Yemen’s Fault Lines

By | Updated Oct 18, 2016 5:33 PM UTC

Yemen was once held up by U.S. President Barack Obama as a model partner in the battle against Islamic militants. Today, it’s engulfed in civil war and being bombed by a U.S.-supported coalition of Arab states. The journey between those points is the story of a country riven by internal divisions and torn by the interests of external parties. Benefitting from the instability are the jihadists who were once under pressure in Yemen, including the most potent branch of al-Qaeda.

The Situation

Since March 2015 a Saudi-led coalition of Persian Gulf countries has been fighting rebels who had taken over the capital Sana’a and other cities. In its first direct military involvement in the war, the U.S. launched strikes against targets under rebel control in October after it said a U.S. navy ship was targeted in two failed missile attacks. Days before, the U.S. had said it was reviewing its support of the coalition fighting the rebels after the bombing of a funeral hall in Sana'a killed more than 140 people. Human rights groups have documented repeated cases of coalition bombings of civilian targets, including schools and hospitals. The intervention has reduced the territory under the rebels’ control but has failed to dislodge them from the capital and other parts of northern Yemen. The conflict has its roots in complaints by the rebels of marginalization of their community, followers of the prominent Houthi family. Houthis are members of the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam to which 42 percent of Yemen’s population belongs. Yemen had no tradition of Shiite-Sunni sectarianism, but outside powers have chosen sides along those lines, with Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia supporting uprooted President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi, a Sunni. Saudi Arabia’s rival, Shiite-majority Iran, has championed and aided the Houthis. Repeated efforts to resolve the conflict diplomatically have failed. Since the Gulf-state intervention, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has increased its strongholds in Yemen. A spinoff of the original terrorist organization, it has targeted enemies in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Europe. It’s been estimated that at least 10,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting in Yemen. About 2 million people, out of a population of 28 million, have been displaced from their homes. Yemen was already the poorest country in the Middle East.

The Background

In 1904, the Ottoman and British empires established a frontier separating their spheres of influence in Yemen’s north and south, respectively. The north gained independence in 1918 with Zaidi imams, long the local rulers, serving as kings until a republican revolution in 1962. South Yemen became a state in 1967. The country was unified in 1990. The Houthis fought unsuccessful rebellions from 2004 to 2010. An Arab Spring revolt forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down in 2012. Under a U.S.- and Saudi-backed transition accord, Hadi replaced him, and UN-supported talks set the stage for a constitutional convention and new elections. The Houthis, however, rejected a federation plan that arose from those discussions because their northern strongholds were included in a district with limited resources and no access to the sea. Yemen isn’t a major oil producer but its location at the Bab el-Mandeb, a chokepoint in international shipping, makes it important for global energy trade.

The Argument

The Saudi-led coalition said its intervention was aimed at compelling the Houthis to return to the political discussions they earlier abandoned. It hasn’t worked yet. The Houthis rule out restoring Hadi to power, as the Saudis wish. They are allied with supporters of his predecessor, Saleh. The Saudis also justify military action as a response to aggression by Iran, which they paint as the Houthis’ master. Independent observers say that’s an exaggeration — that the Houthis receive aid from Iran but don’t dance to its tune. In any case, if the Arab intervention was meant to bring stability to Yemen in the long-term, it’s having the opposite effect in the short run. Cases of indiscriminate bombing have provoked calls in the U.S. and Europe to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

The Reference Shelf

  • An International Crisis Group paper “The Huthis: From Saada to Sanaa.”
  • A Congressional Research Service report “Yemen: Background and U.S. Relations.”
  • A Council on Foreign Relations primer on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
  • Gregory D. Johnsen’s book “The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda and America’s War in Arabia.”

First published Feb. 17, 2015

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Glen Carey in Riyadh at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Lisa Beyer at