Yemen’s Fault Lines

By | Updated Feb 23, 2017 4:18 PM UTC

Years ago, Yemen was held up by the U.S. president 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. 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. Since the Arab-state intervention, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most potent branch of the original terrorist group, has increased its strongholds in Yemen.

The Situation

The U.S. stepped up its military actions in Yemen in response to al-Qaeda’s expansion there. U.S. officials said that in a U.S. operation in Yemen on Jan. 28, about 14 al-Qaeda members were killed, as well as a number of civilians and an American serviceman. The U.S. introduced a small force of special operations advisers in 2016, having withdrawn its counter-terrorism forces when civil war broke out. At the same time, the U.S. has lent support to a Saudi-led coalition of Persian Gulf countries that, since March 2015, has been fighting rebels who took over the capital Sana’a and other cities. 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. Human rights groups have documented repeated cases of coalition bombings of civilian targets, including schools and hospitals. Indiscriminate bombing prompted the U.S. to halt some arms sales to the Saudis, and after U.K. lawmakers urged a review of the country’s weapons trade with the Saudis, the kingdom announced in December that it will stop using British-made cluster bombs. 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. Two out of three Yemenis struggle to get enough food to survive, according to the United Nations. Yemen was already the poorest country in the Middle East. Repeated efforts to resolve the conflict diplomatically have failed

The Background

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 President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down in 2012. Under a U.S.- and Saudi-backed transition accord, Abdurabuh Mansur 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 had no tradition of Shiite-Sunni sectarianism, but outside powers have chosen sides along those lines, with Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia supporting 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 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

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