often described as keeping Yemen unified but weak, to prevent both the collapse of the country into chaos and the strengthening of a united Yemen that might threaten the Kingdom.


The first threat to Saudi influence in Yemen was posed by Arab nationalism emanating from Egypt’s Nasser, which inspired Yemeni military officers to overthrow the Imamate and found the Yemeni Arab Republic in 1962. As Saudi Arabia feared Arab nationalism for its opposition to monarchy and Islamic rule, it supported the followers of the Yemeni Imamate, called royalists, in a civil war against the republicans backed by Nasser. This move clearly shows that the Sunni-Shia divide is only sometimes relevant to political alliances. The war ground to a stalemate and a compromise emerged that allowed the republican form of government to survive but conservative tribal leaders friendly with Saudi Arabia to dominate the government. In the end, Saudi support of the royalist cause prevented the establishment of a strong pro-Nasserist Yemeni state.


The next threat to the Saudi monarchy was the southern Yemeni communists. In the South, the nationalists who forced the British out were leftists who eventually allied with the Soviet Union. Yemen was thus divided during the Cold War into a Saudi- (and American) supported Yemen Arab Republic in the North, with capital Sana‘a, and a Soviet-supported People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in the South, with capital Aden. Saudi Arabia hosted religious and tribal leaders from southern Yemen and allowed anti-communist forces to use the Kingdom as a base for incursions. But the southern leftists were strong and had considerable influence in the North.


Following the second inter-Yemeni war in 1979, a leftist insurgency called the National Front emerged in the middle regions of North Yemen in Taiz and Ibb, backed by the PDRY. The National Front was a serious challenge to the government in Sana‘a. In response, the Saudis helped the northern government build an anti-communist coalition of tribal sheikhs, merchants, and the Muslim Brotherhood, which proved to be effective in the defeating the National Front (1982). When political movements were legalized in 1990, this coalition became the Islah Party. An important arm of Saudi influence in Yemen, the Islah was headed by the leading tribal sheikh ‘Abdallah bin Hussein al-Ahmar, leader of the Hashid tribal confederation and speaker of Parliament for decades. It was this political pillar of republican Yemen that the Houthis overturned in the period 2012-2014 and whose demise shook the Saudis.


The Saudis also shaped northern Yemen through their support of the education system. As the Yemeni state was very poor, the Saudis offered funds to create “scientific institutes” that provided basic education and religious instruction, until their abolition in the early 2000s. These institutes were run largely by teachers affiliated with the Islah Party and the Muslim Brotherhood and included many Salafis. They accused the Shia of promoting factionalism and dividing the Muslim community and were a key component of Islah’s spread into the traditionally Zaydi regions of the far North. Zaydi activists saw them as ideological enemies. But politics rather than ideology drive Saudi interests in Yemen; the civil war of 1994 is a good example in this regard. In 1990, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, North and South Yemen unified.


However, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1991 complicated Yemeni-Saudi relations. As a matter of fact, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Saleh, who had emerged as the leader of the new Republic of Yemen, was close to Saddam Hussein, and the Iraqis effectively bribed him not to support the American intervention against Baghdad. Yemen was on the UN Security Council at the time, and the Saudis and Americans made Saleh pay for his lack of support. The Saudis expelled 800,000 Yemeni workers from the Kingdom, and the American cut all aid. In 1994, relations between a faction of the southern leadership and the northerners deteriorated into war, and the Saudis, though having spent the entire Cold War fighting the communists, chose to back the former communists in the South in an attempt to get back at Saleh and weaken his state. The effort backfired, as the North defeated the secessionists, but it shows that the Saudis are not ideologically tied to any group in Yemen; what is important to them is their influence. This holds true also today. Were the Houthis to give assurances to protect Saudi security and renounce Iranian support, the Saudis would have no problem reaching an agreement with them, as they almost did in 2016.


The Houthis

Islam was introduced into Yemen during the lifetime of the Prophet, and the Prophet’s son-in-law, ‘Ali Ibn Abi Talib, visited the region. In the ninth and tenth centuries, Yemen was home to Ismaili principalities that challenged the central Muslim powers in Baghdad. It was in this period that Zaydism first appeared in the region as a competitor to Ismailism. Both Ismailism and Zaydism are considered within the Shia school of Islam. The founder of Zaydism in Yemen, Yahya Ibn al-Husayn al-Qasim al-Rasi, known as al-Hadi ila al-Haqq (‘The Guide to the Truth’), settled in the far North among the tribes and founded an Imamate. Al-Hadi’s interpretation of Zaydism (called Hadawi in Yemen) restricted candidacy for leadership of the Muslim community to descendants of the Prophet through the line of Fatima and ‘Ali. Such descendants formed in Yemen a special class of people who specialized in religious services and employment in the bureaucracy. They lived among and were protected by the tribesmen and were given the honorific title of sayyid (‘lord’, pl. sāda). Only those sāda who gained fame for their knowledge or were close to the Imamate benefited from its material resources. Most of them while formally esteemed, remained as poor or even poorer than their tribal neighbors. Thus, the sāda were not a ruling class or aristocracy, although some did gain wealth and power through official office. The present Houthi leadership hails from a prestigious clan of these sāda.


In the North, the fall of the Imamate and the rise of the Republic in 1962 produced dramatic change. For the republicans, the idea of a privileged class of religious scholars violated the principle of equal citizenship. Still, there were sāda who served the Republic, and Zaydis (not of the sāda class but tribesmen and traditional families of judges) dominated republican government, particularly the military. However most republicans feared the religious prestige of the Zaydi scholarly families and attempted to undermine the influence of the sāda. The administration of religious endowments, a major source of support for the sāda, was brought under state control; tribal leaders that supported the Republic were favored over former royalists; and most importantly, republicans emphasized new forms of Islam that rejected special privileges for the descendants of the Prophet. These included the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafism, two Sunni reformist movements strongly opposed to Shiism.

View in Sanaa [Oleg Znamenskiy-Shutterstock].jpgView of Sana‘a [Oleg Znamenskiy-Shutterstock]


The sāda rebirth in the Republic

For the sāda, the establishment of the Republic meant dramatic change. While they are not a single bloc by any means and their approach to life in the new Republic varied, in general the stance of the new government challenged the sāda community. Many simply went into business to benefit from the economic growth of the 1980s and forgot about politics, but others tried in various ways to reconstitute an honorable place for them in the new social and political environment.


One of the ways some sāda sought to reinsert themselves into the Republic was through electoral politics. When the two Yemens unified in 1990, the new Republic of Yemen adopted a liberal political system with elections and legal political parties. The sāda created two political parties, Hizb al-Haqq and the Ittihād al-Quwā al-Sha‘biyya. Members of the al-Wazir family in the Ittihād articulated an alternative theology that relaxed the Hadawi Zaydi requirement that only sāda lead the Muslim community. The Zaydi parties didn’t fare well in the elections and Hizb al-Haqq garnered only two seats in Parliament. However, one of those seats went to Hussein al-Houthi, the charismatic founder of what would become the Houthi movement. His disillusionment with electoral politics in the Saleh regime was one factor in the eventual rise of the Houthis.


Another reaction of the sāda among the youth was to revitalize Zaydism. In the 1980s educated young sāda and non-sāda Zaydis began to promote Zaydism in ways attractive to Yemen’s burgeoning youth population. Given that Saudi-funded Sunni summer camps in the North attracted lots of youth, the promoters of a Zaydi renaissance replicated the model. This is the origin of the “Believing Youth” movement that Hussein al-Houthi later transformed into a politically active group. In the early 2000s, he resigned from the Hizb al-Haqq and joined the “Believing Youth”.


Finally, some of the sāda, including Hussein al-Houthi, were influenced by the rise of Iranian revolutionary Islam in the 1980s. Khomeini’s doctrines were a confluence of Third-Worldist liberation ideology that promoted the victory of the oppressed and a revolution in Twelver Shiite theology that moved Iranian Shiism from quietism and passive tolerance of suffering to political activism. Hussein al-Houthi adopted the Iranian worldview and saw the primary enemy of Muslims in the American and Israeli dominance of the Middle East. For him, the Yemeni Zaydi sāda were to be the leaders of the coming revolution in Yemen.


Rise and fall of Hussein al-Houthi

After joining the Believing Youth, Hussein al-Houthi transformed the organization from a cultural education program into a political activist group. He used the occasion of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was largely unpopular in Yemen, to challenge the legitimacy of the Saleh regime. His alliance with the U.S. after 9/11 was a sign, in al-Houthi’s eyes, that the Yemeni president was an American puppet. After the invasion, Yemeni security forces repressed demonstrators in front of the U.S. Embassy. Al-Houthi then gathered his followers in the Grand Mosque of Sana‘a where they chanted “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse to the Jews, Victory to Islam.” The slogan irritated Saleh, who ordered Hussein al-Houthi’s arrest and halted his supporters in the capital.


The attempt to arrest Hussein al-Houthi was met with local armed resistance, until the Houthi leader was finally flushed out of a cave and killed by government troops. But instead of ending the affair, his killing became a powerful symbol of martyrdom, and the repressive tactics of the Yemeni military garnered sympathy for the Houthis, among not only locals of the far North but also civil rights activists in the capital.


Hussein al-Houthi’s elderly father, the famous Zaydi scholar Badr al-Din al-Houthi, vowed to continue his son’s struggle against Saleh’s regime. A second round of conflict broke out, and then a third and a fourth. A younger brother of Hussein, ‘Abd al-Malik, emerged as an effective commander of the insurgency. In each round of fighting, the Houthis gained experience and the government’s repressive tactics pushed more people to take their side. In the six wars against the Houthis which were fought between 2004 and 2010, a key factor for the government was the use of the Islah Party and its Hashid tribal component. In response, the Houthis adroitly exploited inter- and intra-tribal tensions to overturn the Hashid leadership. Houthi dominance of the tribal North eventually eliminated one of the Saudis’ key means of influencing Yemen.


The Arab Spring and the Saudi-negotiated settlement

When the Arab Spring reached Yemen in early 2011, the Saudis intervened to maintain their influence, while the Houthis ingeniously took advantage of the tensions in the Yemeni capital.


By 2010, the Saleh regime was already weak. The government’s heavy-handed tactics had contributed significantly to the success of the Houthi insurgency and similarly inept repression in the South had led to a massive civil disobedience movement demanding the withdrawal of northern troops, which had been stationed in the South since the war of 1994. Then the explosion of street protests in the Arab Spring and the government’s massacre of demonstrators in March 2011 split Saleh’s regime in two, one faction supporting General ‘Ali Muhsin and the Islah and the other loyal to Saleh and his son Ahmad. They divided the streets of the capital and prepared for war.


The prospect of the Yemeni elite committing suicide in internecine warfare jolted the Saudis into action. Riyadh negotiated a resolution that allowed Saleh to resign the presidency but remain atop his ruling party, the General Peoples’ Congress. The Saudi agreement, called the GCC Agreement (Gulf Cooperation Council Agreement), stipulated a two-year transition period under the leadership of Saleh’s vice president, ‘Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, the convening of the National Dialogue Conference, the writing of a new constitution, and finally elections for a new government at the end of the two-year transition.


The Houthis participated actively in the process. One of the nine main committees of the National Dialogue Conference addressed the Houthi conflict in the far North. At the same time, the Houthis continued to consolidate and expand their military control of northern territory. Both the military and the political wing of the movement were active and as the transitional process of the GGC Agreement slowed and stalled, the Houthis became more aggressive. Clearly some in the leadership were not content to trust their future to the GCC process.


A pact with the devil

A critical factor in the Houthi expansion during the transitional period was a secret alliance with ex-president ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Saleh. Saleh saw in the Houthis an opportunity to undermine the GGC Agreement that had ousted him from power. On the other hand, the Houthis saw in Saleh a means to expand their influence in the Yemeni military and among the former president’s supporters.


The transitional two years passed without a new constitution or elections. The National Dialogue Conference took far longer than planned, due to serious obstacles to southern political participation and the writing of the draft constitution dragged on. Meanwhile, the security and economic situation deteriorated. Common Yemenis lost interest in the negotiations of the political elite and focused on trying to make a living in increasingly difficult circumstances. In September 2014, Houthi militias reached the outskirts of Sana‘a, exploiting dissatisfaction with the transitional government to legitimize their entrance into the city and the government.


The Peace and Participation Pact

The transitional government, the Houthis claimed, was gridlocked by political wrangling. The Houthis proposed a government of national inclusion that made room for southern and Houthi representation at the highest levels and installed technocratic ministers, whose performance was to be monitored by external measures of concrete economic achievements. President Hadi signed the Houthi proposal along with the UN’s representative in Yemen, Jamal bin Omar. The new technocratic government, installed in October 2014, had widespread popular support. The Houthis had won, it appeared.


However, Houthi militias spread throughout the city and Houthi ‘supervisors’ entered government ministries, claiming to oversee the operation of the government and prevent corruption. While the technocratic government had popular support, the behavior of the Houthis in the capital appeared more like a soft coup than a real participation in a new government. Matters came to a head in January when the Houthis kidnapped the head of Hadi’s office, Ahmad bin Mubarak, with the draft constitution, in order to prevent its circulation. In fact, the Houthis and the southerners had objected to the proposed federal regions outlined in the new constitution. The kidnapping of bin Mubarak led to the resignation of the government and then the president. The Houthis rejected the resignation and placed the ministers and president under house arrest. At least, some of the Houthi leadership seemed to recognize that the movement needed the national government, as the Houthis alone lacked the legitimacy to rule the country.


Despite this recognition, Houthi militias backed by Yemeni military forces allied with ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Saleh spread South, East, and West from the capital. If the political wing of the Houthis failed to manage a working partnership with the national government, the military wing appeared determined to assure dominance of all of Yemen. In January 2015, the Houthi leadership made the fateful decision to govern all Yemen alone, declaring that a Revolutionary Committee headed by Muhammad al-Houthi would assume power. The Houthis had now officially overthrown the Yemeni government.


Houthi relations with Iran

That Iran supports the Houthis, or that the Houthis are a Yemeni Hezbollah, is a major justification for the Saudi war and for American support for the Saudis. For the Hadi government, the Houthis are a Persian imperial project in Yemen.


Evidence for Iranian support for the Houthis is actually thin. The Saudi-backed coalition makes major media campaigns of small shreds of evidence it can muster and the Trump administration likewise made a major media spectacle at the UN concerning an Iranian involvement in the Houthi missile campaign against the Saudis. In the current war, any Iranian support must cross the Saudi-imposed air, sea, and land blockade and most Houthi weaponry comes not from Iran but from the foes: stories appear often of anti-Houthi forces selling their weapons to the enemy and smuggling routes through the battle lines also supply the Houthi militias. Yemenis are poor and there is money to be made in this business.


The Houthis and Iran are friendly, no doubt. The best evidence came in the aftermath of the formal Houthi coup in January 2015, when Houthi representatives visiting Iran announced a major economic aid program valued at five billion dollars and the establishment of regular flights between Sana‘a and Tehran by an Iranian airline. The Houthi leadership clearly feared the repercussions of their coup in Sana‘a and looked to international support from Iran to consolidate their position. The economic program aimed at bolstering domestic support for the coup by targeting people’s fears of economic deterioration. At any rate the program, if it was more than propaganda, was never realized because of the war.

Demolished Building in Sanaa [Almigdad Mojalli-VOA, via Wikimedia Commons].pngDemolished Building in Sana‘a [Almigdad Mojalli-VOA, via Wikimedia Commons]


Saudi reaction

The well-advertised scene of Iran’s Mahan Air jet on the runway in Sana‘a was not welcome in Riyadh, of course, but the trigger for the war was Hadi’s escape from house arrest in Sana‘a, his fleeing to Aden, and then the bombardment of the presidential palace of Ma‘ashiq in Aden, while Saleh’s forces and Houthi militias were entering the city.


Compared to previous actions, the Saudi military intervention in Yemen is unusual for its size. While the Saudis have long spent massive amounts of money on military weaponry, they have been usually reticent to use it. But the Arab Spring changed Saudi attitudes. Riyadh came to doubt American commitment to Saudi security objectives in the region and decided to employ their own military. The 2011 intervention in Bahrain can be considered a start, though Riyadh had already become directly involved in the Houthi wars in 2009.


The fight against the Muslim Brotherhood

Saudis and Emiratis both fear political Islam. Ironically, Riyadh went from supporting the Muslim Brotherhood during the Cold War to opposing it in the Arab Spring, since the Muslim Brotherhood and the politically active trend within Salafism represent a potential challenge to the Gulf monarchies. The victory of Morsi in Egypt scared the Saudis and Emiratis. While the Americans appeared to acquiesce to the rise of the Brotherhood through democratic means, the Saudis and the Emiratis began a massive campaign against it. The Saudis also opposed Assad in Syria because of his friendly attitude towards Iran and supported the Syrian armed opposition despite fears of links to al-Qaeda. Again, the Americans, in Saudi eyes, seemed unconcerned.


By now, the war in Yemen has become a Saudi test of its regional military muscle and a pet project of the new crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, whose contentious rise is supported by his ambitious economic and geopolitical plans. His credibility rides to some extent on the success of the war.


The Saudi and Emirati opposition to political Islamic groups also explains their attack on Qatar, with the aim of closing al-Jazeera broadcasting and forcing Doha to withdraw support for the Muslim Brotherhood.  The fact that Yemeni Islah Party is close to Qatar and Turkey has complicated its relations with the other Saudi-backed opposition groups.


Unlike political Islam groups, al-Qaeda is not a major player in Yemen. At the beginning of the war, it took over the port of Mukalla, the capital of the Hadhramaut governorate, but it was easily repulsed by Emirati-Yemeni joint forces in 2016. Since then al-Qaeda has retreated into hiding in remote areas in the regions of Abyan, al-Bayda, Shabwa, and Ma’rib. Its power stemmed from its ability to pay fighters, but now the Emirates are offering better salaries. Al-Qaeda’s ability to carry out attacks appears to have much reduced as well, with the exception of a recent check-point attack in Abyan. Aden and Sana‘a have now been free of terrorist violence for a while, despite the persistent political clashes. Politically al-Qaeda has no role in the nation: Yemenis see it only as a force of destruction.


A loose coalition

The opposition to the Houthis is an incoherent alliance, hopelessly divided against itself. The main forces are Salafis and Islah, Hadi and remnants of the ruling General People’s Congress that opposed Saleh and southerners fighting northern dominance. After Saleh’s last rebellion against the Houthis in December 2017, his supporters have also joined the ranks.


The Houthis are violently opposed to the Salafis, whom they see as the source of anti-Zaydi intolerance in the North. In early 2014, at the beginning of the push towards Sana‘a, they forcefully evacuated the Salafi settlement at Dammaj. Salafis thus form the frontline shock troops and they were key to Aden’s defense between March and July 2015. Salafis also lead the military forces now battling the Houthis in al-Hudayda on the Red Sea coast. The main ‘Amalaqa Brigade is Salafi-led, as are Hadi’s presidential guard forces and the main security forces in the South.


Islah and General ‘Ali Muhsin were central players in the wars against the Houthis in the 2000s and offered the only resistance to the Houthi militias’ entrance into Sana‘a in 2014, which forced ‘Ali Muhsin to flee to Saudi Arabia. However, Islah and ‘Ali Muhsin were also central players in the war against the South in 1994, so many southerners distrust them. Today Islah is concentrated in the sparsely populated eastern desert around Ma’rib, which is currently the focus of the Saudi-backed Yemeni troops attempting to enter Sana‘a from the East. Though Islah is the main Muslim Brotherhood affiliation in Yemen, the Saudis have come to terms with it. Islahi leader Mohammed al-Yadumi met with Emirati and Saudi leaders in 2017 to smooth over tensions, and the Saudis realize that Islah is their major partner in Yemen despite its support for Qatar and Turkey. Yemen’s Nobel Laurette Tawakkol Karman, a member of the Islah, often embarrasses the Saudis with her public condemnations of their military operations in Yemen, but the Saudis and the top Islahi leadership seem able to look beyond the tensions to practical agreements for the war effort.


President Hadi himself has little following, but he represents opposition to the Houthis and for the Saudis the thin thread of legitimacy for their war effort, since Riyadh claims to act to restore the legitimate government of Yemen. Hadi is a southerner from Abyan, but separatists oppose him because he supported the 1994 war on the South. When Aden was first liberated from the Houthi militias in the summer of 2015, Hadi tried to gain the support of southerners by appointing members of the southern separatist movement, known as al-Hirak, into government positions. But realizing that these Hirak leaders were independent of his government and coordinating instead with Emirati forces, Hadi fired four governors and the minister of state, who reacted by forming the Southern Transitional Council (STC) to prepare for Southern independence. This Council, chaired by Major General ‘Aydarous al-Zubaydi, has a strong following in the South and can rely on military forces that are more than a match for the forces aligned with Hadi. In January 2018, STC forces took over Aden and forced Hadi’s government to retreat to the Presidential Palace in Ma‘ashiq. Saudi intervention cooled tempers and by the summer of this year, Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council began joint coordination for the major offensive on the port of al-Hudayda.


The final opposition force is the remnants of Saleh’s military, now opposed to the Houthis. In December 2017, Saleh rebelled against the Houthis but badly miscalculated the balance of power. His revolt was crushed, and he was killed within days. The Emirates saw in this assassination an opportunity to bolster their war effort by helping Tareq Saleh, a nephew of the killed President, gather former Republic Guards into an anti-Houthi force. Tareq Saleh arrived at an Emirati base outside of Aden and began organizing former Republican Guards to fight in al-Hudayda. Ironically, since the Emirates backed both Tareq Saleh and the Southern Transitional Council, its leader had to welcome Tareq Saleh. In Aden, however, most are opposed to the presence of Tareq Saleh and the Republican Guards, because they conquered the South in 1994 and attempted to regain it in 2015.


Thus, the opposition to the Houthis is a loose coalition of often vehemently opposed groups. The divisions have prevented stabilization and economic rebirth in the areas under Hadi’s nominal control. While terrorist attacks have subsided, frequent assassinations occur because of the stark underlying political conflicts.


Hoping for a new leadership

Saudi Arabia miscalculated the effect of its military intervention in Yemen. Rather than subduing the Houthis to Saudi wishes, the war rallied many Yemenis around the Houthi defense against foreign aggression. While the Houthi militias are on the defensive, their military defeat will take a long time and tremendous toll on Yemeni society. The result of the war may be far from the Saudi goal of a friendly Yemen.


The Houthi leadership also badly miscalculated its capacity to govern Yemen. When the Houthis entered Sana‘a and signed the Peace and Participation Agreement with the Hadi government, the Houthis had achieved their political goals. They controlled the far North, were influential in the national government, and had widespread sympathy among Yemenis. However, when the Houthis overturned the government and tried to rule Yemen by force, they undermined much of their support in the country. Today the Houthi leadership lacks political vision offering only a grinding war in defense of national sovereignty. On the side of the anti-Houthi forces, raw political ambitions undermine the overarching goals of the war effort. Corruption and infighting sap efforts to build legitimacy among the broad Yemeni public. One hope may be that a new generation of political leaders emerges that has learned from the errors of today’s leadership, but the scars of the war may be difficult to forget.