What is happening in Yemen and what are its implications?

Story in a nut shell:  Iran supported Shia minorities in Yemen called Houtis, who have political grievances, have toppled the current leadership of Yemen(who were propped up by the West and Saudis). Saudi Arabia which sees itself as rival to Iran do not want Houtis to sieze power, so they organized a coalition of Sunni Muslim nations like Pakistan to conduct military operations in Yemen. The conflict is turning in to a sectarian Sunni vs Shia conflict. Meanwhile southern secessionists in Yemen are demanding independence. Al Qaeda and ISIS are gaining ground in the midst of all this chaos in Yemen. Fearing escalation of violation, India and other countries have started evacuating their citizens from Yemen.

Present condition: President Hadi took refuge in Riyadh after rebels captured Sana(capital) and Aden, Saudi Arabia has launched air strikes, many civilians are also being killed. Iran contemplating military action too.

Lets understand the conflict with a series of questions:

Who are the different players involved in the fighting in Yemen?

Internal actors:

  • Houthi rebels who predominantly live in northern Yemen
  • Government forces loyal to deposed president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi
  • Government forces loyal to ex-dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh 
  • South Yemenis demanding secession from the Yemen(South Yemen was a separate country till 1990, it was supported by USSR)
  • Al-Qaeda in Arabian peninsula(AQAP)
  • ISIS

External actors:

  • Iran supporting Houtis
  • Saudi Arabia supporting Hadi government
  • US & Israel also supporting Hadi but not directly
  • Other Sunni & Shia nations which are being dragged in to the fight
  • Al-Qaeda & ISIS

Where is Yemen and why is it important?


Yemen has become another theatre of de-stability in the fast disintegrating middle east. There are many reasons why the world needs to take the Yemen crisis seriously.

  • Yemen has over a thousand kilometre long border with Saudi Arabia which is the largest oil producer in the world. Any spilling of de-stability from Yemen in to the kingdom will have global effects, especially on oil prices and financial markets(Saudi Sheiks are mammoth players in the financial markets-they are too big to be allowed to fail!).
  • CIA says that Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen called Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula(AQAP) is AQ’s most dangerous and well-organized branch. Chaos and instability in Yemen would be a spawning ground for AQ and ISIS terrorists. Yemen could become the new destination of Ivy league universities for terrorists.
  • This crisis could lead to greater animosity between Sunnis and Shias around the world which may lead to instability across Muslim world.
  • Unlike the crisis in Syria and Iraq, the Yemen crisis is dragging countries like Pakistan(a nuclear power) in to wars of middle east turning the region in to theatre of a mini world war.
  • Yemen’s port city Aden has long been one of the most strategically important ports in the world standing at the cross-roads of important sea lanes. Merchants ships passing through Suez canal and red sea enter the Gulf of Aden through the narrow Bab el Mandeb strait. Every day, 3 million barrels of oil pass through these waters. The gulf of Aden leads to Indian ocean through which ships carrying fuel to power hungry Asian giants travel. The port is also important in the light of increase in piracy activities near Somalian coast.
  • Most importantly, the lives of 25 million common Yemenis have taken a turn to worse. Yemen is essentially a failed state with very low human development index, now with fire raining from Saudi air strikes on them, they are literally living in hell. The world needs to give a damn about those 25 million people.

Who is controlling which region in Yemen?

Source: Wikipedia(April 2015)


Who are the Houtis?

Houtis are Yemenis living in the northern provinces of Yemen that border Saudi Arabia. They follow the religion of Zaidism, which is one of the sects of Shia Islam(Shia and Sunni are the two major schisms in Islam formed out of a religiopolitical struggle, just after the death of Prophet Mohammed). The name Houthis comes from a movement started by Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi in the 90s for the revival of Zaidism in Yemen. Though Zaidis are minorities they form a significant chunk of up to 40-45% of population in Yemen. It is alleged that the movement receives support from Iran which is a Shia theocracy. The movement started resisting the destruction of their moderate Islamic culture by the Saudi funded Wahabism(strict Sharia law based Islam) which was converting Zaidis and destroying their unique culture and literature.

After America started its ‘War on terror’, the movement also became anti-America and anti-Israeli. In 2004, the Houthis started an insurgency against the then Yemeni dictator, Saleh who was seen as pro America & Saudi. Soon their leader Houthi was killed , but the insurgency continued taking his family name. It is also known by the name of Ansar Allah(Supporters of God) Presently, the main leader of Houthis is Abdul-Malik al-Houthi.

Houthi flag reads: “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam”

Is the present situation linked to the 2011 Arab crisis?

As in other Arab countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya; in 2011 huge protests for democracy erupted against the dictatorship of Saleh who had been ruling Yemen for more than three decades. The protesters were joined by people from different sections of the society who had other grievances against Saleh’s rule. The Houthis being dead against Saleh, led the protests. The protesters succeeded and he was forced to resign. After mediation by Gulf Cooperation Council between different groups in Yemen, elections were held and Saleh’s ex-vice president Hadi became the president(he was the sole contender-acceptable candidate for the major Yemeni political parties). But the elections did not turn out to be a happy ending, as the Houtis and the South secessionists boycotted the elections- for them Hadi who was a loyalist of Saleh for two decade becoming president did not signal any ‘change’ and accuse the whole election as stage managed by US and Saudi.

Houthis contend that many of the promised political reforms that were promised after the 2011 revolution were not implemented.

Who and why was he toppled by the Houtis?

President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi failed to bring in meaningful political reforms. He could not gain the trust of the Houthis and the southerners. Steadily Houthis expanded their territorial influence capturing Sana the capital of Yemen in sept 2014.

The armed militia demanded constitutional reforms and agreed for a new constitution after the two sides signed a peace deal brokered by UN in January. When Hadi failed to fulfil them and after getting dissatisfied with a draft of the new constitution, Houthis stormed Hadi’s palace and toppled the government.

The Houthis put Hadi, the prime minister and two other ministers under house arrest and in february declared that Hadi was being replaced with a temporary five-member presidential council.

After initially resigning, Hadi later fled to Aden and declared himself the legitimate president of Yemen. But with Houthis expanding in to Aden in South, Hadi took refuge in Riyadh

How did the minority Houtis became so powerful that they could topple Yemeni government?

There are several reasons for this:

  • Pre-occupation of America, which is a supporter of Hadi’s rule, with other issues like ISIS and Iran nuclear deal
  • Iran’s consistent support to the Houthi movement, though they do not acknowledge it
  • Saleh’s loyalists who were sidelined by Hadi and are betting on the return of Saleh to power joined hands with Houthis(enemy’s enemy is a friend)
  • Continuation of American drone strike policy against AQAP in Yemen, which had on many occasions mistargeted civilians has made the Hadi government unpopular and the Houthis who has ‘death for America’ on their flags became popular among many Yemenis
  • Yemen continues to be one of the poorest state in Arab world, it is consistently counted among failed states around the world. The Houthi movement claims that it is fighting for “government accountability, the end to corruption, regular utilities, fair fuel prices, job opportunities for ordinary Yemenis and the end of Western influence”. This socio-economic agenda of the movement attracted many youth in to its fold.
  • Obama’s reluctance for getting militarily involved in internal conflicts of countries around the world(like in Ukraine) might have given the Houthis courage to risk it(though they do not want to acknowledge it!)
  • Now with Saudi led collation’s air strikes being seen in Yemen as a foreign invasion, the Houthi movement is getting more popular support.

Are Houthis terrorists? What is their link with Al-Queda?

The Houthi movement has started as a religious revival movement promoting tolerance and peace. Gradually they transformed in to an armed militia group to defend themselves from Saudi government, extremist Sunnis(AQAP) and the Yemeni government. But are they against America and Israel? They definitely are, but it does not mean that they will blow themselves up when they see an American or a Jew. The Houthis say that they are dead against the governments of USA and Israel, their foreign policies and not necessarily against American/Israeli citizens. Some say they are supported and funded by Iran, so that makes them terrorists. This view is promoted by conservatives in West who see Iran as embodiment of evil. Houthis most definitely take support from Iran but they have genuine political and cultural grievances that the Hadi government could not address, they are not terrorists but are rebels with a cause.

Both President Hadi and the Houthis are opposed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has staged numerous deadly attacks in Yemen. Al-Qaeda is a sunni terrorist organization but unlike ISIS they have not openly aired their opposition to Shias. But the presence of ISIS is growing in Yemen, which considers Zaidis like Houtis as apostates and believes that they deserve death. So yeah, Houthis hate AQ as much as we do.

Is Saudi justified in conducting airstrikes?

Saudi is playing the game that Russia played with Yanukovich in Ukraine. They have given president Hadi asylum and are claiming that they are conducting air strikes on behalf of the legitimately elected government. Saudi princes and sultans claiming that they are fighting for democracy- it doesn’t get any absurd than this.

However, being a close neighbour of Yemen, it is natural that Saudi Arabia wishes for a friendly government in Yemen. But because of their blind animosity for Shia Iran, it is apprehensive of a Shia government in Yemen which leads to a flawed foreign policy. The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is dragging the whole middle east in to chaos and their effects is a danger to the whole world.

Legally, Saudi Arabia’s action in Yemen is not justified. They are unilaterally involving in the internal affairs of a foreign nation. This is essentially an invasion by KSA and its collation partners on Yemen. A legitimate action for Yemen would have been Saudi approaching UN and taking action through it.

Is it a Sunni vs Shia conflict?

Hadi is supported in the predominantly Sunni south of the country by militia known as Popular Resistance Committees and local tribesmen. He is also supported by the Sunni Saudis. Also Shia Iran is supporting the Shia Houtis. With this  limited information we could easily mistake this as a sectarian conflict.

But there is a lot of subtext to the conflict. The crisis is born out of poor governance, debilitating poverty, anger over failed dreams of the youth after the Arab spring, foreign interventions by US, locals defending indigenous culture from Saudi influence, provincial autonomy, secessionist movements etc

Seeing it just as a Sunni vs Shia conflict or labelling Houthis as terrorists, will give us a wrong perspective about the conflict which would then lead to wrong conclusions and ill-thougt actions.

Source for featured photo: STEVE McCURRY


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