Before Yemen’s civil war began in 2014, the country had no tradition of sectarianism between its Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities. With outside powers having chosen sides along those lines, the conflict now pits the Middle East’s biggest rivals, Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shiite-dominated Iran, against one another, with consequences for the entire world. Devastating attacks on Saudi oil production facilities in mid-September knocked out roughly 5% of global supply, triggering a record surge in oil prices and prompting the U.S. to threaten to retaliate on behalf of the Saudis.

1. Who struck the Saudi facilities?

Responsibility for the attacks was claimed by the Houthi rebels who in 2014 seized control of Yemen’s capital Sana’a and parts of the country’s north. U.S. officials have said there was no evidence the raids were carried out from Yemen and have instead blamed Iran, which supports the Houthis. Iran denied responsibility.

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2. Who are the Houthis?

The rebels are followers of the prominent Houthi family from the mountains of northern Yemen. They have long complained of marginalization of their community. Houthis are members of the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam to which 42% of Yemen’s population belongs. Houthis fought unsuccessful rebellions in Yemen’s north from 2004 to 2010. After an Arab Spring revolt, a United Nations-supported National Dialogue Conference in 2014 set the stage for a constitutional convention and new elections. But the Houthis rejected a proposed federation plan because their northern strongholds were included in a district with limited resources and no access to the sea. They instead took over the capital.

3. What’s the Saudi role?

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Saudi Arabia intervened in the war in 2015 with the aim of restoring the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, a Sunni, a mission it expected to complete quickly. Saudi leaders say they fear that Houthi control of Yemen gives Iran a foothold in the Arabian peninsula that threatens Saudi interests. Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a larger battle for dominance in the Middle East. Saudi-led bombings in Yemen have drawn criticism for being indiscriminate. A 2018 United Nations report concluded that most civilian casualties in the war were the result of air strikes by the Saudis and its ally the United Arab Emirates, which began stepping back from the conflict this year.

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4. How have the Houthis responded?

Before the strike on the Saudi oil facilities in September, an attack the rebels took credit for, the Houthis had repeatedly fired missiles into Saudi cities, reaching as far as the capital Riyadh. Over the course of the war, their capabilities have improved. Starting in 2018, they began using drones to attack Saudi targets.

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5. What’s Iran’s role?

At the outset of the Saudi intervention in Yemen, many experts said the kingdom was overstating Iranian involvement there -- that while Iran was backing the Houthis, there was no proof it was arming them. Since then, the evidence has grown that Iran’s involvement includes training and armaments, though on a scale much smaller than Iran’s involvement in Syria or Iraq. For example, the Houthis say their offensive drones are home-made, but a United Nations panel of experts concluded that the rebels’ Qatef-1 drone was assembled from components supplied by an outside source and is “virtually identical” to a product made by Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries.

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6. What’s the U.S. role?

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The U.S., a close Saudi ally, supports the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen with weapons, intelligence and logistical help. In April, U.S. President Donald Trump vetoed a resolution passed by Congress demanding the U.S. end its involvement. Trump defended the U.S. role as essential to protect Americans in the region and to fend off Iran’s influence. The Trump administration regards Iran’s government as a “rogue regime” intent on “destabilizing activity and support for terrorist proxies” in the Middle East and has imposed sanctions on the country aimed at depriving it of oil revenue, the lifeblood of its economy. Trump hinted that the U.S. might retaliate for the strike on Saudi facilities, saying the country was “locked and loaded depending on verification” of the culprit.

To contact the reporter on this story: Glen Carey in Washington at gcarey8@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bill Faries at wfaries@bloomberg.net, Lisa Beyer

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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