The Yemeni Civil War: Roots of Present Conflict


A Yemeni shopping center destroyed by a Saudi airstrike. April 21, 2015. (Mr. Ibrahem/Wikimedia Commons)


“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years” stated President Obama in a 2014 address to the nation. However, in the months following his declaration, the ‘model’ for future counterterrorism operations no longer appears as viable. The resignation of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, capture of Sana’a by Houthi rebels and expansion of terrorist organizations throughout Yemen highlight decades of failed US policy. Now, with Saudi and Iranian intervention, a domestic civil war has emerged as a regional conflict. Though, to understand the roots of present tension, we must understand the history. Ultimately, the present situation in Yemen can be attributed to three major factors: 1) the oppressive and unscrupulous tenure of former-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, 2) a local political culture guided by tribalism and regionalism and 3) violations of Yemeni sovereignty largely by the US and Saudi Arabia. Characterizing the fighting as an exclusively Shi’a versus Sunni phenomenon, as it is often portrayed in the American media, fails to pay sufficient reverence to on-the-ground nuance and perpetuates an inaccurate narrative about the nature of conflict in Yemen.

Unlike other nation-states in the region – most notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – Yemen lacks significant oil resources to fund the necessary institutions of governance. It holds the distinction of being the poorest country in the Middle East, with nearly 40% of the population below the poverty line. The national government – in the presence of tribalism, and by extension the absence of social cohesion – attempted to leverage geopolitical influence for economic gain. Under the administration of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who served as President from 1990 until formally relinquishing power in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, geopolitical maneuvering became integral to government legitimacy and power. For nearly three decades, by playing off military powers against one another, Saleh adeptly maintained control over a fractious country. According to former CIA analyst Dr. Emile Nakhleh, Saleh “‘learned how to speak the language of the Cold War, to endear himself to us and other Western countries by speaking the anti-communist language.’ After 9/11 Saleh ‘learned very quickly’ that he had to speak the antiterrorism language.”[1] Positioning himself as a secular figure and US regional ally, he attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid and technical assistance.


Old City in Sana’a. December 2006. (Wikimedia Commons)

However, contrary to the hopes of the United States, large sums of money were used to build up the Yemeni Special Security Forces—a paramilitary organization who owed their primary loyalty to Saleh. These forces, widely criticized by the international community for oppressive tactics, targeted assassinations and the use of torture, fomented citizen anger and discontent. Moreover, in conjunction with the US military, the Yemeni government permitted drone attacks and other covert operations within its borders. And while intended to eliminate terrorist activity, US-led attacks frequently caused civilian deaths. From al-Majalah to al-Baydah province, scores of non-combatant Yemenis died unnecessarily and without provocation. Incapable of protecting its own citizenry, the government lost legitimacy—leading many to turn to more radical elements. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), ISIS and other organizations continue to try to wrest power from one another in an increasingly violent civil war.

In addition, public protest and calls for political reform over recent years were consistently met with state-sanctioned violence. Opposition to Saleh emerged most prominently in the north of the country where a group known as the “Houthis” commenced an insurgency campaign aimed at regime change. Their insurgency stemmed from the thoughts and teachings of Hussein Bad Eddin al-Houthi—a religious and political figure that challenged the basic underpinnings of Yemeni federal governance, perceived Western influence and domestic corruption via violent insurgency. The group comprises roughly 40% of the populace and follows a subset of Shi’a Islam known as Zaydism, which places a premium on local governance and independence from foreign interference. Yet, despite a sustained decade-long military effort aimed at defeating the group, the Houthis and their tribal allies resisted pacification by the central government. Their sustained fight and military prowess eventually led them to the capital city Sana’a, where by “cannily exploiting the country’s power vacuum, engaging in populist politics and launching a series of well-timed attacks” they managed to seize control of the capital in January of this year.

Yet, Houthi control over the nation remains fragile. In the aftermath of a Saudi-led bombing campaign against the Houthis, the basic necessities for human survival are increasingly difficult to acquire. According to the UN, “at least 300,000 people have been displaced, forced to hunt for food and fuel in a country bereft of both.” And as the Houthis, widely regarded as the legitimate source of central government power by the Yemeni populace, struggle to respond to foreign interventions and internal threats, others are capitalizing on their weakness. Political opposition from the Islamist Islah Party, secessionist Southern Movement and remnants of the Saleh administration continue to foment discontent. The ascendance of AQAP and their terrorist counterparts in eastern and southern provinces, a direct result of political instability and the Saudi military campaign, further compound an already difficult situation. A political solution, not a military one, now appears to be the most plausible source for a permanent ceasefire.

But as the US prepares to ally even more closely with the ruling regimes of the Gulf States, it should anticipate blowback. Decades of failed intervention – from the 1953 coup d’état in Iran to the 2003 invasion of Iraq – should prompt caution from policymakers in Washington. Whether or not a diplomatic solution emerges or the conflict turns into a full-fledged proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran remains to be seen. But in the presence of tribalism and religious division, stating that the US should tread cautiously fails to convey the gravity of the situation. Foreign intervention will not address the roots of internal conflict, and could provide legitimacy to more radical anti-Western elements within the country. Ultimately, the responsibility to reform domestic institutions rest with the citizens of Yemen—not foreign powers.

[1] Jeremy Scahill. Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, Nation Books, 2013.


About Author

Zachary “Zach” Smith is an International Relations and Political Economy double major with a minor in History at the University of Southern California. His research interests include development economics, international law, global finance and legislative representation. He previously worked for the Governor of California, California State Assembly and Los Angeles County District Attorney. More recently, Zach worked at the Pennsylvania Office of Trade and Investment in Taipei, Taiwan as a USC Global Fellow. This semester, he is conducting funded research with Professor Nicholas Weller on the effect of social capital in group settings.


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