Years ago, Yemen was held up by the U.S. as a model partner in the battle against Islamic militants. Today, it’s engulfed in civil war and the target of a bombing campaign by a U.S.-supported coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia. The journey between those points is the story of a country torn both by internal divisions and the interests of outside parties. Yemen’s instability has made the country especially appealing as a sanctuary for jihadists and complicated the effort to contain them.
In its fourth year, the civil war is basically at a stalemate. Rebels who dislodged the internationally recognized government of President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi remain in control of the capital Sana’a and other parts of northern Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition fighting to restore Hadi has managed only to reduce the territory under the rebels’ command. A new front opened up this year, when southern secessionists took over much of the port city of Aden, the current seat of Hadi’s government. (He lives in exile in Saudi Arabia.) The United Nations has declared the consequences of the war the world’s biggest humanitarian disaster. Human rights groups have documented repeated cases of coalition bombings of civilian targets, including schools and hospitals. It’s been estimated that at least 10,000 people have been killed or wounded in the fighting in Yemen. About 2 million people, out of a population of 28 million, have been displaced from their homes; nearly one million have contracted cholera. The UN has called on the Saudi-led coalition to lift a blockade of Yemen’s Red Sea ports that has raised the threat of widespread famine; of an estimated 1.8 million children under age 5 who are acutely malnourished, 400,000 are so severely underfed they are at 10 times the normal risk of dying. Yemen was already the poorest country in the Middle East.
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. 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 the country’s longtime dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to step down in 2012 after two decades in power. 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. Yemen had no tradition of Shiite-Sunni sectarianism, but outside powers have chosen sides along those lines, with Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia supporting the uprooted President Hadi, a Sunni. Saudi Arabia’s rival, Shiite-majority Iran, has championed and aided the Houthis. 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 Saudi-led coalition originally said its intervention was aimed at compelling the Houthis to return to the political discussions they earlier abandoned. It hasn’t worked yet. 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. 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. The U.S. has stepped up its military actions in Yemen in response to expansions there by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a branch of the original terrorist group, and the Islamic State. U.S. officials say an intensified bombing campaign in Yemen has disrupted jihadist operations there, while also noting that the extremists continue to exploit the disarray and remain threatening.
The Reference Shelf
- An International Crisis Group paper “The Huthis: From Saada to Sanaa.”
- A Bloomberg QuickTake on Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince seen as the driving force behind the intervention in Yemen.
- A Congressional Research Service report “Yemen: Civil War and Regional Intervention.”
- 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 editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Lisa Beyer at firstname.lastname@example.org