To understand the dynamics in the Middle east, look at Yemen

In Blog by Ben DaganLeave a Comment

A closer look at the war in Yemen helps comprehending the current dynamics of Middle Eastern conflicts and politics.

According to estimates by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the conflict in Yemen has generated 2.50 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 14.4 million food insecure individuals as of February 2016. As of December 2015, the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR registered 267,173 refugees from the country. The human cost of the conflict has been widely ignored in the coverage on Middle Eastern Affairs dubbing it as the forgotten conflict in the region overshadowed by the war in Syria and Iraq and the refugee crisis in Europe.

However, the domestic dimension of the conflict as well as the regional and international implications of the Saudi-led intervention in the poorest Arab nation provide crucial insights into regional strategies of state and non-state actors. Analysing the developments occurring in Yemen helps revealing the interdependentness of local and regional interests which reveals itself in political rhetoric and action.


From the onset of the conflict, domestic struggle for power was matched by outside interference. While outside support for domestic actors has been crucial in the country’s contemporary history, alliances have shifted frequently. Today, former president Saleh aims at reclaiming his position in Yemeni politics after he has been removed from power in the wake of the popular uprising in 2012. His replacement, current president Hadi, became president when Saudi Arabia and the United States helped ousting Saleh to appease civil unrest that came about in the wake of the so called Arab Spring. While the uprising has eroded substantial international and local backing for the former president, he, together with troops of the Yemini army loyal to him, has started coopting the movement Ansar Allah to fight the newly founded government. The interest of Ansar Allah in fighting the newly formed government is motivated by the lack of representation and grievances held by the Zaydi community in the North of Yemen, which have not (in their view) been  properly addressed in the course of the political transition process. However, this does not mean that Ansaar Allah represents the Zaydi community as a whole: Charles Schmitz reported that the movement does not represent the Zaydi elite.

On the other side of the domestic frontline, a diverse set of groups, comprised of the separatist Southern Movement, the Islah party (a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate), the Hadi government’s troops as well as Salafist groups and local tribes, is fighting the advancement of the insurgent coalition. All factions mentioned pursue their own agenda in the civil war, united by their resistance against Houthi advancement and Saleh. However, the scope of each group’s involvement in the civil war is determined by the political opportunity structure it is confronted with. To provide an example, it has been reported by the International Crisis Group that the Southern Movement would fight the Houthi/Saleh advances mostly in defence of the area it claims for an autonomous/independent region. However, according to Anita  Kassem, a local researcher, militias of the Southern Movement have moved beyond its borders into the city of Taiz for security reasons. Additionally, Saudi Arabia is reportedly paying the salaries of the fighters, which induces them to go beyond their territorial claims. The example shows that for actors like the Southern Movement security concerns in line with their political objectives and in concert with outside inducement leads them towards limited action beyond their baseline interest. Therefore, there are only limited ways of instrumentalising local forces in the course of this conflict. Motivating local powers to pursue the interest of an outside power has been observed frequently and poses a much debated challenge. The example shows that the debate on how local groups can provide better ground support for outside forces misses the point of shaping often unstable alliances. Rather, the question arises on how to influence a local actor’s behaviour and finding a better alignment of interests in the course of the conflict. Conclusively, alliances such the one between Assad’s Syria and the Islamic Republic of Iran cooperating to ensure the survival of the regime in Syria is much more efficient given the number of actors and their interest than piecing together a variety of forces pursuing their efforts within the scope of their political interest. 

The same ICG report mentions that a third group is benefitting from the Yemeni civil war, utilizing the power vacuum generated in the country. Both AQAP and the Yemeni takfiri group acting as a Daesh affiliate have made advancements profiting from the lack of governmental structures. Due to the fact that local power brokers such as the Southern movement and other tribes mobilize their forces against the insurgency from the North, Jihadists face limited challenges from local forces. Additonally, these groups are provided with a fertile recruitment ground by framing their efforts countering the Houthis whom they label as unbelievers. Filling the power vacuum created by local unrest has been observed in other countries in the region: while Syria is the easiest example that comes to mind, one should pay attention to the situation in Libya where two competing governments have created a power vacuum in areas like Sirte. There, Daesh had the opportunity to take over the city and to integrate it into the Raqqa based governance structure. Developments in Yemen have led directly counter to the US led efforts aimed at decimating the presence of AQAP in the country through its drone campaigns and special forces operations. A further deadlock in the conflict seems likely since the UN brokered negotiations in 2015 have not spurred any progress to this date. Additionally, various groups and most prominently Ansar Allah and the Southern Movement resist the advancement of takfiri groups in the region. However, as long as all varying parties see a chance of gaining ground in the conflict, no pacification of the current crisis seems feasible allowing AQAP to benefit from the conflict. This is especially true since both sides enjoy some degree of outside support for their efforts, maintaining their prospects in the conflict.     


While the deadlock in peace negotiations indicates failure to reconcile varying interests in the course of the National Dialogue Conference that preceded the violent outbreak, a deepening rift in Yemeni society is observable. This development could have long lasting effects for the country’s future. While Yemen is the poorest Arab country with a highly fragmented political landscape, it has been known as a place where sectarian violence could not flourish in contrast to countries like Lebanon. As William A. Rugh reports, it has been normal for Sunnis and Zaydis to pray at the same mosque. However, with the advancement of the Houthis this has changed and a more sectarian policy in religious affairs on a local level has been reported by BBC Arabic and the activist group Support Yemen. It remains to be seen if the regional trend of sectarian violence will have a lasting foothold within the society.

The sectarian drive is reinforced by the very logic some observers noted in the decision-making process of Saudi Arabia. The Constructivist view claims that the intervention does not only stem from hegemonic interests, but is embedded in the fear of Shiite empowerment that could serve as an example for the Shiite minority in the kingdom. It remains to be seen whether this view holds true as Zaydis do not belong to the same Shiite sect as Saudi Arabian or Iranian (Twelver) Shiites. Still, the rhetoric and monetary support they receive from the Islamic Republic of Iran feeds directly into these fears. At the same time, regime stability and regional hegemony are rational concerns for the monarchy. These concerns become more tangible, the more one looks at the deteriorating security situation in Southern Saudi Arabia.


Saudi Arabian interests have continuously oscillated between keeping its neighbor weak and dependent. The current president is a weak political figure who can not efficiently lead the front against his predecessor while his invitation to  Gulf forces to fight the insurgency legitimises the Saudi-led intervention. Additionally, Saudi Arabia is resented by many Yemenis as it has been perceived as a destabilizing factor which has lead to sympathy for the Houthi/Saleh anti-Saudi stance in the North.

However, in light of the failed transition of power in the aftermath of the events in 2011, Saudi Arabia and its allies seek to support the central government and co-opt outside players fighting the insurgency. With the ascension of King Salman and his son Mohammad (current defense minister), the kingdom reinforced the commitment of the Gulf Corporation Council in the course of the intervention. Also, the kingdom managed to realign its interests with Qatar. However, this realignment should not come as a surprise as Saudi Arabia under its new ruler has developed a more benevolent attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood. SWP’s Matthias Sailer has analyzed in a recent report that Saudi Arabia is co-opting players like the Islah party which spoils once warm relations with Sisi’s Egypt. This change of policy is indicative of a change that could bring Saudi Arabia again closer to other players like Turkey if other political developments, such as in Syria, permit. Still, the motivations for the intervention in Yemen are manifold, depending on interpretive framework. For Saudi Arabia, a destabilization of the country and empowering Ansar Allah is not tolerable due to its hostilities towards the kingdom.

Also, the support of Iran for the movement has been a reasonable source of concern especially since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) has strengthened the Shiite Islamic Republic. The aggressive confrontation between Gulf monarchies and the Iran play out beyond battle fields. Recently, Saudi Arabia canceled its sponsorship of a $3 billion arms deal that should have benefited the Lebanese army. 

Beyond the conflict, the announcement by the Saudi minister of foreign affairs, Adel Al-Jubeir, that the kingdom would participate in a ground invasion in Syria under US leadership shows that the long held perception that Western ground forces fight while regional monarchies pay might have been misguided in the first place, but is definitely to be abandoned in the near future. With US and UK advisers in Saudi command rooms the future cooperation between Western powers and local allies will continue while leaving a lighter footprint in the region. Clearly, the doctrine of leading from behind as announced by president Obama has prompted some allies to reassess their role. However, this shift of burden means that local powers increase their independence in shaping the region’s politics. Whether this approach will keep Western forces able to pursue their interests in fighting terrorism and maintaining security along the sea routes around the coast of Yemen remains to be seen.


Iran’s influence on the Yemen’s civil war has been widely speculated. While spokespeople of Ansar Allah have denied receiving support from the Islamic Republic, various reports indicate that the group has received financial aid and military support. Additionally, Iran ramps up rhetorical support for the insurgency. Still, the mere fact that Iran has supported Ansar Allah does not make the group an Iranian agent. As mentioned before, Zaydi Shiism is not Twelver Shiism and even if it was, it does not automatically make them an ally. During his presidency, Saleh did not hesitate to fight the Houthis and create an alliance with them after his departure from the presidency.  

The political leanings of Ansar Allah serve as a much more convincing foundation for such an argument as the enemy for the Houthis match the enemies declared by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Though, in this specific conflict, it comes down to political opportunities and matching interest. For Ansar Allah outside support, even if only rhetorical, can be critical as the likelihood of success increases for state supported insurgents. Bobby Gosh hit the nail on the head when he said that Iranian engagement is a very low cost way to bind Sunni Gulf forces in a conflict that has the potential to drag on much longer in a country that has proven to be hardly controllable by outside forces. Still, support Iran has reportedly provided fit into the pattern of Iranian involvement with Shiite groups in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. On the other hand, interest based decision making such as the support for Bashar al Assad should make one question the coherence of ethno-religious based arguments as a framework to explain the Islamic Republic’s behaviour. This concept collapses when looking at the relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and parts of the Southern Movement. According to a report by the Carnegie Endowment the faction within the Southern movement allied with former General Secretary of the Yemini Socialist Party Ali Salem al Beidh, received “limited military and financial support” and allowed him to run his propaganda activities from Beirut. However, the Southern Movement’s interest and the support of Saudi Arabia have led the to fight the advancement of Ansar Allah and Saleh forces. Therefore, the volatility of alliances as described holds true for the intervening forces making it questionable whether support for any group in the conflict translates into control of a regional power. This is especially true for Iran, which has a lighter footprint in the country in comparison to its Gulf adversaries.


As the New York Times and others reported, hundreds of Ethiopian and Sudanese soldiers have been deployed in the country on behalf of Saudi Arabia. Additionally, the UAE has deployed 400 Colombian mercenaries on its behalf along with Australian mercenaries. The most prominent mercenary is former Major General Mike Hindmarsh who’s commanding the UAE’s presidential guard. If the use of mercenary forces proves to be efficient in the war effort led by Gulf monarchies, it could serve as a model for future engagements by local players in the region and increase the already high demand for fighters in the region. In any case, the on the ground cooperation between the intervening forces, mercenaries and local fighters should be sufficient for curbing the advancement of the Ansar Allah/Saleh coalition – as has been shown in the liberation of Aden. In the long run, the air campaign and the associated human cost will not lead towards a more favourable attitude towards Gulf countries within the population and internationally. Also, cooperation with a diverse set of forces renders a resolution of local grievances even in case of a military victory unlikely – not accounting for possibly necessary concessions towards Zaydi groups in the north.

The realignment of some countries like Sudan in the regional battle over hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran shows a deepening rift in the region itself. However, countries like Oman and Pakistan stay out of the conflict as the intervention is both costly and shatters the possibility for further free riding in the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the announcement of a new, Saudi led Sunni coalition against terrorism can be seen as an attempt to expand the kingdom’s hegemony in the region. However, this announcement reportedly came as a surprise to some countries.

The conflict in Yemen shows how homegrown challenges and regional interests are intertwined. Gulf monarchies are an active player in regional conflicts on the ground mobilizing both national forces along with capacities acquired from abroad. Still, the source of the conflicts remains to be local and reconciliation is only achievable by balancing the power play and grievances in the country. Whereas, sectarian divides might have a lasting impact on Yemeni society, it must be noted that these divides are imported. At the moment, the biggest profiteers of such destabilisation are terrorist organisations challenging not only regional players but project threats globally. Western countries will have to find a proper balance between the urge to leave a lighter footprint in the region and maintaining influence to curb further security challenges that affect them directly. The ones who are left behind are the people caught up in the military campaigns waged by all players without much prospect for any improvement in a strategically vital spot. A lasting solution, or the pacification of the region seems unlikely to be achieved in the near future.

Featured image (top): Old Sanaa by Rod Waddington (cc) Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

The opinions voiced in this article belong to the author and do not reflect the position of as a whole. Authors bear responsibility for the correctness of their statements, the data provided and the originality of the content.

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About the Author
Ben Dagan

Ben Dagan

Ben holds a Master’s degree in International Security from Sciences Po, Paris School of International Affairs. His research topics include International Relations, Asymmetrical Warfare & Radicalisation as well as the strategic behaviour of state and non-state actors with a focus on the MENA region.

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