Understanding The Yemen Conflict: The Houthi Revolution


It is fundamental in order to understand the conflict of Yemen to have an overview of the history and geography of Yemen, one of the cradles of civilisation. The history of the country is as rich and complex as the region itself. Today’s Yemen is the consequence of European colonialism, the Cold War, Islamic influence, and constant regional and internal rivalries. The geopolitical significance of Yemen has weighed heavily in the equation of the conflict. Geographically, Yemen is a privileged country, located in the Arabic Peninsula bordering the Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea. It is of great geopolitical importance being capable of closing the Mandeb Strait, which is the common passage of a large part of the world’s oil transport.

The collapse of the Saudi-backed and heavily subsidised Yemeni system in the face of the Houthi onslaught has been perceived as a challenge to the existing regional order in the Arabian Peninsula.The multi-front fight for Yemen involves numerous factions including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and it is far more complex than a straightforward sectarian proxy war. Yemen’s population is mostly Sunni, but the Houthi group, officially called Ansar Allah, belongs to an offshoot of Shia Islam known as Zaidism. The Houthi revolt goes back to 2004, when a Shia insurgency led by Hussein al-Houthi in the north of the country challenged government forces. Along the following years anti-government demonstrators had erupted on several occasions until the government outlawed rallies and demonstrations; however protests demanding reforms continued. In 2009, the scope of the protests and fights increased, and Saudi Arabia intervened on Yemeni soil for the first time, claiming to have seized rebel territory. In the meantime Al Qaeda grew in presence in Yemen, being responsible for several attacks. In 2011, the Arab spring wave extended to Yemen and encouraged people to further protest against president Saleh. Thereafter the country became increasingly unstable and Saleh was obliged to hand over power to a unity government led by Mansur Hadi, which included an opposition minister. At this point all of northern Yemen was and continues to be under Houthi control.

In the following two years the different groups in the region fought for their own agenda, including the escalating violence of Al Qaeda, and the blowing up of the biggest pipeline of the country by tribesmen. In 2013, surprisingly, the Houthi emerged as key players in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), an initiative with representatives from Yemen’s diverse communities. The popularity of the group rose significantly amongst the Yemeni population. There was a perception that the Houthi brought something new to the negotiation table regardless of their religious ideology. Moreover the unity government was failing to respond to people’s demands. The government lost control of the country and in September 2014 the Houthi rebels took control of the capital Sanaa, and soon appointed a new presidential council that rejected the proposed constitution by the former government. By February 2015 the Houthi rebels dissolved Yemen’s parliament and established a transitional council. On the one hand tribes and army factions loyal to Saleh refused to resist militarily on the Houthi’s progress from Saada to Sanaa, this fact essentially paving the way for their advances. On the other hand Al Qaeda faced the Houthi forces in some cities and attacked Shia mosques and rallies in favour of the Houthi.

Later on, in February 2015 former president Hadi, who was in-house arrest in the capital, escaped to Aden and declared the Houthi presidential council illegitimate. Hadi afterwards travelled to Riyadh to held discussions with Saudi Arabia officials. At this point it became evident an open civil conflict was in the making and seemed inevitable. Soon after a Saudi led coalition started a relentless bombing of Yemen and the president Hadi returned to Aden. After the Arab coalition launched two air strikes on the capital Sanaa, Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, officially announced an alliance with Houthi fighters, adding up complexity to the already mayhem of alliances and fights.

The Saudi-led intervention turned the situation into a conflict with regional implications, with the Saudis supporting the government and leading an intervention in the country. On the other side Iran was allegedly supplying weapons and training to the Houthi rebels, yet it remains unclear to what extent. Across Yemen the political system collapsed. In addition to the complexity of the situation, the long year of war and widespread violence, together with the lack of basic public services in Aden, have intensified old independence demands of the state of South Yemen. Since the reunification there has been constant tensions, but the conflict has exacerbated the longing for independence. The former South Yemen rallied for independence while the Houthi rebels marched south against the government stronghold of Aden.

Currently, the division of the country resembles that of the former official split between South Yemen and North Yemen. The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) and the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) agreed to reunify in 1990 forming today’s Yemen. Many observers were skeptical of the Yemeni union from the first, because the long conflict between the two Yemeni regimes has often been marked by treachery and deceit. Consequently along the years after reunification bilateral relations between Sanaa and Aden were marked by long periods of hostility interrupted by brief reconciliations.

In conclusion, Yemen’s conflict was arguably expected since long ago. The number of variables prone to be targets of dispute internally and regionally are many and of great geostrategic importance. Yemen had all the determining factors to get immerse in a civil conflict. However the international community has not been able to discourage the different players from enter into a civil conflict with regional implications and rather pessimist prospects of solution. Therefore the efforts of the international community must be immediate and definitive to stop the killings, the suffering, and the misery. A peace agreement is both a humanitarian imperative and critical to regional and global security.