Rethinking the conflict in Yemen

As the war in Yemen continues into its fourth year, the Saudi-led Arab coalition is facing severe criticism, even from critics who initially supported the military intervention.

An understanding of the conflict must begin with the issues that led to the war in the first place. The problem with much of the literature on the war in Yemen is twofold.

First, critics of the military intervention in Yemen do not account for the security ramifications of the rise of a Houthi militia state in Yemen, which are similar to those of the earlier rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Instead, critics simplistically frame the Yemen conflict as a sectarian war.

Second, by focusing on the day-to-day war events, critics overlook the long and costly road that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) followed to try to avoid the war.

To understand the war in Yemen and its implications for regional security, one must consider it as part of an evolving historical and regional security dynamic rather than as just a sectarian conflict.

Historical background

Since the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen to form the present-day Arab Republic of Yemen, stabilizing Yemen has been a Saudi priority for several reasons. In addition to the long border the two countries share, Saudi Arabia and Yemen share historical, social, and strategic bonds.

Despite the ups and downs in its relations with the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, Saudi Arabia set up a generous foreign aid program and opened its borders to Yemeni expatriates for many years.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia supported Yemeni accession to the GCC. By 2000, Yemen was allowed to join the GCC’s Ministers’ Councils for education, health, labor, and sport as a prelude to full accession.

With the rise of international terrorism in the late 1990s, Yemen emerged as a major security concern for the international community. From Yemen, Al-Qaeda launched its early attacks, such as the attack on the USS Cole in Aden in 2000.

After Saudi Arabia drove out al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from the kingdom in 2005, the group relocated to Yemen to join forces with other members driven out from Afghanistan and other places.

Since then, al-Qaeda in Yemen has launched brutal attacks that have included the attacks in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia in 2006, Detroit, USA in 2009, Saada, Yemen in 2010, and Sharurah, Saudi Arabia in 2014.

The deteriorating security situation in Yemen offered an opportunity for other extremist organizations to emerge. One of these organizations was the Houthi militia, which rebelled against the government to further the autonomy of their province, Saada.

To exploit public sentiment against America’s war on terrorism, the Houthis adopted the Iranian slogan “Death to America.” Supported by Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah, they waged an insurgency that spun off six wars between 2004 and 2010.

Despite the spillover of the fight into Saudi territories, Saudi Arabia did not intervene into Yemeni affairs. Instead, it beefed up its border security and increased its security cooperation with and foreign aid to the Yemeni government to stabilize it against terrorist and outlaw groups.

The long road to war

The failure of the Saleh government to manage the situation in Yemen led to a regime-change uprising against Saleh during the Arab Spring in 2011. Instead of siding with their historical partner Saleh, the neighboring states of the GCC pushed for a peaceful transition of power.

Their efforts culminated in the GCC Initiative, which was designed to achieve a peaceful political settlement and keep Yemen from slipping into full-scale war. The international community, including the UN, the United States, and the European Union, supported the initiative.

Eventually, Saleh stepped down and signed the agreement in Riyadh in November 2011. The Yemeni people then elected Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi in a UN-monitored election.

The international community then went further to support the political and economic transition in Yemen. The “Friends of Yemen,” a group of more than 30 countries co-chaired by the UK and Saudi Arabia, met in Riyadh in May 2012, where they pledged a total of $6.396 billion, $3.25 billion of which was pledged by Saudi Arabia.

Although the generous diplomatic and financial support of the international community put Yemen on a road to order and stability, the situation took on a new dynamic.

The Houthis, who had fought six wars against Saleh and taken part in the uprising against him, allied themselves with his forces instead of siding with the elected government.

Aided by Saleh’s military forces and Iran’s supply of weaponry, the Houthis ended up taking over the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, putting President Hadi and members of his cabinet under house arrest in February 2015. The Houthis did not stop there; they started setting up ballistic missile sites on the Yemeni-Saudi border in range of Saudi cities and oil installations.

The UN reacted by adopting Resolution 2216, which urged the Houthis to “end the use of violence… withdraw their forces from all areas they have seized… refrain from any provocation or threats to neighboring states.”

In addition, the UN imposed an asset freeze, arms embargo, and travel ban on Saleh and Houthi commanders. When the Houthis ignored the demands of the international community, President Hadi, who had escaped to Aden, wrote a letter to the leaders of the GCC asking them “to provide instant support by all necessary means, including military intervention, to protect Yemen and its people from continuous Houthi aggression.”

An Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia answered President Hadi’s call by launching Operation Decisive Storm on March 26, 2015. The coalition consisted of the GCC members (except Oman), Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, and Morocco, and was supported by the Arab League, The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the US, the UK, and France.

War in perspective

The long road to the war in Yemen indicates that Operation Decisive Storm was a last resort in a long history of diplomatic, economic, and security efforts by the GCC states to stabilize Yemen.

It was neither a sectarian reaction, as its critics wanted to frame it, nor a full-scale war to conquer Yemen, as some of its proponents had mistakenly expected. It was a surgical operation with the use of minimum force to roll back the situation to normalcy, where the legitimate government could be restored, the threatening ballistic missile sites destroyed, and the people of Yemen rescued from a humanitarian catastrophe.

Thereafter, Operation Storm of Resolve began with a 25-day air campaign to take out the ballistic missile sites. This was followed by Operation Restore Hope, which integrates three dimensions: military, political, and humanitarian relief. These state-building efforts are directed to enhance the capabilities of the legitimate state and to address humanitarian needs, many of which pre-date the war.

The asymmetrical nature of the war in Yemen, in which the militants blend in with the population, makes it difficult for the coalition conventional forces to avoid collateral damage and civilian casualties. In one tragic incident, the coalition wrongly targeted a funeral in Sanaa.

After investigating the incident, the coalition admitted that they made a mistake owing to incorrect information. As a result, the coalition established an independent Joint Incidents Assessment Team, updated their rules of engagement, and offered compensation for the families of the victims.

Meanwhile, Houthis continue their indiscriminate attacks against civilians in Yemen and Saudi Arabia with impunity.


The causes of the war in Yemen in particular and the post Arab-spring conflicts in general are complex. Framing these conflicts as one sectarian conflict is overly simplistic and misleading.

If they have something in common, it is not sectarianism, but rather the looming threat of the rise of the authority of militias over the legitimacy of the state. Revolutionary militias and terrorist organizations such as ISIS, the Houthis, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah have been using sectarianism as a tool to dismantle and control their states.

Alarmed by the threat, GCC states have joined regional and international coalitions to fight militants disregarding their sectarian affiliations. The fight against militia states and their supporters in the region is critical to international security.

Therefore, the international community has a responsibility to act collectively and intervene to protect states from falling into the hands of militants and terrorist organizations.


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