Four years after the Houthi takeover of the capital Sana’a and the beginning of the Saudi-led military intervention, there is little to suggest that Yemen will find peace in the near future. As of January 2018, the conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions, causing widespread devastation to the country’s civilian and public infrastructure, including hospitals, airports, roads, houses and factories (see Figure 1). With more than 8 million people ‘a step away from famine’ (Al Jazeera, 10 December 2017) and a major cholera outbreak that has killed 2,000 people and infected almost 1 million (World Health Organisation, 11 December 2017), Yemen has descended into what has been described as the ‘world’s worst humanitarian crisis’ (New York Times, 23 August 2017).
Yemen’s political crises
The ongoing civil war in Yemen is the result of several local and national power struggles, aggravated by a regional proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Yemen is currently the theatre of at least four intertwined political crises, involving a constellation of political actors and armed groups seeking political power, recognition and influence (The Project on Middle East Political Science, January 2018).
The first crisis pits the northern-based Houthi Movement and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh against the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The current stage of this long running conflict began in September 2014, when Houthi militants and military units aligned with Saleh, after stirring up anti-government sentiment against proposed fuel subsidy cuts, seized control of the capital Sana’a. They proceeded to occupy key state institutions and forced President Hadi to reshuffle his cabinet. Months later, the rebels dismissed the internationally recognised government, arrested several ministers and forced the President to flee to the southern port city of Aden.
As the Houthi-Saleh forces occupied Yemen’s central and southern regions, closing in on Aden, Saudi Arabia formed a coalition of nine countries providing ground, air and naval support to restore Hadi’s government in Sana’a and prevent the Houthi-Saleh forces from overtaking Aden. Backed by the United States and the United Kingdom, the Saudi-led coalition that formed to support Hadi also included the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco, Sudan, Egypt, Jordan and Qatar. During this period, local armed militias known as “Popular Resistance” or “Popular Committees” began to mobilise across central and southern Yemen to oppose the Houthis’ takeover of the country. Since the Houthi-Saleh forces were driven out of Aden later in 2015, the conflict has largely stabilised along a frontline that stretches from the northern and central highlands of Marib and Al Jawf to the coast of Hodeidah, through the flashpoint city of Taiz.
Southern Yemen is also the site of two other major political crises that share little with the largely northern Houthi conflict. These include the confrontation between the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) and President Hadi and an Islamist insurgency involving Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Yemeni branch of the Islamic State (IS). These groups have exploited the ongoing unrest to expand their outreach across central and southern Yemen: after seizing large swathes of territory in the provinces of Abyan, Shabwah and Hadramawt, AQAP took control of the port of Mukalla in 2015, from which they were ousted in 2016 following an Emirati-backed offensive. AQAP and IS have claimed several attacks against the Houthi-Saleh forces, and are believed to have taken advantage of widespread anti-Houthi sentiment to gain support of local tribes in southern Yemen (Al Dawsari, 11 January 2018).
The last political crisis sees Yemen at the centre of a regional competition between Saudi Arabia, Iran and the UAE (and, to a lesser extent, Oman) which reflects the widening divisions and divergent political priorities within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Iran’s alleged support to the Houthis is the motivation for the continued military intervention by these countries in Yemen. At the same time, Hadi’s dependence on Saudi patronage, the UAE’s increasing involvement in southern Yemen and Oman’s quiet presence in the east of the country show that these countries are seeking to create their own “spheres of influence” in a disintegrating country (Dahlgren, January 2018)