Yemen’s war began in 2014 with a clash provoked by fuel subsidies. Today, it’s a conflict that’s devastated the poorest Arab country and become a source of contention between Saudi Arabia and the United States, which support the country’s internationally recognized government against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The journey between those points is the story of a country torn both by internal divisions and the interests of outside parties. Caught in a broader struggle between rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, it’s become the site of one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.

The Situation

Saudi officials, who began a bombing campaign in Yemen in 2015, say they are keen to find a way out of the war, which is costly and damaging to the kingdom’s international reputation. Its main ally in the war, the United Arab Emirates, started exiting the conflict in 2019. And in early 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden announced an end to U.S. support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen. That followed a decision to pause the sale of smart-bomb technology to the kingdom, whose campaign in Yemen has been widely criticized for disproportionately affecting civilians. The Houthis, who’ve been accused of the same, have stepped up their attacks inside Saudi Arabia, which borders Yemen to the north, launching ballistic missiles and explosive-laden drones that the kingdom says are supplied by Iran. Militarily, the Houthis control the capital of Sana’a and other territories in the country’s northwest. East of Sana’a, they are battling government forces for the oil- and gas-rich province of Marib. In the destabilized south, the government has a seat in the city of Aden, but the city is controlled by a southern separatist group. The violence has devastated ordinary Yemenis, who say that between airstrikes, economic collapse and growing starvation, life has become almost unbearable. The United Nations estimates that 233,000 people have died in the war and millions have been displaced. In March, protesters stormed the presidential palace in Aden, demanding delivery of basic services like electricity.

The Background

The conflict has its roots in complaints by the Houthi fighters of marginalization of their community. Houthis are members of the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam to which an estimated 25% of Yemen’s population belongs. After North Yemen and South Yemen were unified in 1990, the Houthis fought several unsuccessful rebellions. In 2011, an Arab Spring revolt forced the country’s ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to step down after three decades in power. Under a U.S.- and Saudi-backed transition accord, President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi replaced him, and UN-supported talks set the stage for a constitutional convention and new elections. The Houthis, however, rejected a federation plan that arose from those discussions. In 2014, the government cut fuel subsidies under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, triggering protests, and the Houthis dislodged Hadi’s government. Yemen had no strong tradition of Shiite-Sunni sectarianism, but outside powers chose sides along those lines, with Shiite-majority Iran aiding the Houthis and Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia supporting Hadi, who fled to Saudi Arabia. Yemen isn’t a major oil producer but its location at a chokepoint for international shipping makes it important for the global energy trade.

The Argument

Saudi officials justify their intervention as necessary to contain aggression by Iran and to protect the kingdom from Houthi attacks as well as the security risk of a failed state on its border. Some analysts say that while the Houthis receive aid and weapons from Iran, they have their own interests and goals, and that the war’s escalation has only pushed them closer to Iran. Under Biden, the U.S. removed its earlier designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization, frustrating Saudi Arabia. U.S. officials acknowledged that the group had been responsible for attacks on civilians and the abduction of Americans but said the revocation was necessary to ensure U.S. policies don’t interfere with the provision of assistance to Yemen.

The Reference Shelf

• The International Crisis Group has extensive coverage of the Yemen crisis.

• A Bloomberg QuickTake on Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince seen as the driving force behind the intervention in Yemen.

• A Congressional Research Service report “Yemen: Civil War and Regional Intervention.”

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