Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East is currently being bombarded by Saudi airstrikes and crumbling from internal conflict. Unfortunately, Yemen has always remained forgotten despite its dire situation. Most recently, it has come in the spotlight but for a devastating reason. After a failed democratic revival by the nation, it has fallen into insurgency, internal conflict, and aerial bombardment.
A Brief History
North Yemen gained independence in 1918 from the Ottoman Empire and was a theocratic monarchy led by the Zaidi Imams until 1962 and the Arab Republic of Yemen until 1990. South Yemen gained independence from Britain in 1967 as the People’s Republic of Yemen, but in 1969 with the Marxist takeover, it fell into the Soviet bloc and was officially known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Saudi Arabia, being a regional power and having close proximity to the country, played a pivotal role in the politics. Saudi Arabia’s influence in Yemen, starting with the overthrow of the Zaidi Imams in 1962, has led to resentment towards the Kingdom and its quest for regional dominance among some Yemenis. In 1978, Colonel Ali Abdullah Saleh was elected as President of North Yemen, a post he held until the unification with South Yemen after which he remained the President until his forced resignation in 2012 as result of the 2011 Arab Spring. This brought Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, then Vice President of Yemen into power. After the ousting of the Zaidi Imams from power, there were factions who had been loyal to them and as such the successive governments provided them with little to no support. Among them were the Ansar Allah (Helpers of God), better known as the Houthi Rebels. The Ansar Allah movement was formed in the mid-1990s and emerged as prominent force in 2004 under the leadership of Hussein al-Houthi, from whom their get their popular name, as they fought the Government forces until February of 2015. Hussein al-Houthi was succeeded by his younger brother, Abdul-Malik al Houthi, as the current head of the Houthis. In September of 2014, led by Abdul-Malik the Houthis took over the Yemeni Capital, Sana’a, forcing President Mansur Hadi to move to Aden.
The overthrow of Hadi by the Houthi rebels prompted Saudi Arabia to launch a military campaign in Yemen in March 2015 in hopes to dislodge the Houthis from Sanaa, the country’s capital, and to send a firm warning to Iran. Although the Houthis themselves follow the Zaidi doctrine of Imamate they show solidarity with Hezbollah and its leadership particularly its Secretary General Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah and its spiritual guide Ayatollah Ali Al-Khamenei. Inspired by Nasrallah’s charismatic speeches, the Houthi revolt has taken Yemen. Fearing a rising Iranian influence of on its southern border, the Saudi regime mustered up a coalition of other Gulf States in an aerial bombing campaign against the Houthis. The stated objective of this campaign is to “restore the legitimate government” of President Hadi. Hadi was a weak and unpopular figure before the war. He struggled to bring enough fighters to take on the Houthis and has done little to restore stability and law in areas partially taken back from the Houthi fighters, especially Aden.
Many terrorist factions have benefitted from the power vacuum specially Al-Qaida and its affiliate ISIS. Salafist militias and likeminded local Al-Qaeda partners have gained increasing influence on the ground. These hardline groups grew frustrated and tried of Hadi’s lack of leadership and looked for a more effective mission on the ground. There has even been in fighting between Hadi’s military units and pro south independence movements.
What is happening? The way is currently being fought between the forces loyal to the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and those allied to the Houthi rebel resistance. The conflict has its roots in the failure of the political transition that was meant to bring stability to Yemen following an uprising that forced its longtime former authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand over power to Mr. Hadi, his deputy at the time, in November 2011.
Hadi struggled with a variety of problems at the time, including attacks from Al-Qaeda, a separatist movement in the south, continuing loyalty of many military officers to Saleh, corruption, unemployment, and mass food insecurity. Currently, the civilian casualties in Yemen have been at an extreme high as of 2016, with over 10,000 civilians killed due to the fighting. After more than a year of fighting, neither side appears close to a decisive victory. However, the Houthi resistance has continued to maintain its power and influence in northern Yemen and even reaching southern Yemen. Pro-government forces made up of soldiers loyal to President Hadi were successful in stopping the rebels taking the southern port city of Aden, but at a cost- a four-month battle that left hundreds dead.
The nation is on the brink of complete starvation. Already the poorest of the Arab states, it has become one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The UN has already predicted a famine and parts of Yemen are already starving to death. UN is struggling to find a deal that would end the fighting on the ground and maintain an equal balance of power between the different groups.
What is Saudi Arabia’s Role?Saudi Arabia is the key piece in understanding the Yemeni War because of the 1100-mile border it shares with Yemen. After the overthrow of Al-Hadi, military intervention was launched by Saudi Arabia in 2015, leading a coalition made up of Gulf countries, Pakistan, and even African countries to defeat the Houthis in the war. Some countries include Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, and Senegal. The Saudi government became increasingly worried about the rise of the Houthi movement for several reasons, mostly due to the religious differences. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni-majority kingdom and views the Houthis as a proxy of its Shiite rival, Iran. To Saudi Arabia, the Houthis are allies with Iran due to their similar Shiite background. If Iran installs its influence and power in Yemen, Iran would be next door neighbors. Therefore, the Saudi-led coalition began conducting air strikes on Houthi targets in March 2015 as part of the “Decisive Storm Operation.” Iran has continued to be tied with the Houthi resistance; Saudi and U.S officials claim to have seen weapons from Iran being smuggled into Houthi controlled Saudi Arabia through Oman. Although Iran and the Houthi movement are both part of the Shiite sect of Islam, many people failed to realize that Iran practices Twelver Shiism, while Houthis practice the Zaidi sect of Shiism. While Iran backs the Houthi resistance, Iran’s intervention in the conflict has been limited.
What is U.S’s Role?
The U.S. has sided with Saudi Arabia from the start of the conflict, providing intelligence, weapons, and warplanes involved in bombing rebel positions. Since 2015, the Saudis and its allies, mostly the U.S., have waged a heavy military campaign against the Houthi rebels that has fueled a bloody civil war in Yemen. The Houthis have taken over Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in 2014 and have since taken control over a large part of the country. Although the Houthis have a certain amount of control of the region, the Americans are currently providing high profile intelligence and warplanes to bomb Houthi positions that has been destroying hospitals, markets, and neighborhoods. Because of U.S. interests to weaken the Shiite Houthi resistance, there is now a critical lack of health and food services in the country, along with one of the highest rates for child starvation in the world.
LEADERS TO KNOW
Ali Abdullah Saleh: Former President of North Yemen from 1978 until the unification with South Yemen in 1990. He then served as president until his ousting in 2012. In 2011, opposition started leading protests and demanded Saleh to end his three-decade-long rule because of his perceived lack of democratic ruling and widespread corruption. Saleh stepped down in exchange for immunity. H established an alliance with the Houthi fighters, despite their rival history. Saleh maintains strong influence over Yemeni politics and continues to chair the powerful party he founded, General People’s Congress.
Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi: After Ali Saleh was forced to step down, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi stood up as vice president. Despite a long history of political activity and affiliation, Hadi was relatively unknown in Yemen. He officially took office in 2012 through a single-candidate election with 99.6 percent of the vote. But he eventually failed to impress. In 2014, Supporters of Saleh and Houthis took the streets to protest over Hadi’s lack of performance as elected president. With the backing of Ali Saleh, Houthi fighters forced Hadi to resign and held him under house arrest for several weeks. Hadi managed to flee to Aden and declared it the temporary capital. He later withdrew his resignation and stated that he is the sole legitimate president of Yemen.
Southern Movement/Resistance: The Southern Resistance is the combination of differents tribes, local residents, and other units fighting the Houthis and Saleh’s supporters. They are backed by the US, Saudi Arabia, and Hadi. The movement demands secession from the Republic of Yemen and the advancement of the Houthi power in southern Yemen.
Arab Coalition: The Arab coalition is mainly made up of Gulf countries.
Abdul Malik Badreddin al Houthi: He is the leading figure of the Houthi uprising. He criticized the Yemeni government (Saleh) of endless corruption that plunged the people into poverty as well as accusing the government of marginalizing the Zaidi community. Abdul Malik al Houthi lead the protest against Hadi forcing him to step down. He demanded that Hadi government implement swift reforms and pass down some power to the Houthi community.
Hussein Badreddin al Houthi: Hussein al Houthi was the late brother of Abdul Malik al Houthi. He founded the Houthi movement and was politically and militarily active. He was a Zaidi religious leader and a former member of the Yemeni parliament. He was killed in 2004 by the police.
Salman of Saudi Arabia : The late King Salman formed the Arab coalition in Yemen in attempts to control the rise of the Houthi movement and the fear of Iranian influence. He offered safety and asylum to Hadi in Jeddah and pledged to his support to him. When Salam passed away his son, Mohammed Bin Salman al Saud, continued to oversee the conflict in Yemen.
View Sources ∨