Canberra, 4 April 2015

A ten-nation coalition led by Saudi Arabia that also comprises members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) launched airstrikes in Yemen on 25th March. The Saudi ambassador to the United States stated that the operation was aimed at preventing the radical Houthi movement from taking over Yemen. The airstrikes were conducted in response to a plea for help from Yemen’s President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi who was removed to a safe location when his southern stronghold, the port city of Aden, was surrounded by Houthi forces. These events come in the wake of the Houthi movement’s Ansar Allah fighters taking over the international airport in Aden.

The Religious Divide

Yemen is the latest in a long list of conflicts in the Middle-East that have been on-going in the past few decades. These conflicts can all be considered the modern manifestations of a 14-century old schism, based on the religious differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims, which has continually torn the region apart. These religious differences originated after the death of the Prophet Muhammad when the Sunnis believed that the next leader of Islam should be elected from a group considered to be capable of doing the job, whereas the Shias do not recognise the elected leaders and believe that the leadership should have passed to the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abu Talib, the first in a line of Imams believed to be appointed by God himself, through his Prophet Muhammad. For good measure, both Christians and Jews have joined in the fight sporadically. Islam today has about 1.6 billion followers world-wide, of whom around 80 percent are Sunnis and the rest Shias along with a number of smaller denominations, all considered to be blasphemous by the Sunnis.

In the Middle-East the Sunnis are represented by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and their allies while the Shias are championed by Iran, Lebanon and Syria. In this consideration, Iraq is not being included since it ceased to be a viable state after 2003 when the US invaded and destroyed the cohesiveness of the nation. In any case, Iraq’s geographic borders were drawn by the League of Nations in 1920 and does not have any sanctity in the eyes of the various religious and tribal groups now fighting there for hegemony. The extremist religious groups involved in the multi-cornered conflict that currently encompasses erstwhile Iraq and Syria are only concerned with religious borders and not geographic or political ones.

Historical Background

The Republic of Yemen occupies the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula and is the second largest country in the region, sharing a land border only with Saudi Arabia to the north. Its largest city is Sana’a which is also the constitutional capital. Yemen is an ancient country and its history can be traced back to at least the 11th century B.C. if not earlier. [For brevity in analysing the current situation, the ancient, medieval, and the Ottoman Empire history of the country is not being elaborated here.]

Although the division of the nation into two parts—the northern highlands ruled by Imam Yahya Hamidaddin and the southern parts ruled directly by the Ottoman representative—was established as early as 1911, it was only after the departure of the Ottomans and the intervention of the British that a clear political divide between the two parts of Yemen emerged. In the 1930s attempts by the Saudis under Ibn Saud tried to capture the northern parts ruled by the Imam were unsuccessful.  In the south, at the end of a prolonged struggle the British sovereignty over the Aden protectorate was recognised.

In the north, at the death of the ruling Imam Ahmad bin Yahya in 1962, a group of army officers attempted to seize power from the prince who had succeeded to the throne, starting the North Yemen Civil War. Saudi Arabia, Britain and Jordan supported the prince while Egypt provided financial and materiel assistance to the republican officers. After nearly six years of civil war, in 1968, the republicans defeated the monarchists and created the Yemen Arab Republic. On the British leaving Aden, once again after a protracted insurgency, South Yemen became known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.

The two Yemeni nations did not share a cordial relationship, blowing hot and cold, and even fighting a war in 1972. After an Arab League brokered peace deal, which included a declaration that unification would take place sometime in the future, Ali Abdallah Saleh became the President on North Yemen. [For ease of understanding, the two countries will be referred to as North and South Yemen in this narrative.] Sporadic fighting continued between the two countries till in 1986, a full-fledged civil war broke out in South Yemen. In 1990, the two governments reached an agreement for full reunification, merging officially on 22nd May with Saleh as the president. The then president of South Yemen, Ali Salim al-Beidh, became the vice president of the unified country.

The 1991 Gulf War was a watershed moment in the new country’s brief history. President Saleh opposed the US-led intervention. Yemen was a member of the UN Security Council during 1990-91 and voted against the resolution permitting the ‘use of force’ against Iraq. In retaliation, Saudi Arabia expelled over 800,000 Yemenis living in the kingdom, which created immense socio-economic problems in Yemen. By 1993 the coalition was fractured and Vice President al-Beidh withdrew to Aden in protest, refusing to be part of a Government that he declared as being partisan. The result was the commencement of yet another desultory civil war that simmered with the military also functioning along the North-South divide. In 1994, the forces of South Yemen were defeated, although they were being supported by Saudi Arabia, and their leadership went into exile.

President Saleh continued to rule, almost as a dictator, and became the first directly elected president of Yemen in 1999, winning 96.2 per cent of the vote. Although a US naval ship, the USS Cole, was subjected to a suicide attack while in the port of Aden in October 2000, President Saleh assured US President George W. Bush that Yemen was a partner in the ‘War on Terror’ after the September 11 attacks in New York.

By June 2004, Shia insurgency had started to gain ground in Yemen with the dissident cleric Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, head of the Zaidi Shia sect launching an uprising to ‘defend their community against discrimination’. [As an interesting aside, President Saleh also belonged to the same Shia sect.] President Saleh won another term in the elections held in September 2006, but this time gaining only 77.2 per cent of votes. In the meantime the Shia uprising gradually gathered momentum—with suicide bombings becoming increasingly frequent throughout 2007-2009. In 2009, the Yemeni army, now actively assisted by Saudi Arabian forces, launched a crackdown against the Shia insurgents. Tens of thousands of people were displaced and although a ceasefire was brought about in February 2010, fighting continued, with the Zaidis (the fighting element calling itself Ansar Allah) accusing Saudi Arabia of providing support to Salafist groups engaged in suppressing Shias.

In January 2009, the Saudi and Yemeni al-Qaeda branches merged to form Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) with a membership predominated by Saudi nationals. The activities of the AQAP prompted attacks—cruise missiles from fighter aircraft and subsequently missiles from uninhabited aerial vehicles—by the US, primarily targeted at AQAP leadership. There have been civilian casualties, unavoidable collateral damage in these strikes that have generated protests by human-rights groups.

Contemporary Developments

Under the long and autocratic rule of President Saleh, Yemen gradually turned into what can only be described as a kleptocracy. By 2009, it lacked strong State institutions and the government was overwhelmed by the need to balanc a complex mix of tribal, regional, religious, and political interests. Power was shared between three men—the President, Ali Abdulla Saleh; Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar who controlled a majority faction of the army; and Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar a figurehead leader of the Islamist Islah party and Saudi Arabia’s chosen broker for the distribution of its financial largesse. Saudi Arabia relied on its financial clout to keep various tribal chieftains under its control. It is clear that the Saudi financial assistance was intended to directly influence the tribes and to keep them at least partially autonomous and away from Yemeni government influence. With this elaborate network creating an underlying influential layer it was possible for Saudi Arabia to have a ‘proxy’ say in Yemen’s internal affairs.

It was inevitable that Yemen follow the Arab Spring revolutions and by March 2011 pro-democracy uprisings became common, catalysed by a move by Saleh to amend the constitution to facilitate his son inheriting the presidency. President Saleh’s attempts at putting down the uprisings by force drew international condemnation and in November he flew to Riyadh to sign the GCC plan for political transition. The plan legally transferred the office and power of the president to the Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Hadi then won an uncontested election in February 2012 for a two year term and formed a ‘unity’ government that included the opposition.

The interim government conferred immunity on Saleh and about 500 of his associates, which led to thousands of people coming out on to the streets in protest. Although a National Dialogue Conference was launched in March 2012 to reach a consensus on the major issues facing the nation, no progress has so far been made. In January 2014, Hadi’s term was extended by one year by the Conference. During this period AQAP was active in the country, carrying out effective suicide attacks against the government and the army. By early 2012, there was a US military presence in terms of Special Forces in Yemen to respond to AQAP activities. However, the Sana’a government continued to be weak, unable to face challenges from southern separatists, the AQAP and the Shia rebels. The political transition process was effectively held back by sectarian clashes between the Islah party and the Houthis.

Civil War

2014 saw the intensification of the Sunni-Shia conflict with the AQAP continuing its insurgency sporadically. In September 2014, the Houthis took over Sana’a and Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the de-facto leader of the Sunni faction, had to flee the country to Saudi Arabia. President Hadi was forced to accept a ‘unity government’ although the Houthis then refused to participate in the government. Subsequently, in February 2015, they placed the President under house arrest and dissolved the parliament, declaring a Revolutionary Committee under Mohammad Ali al-Houthi as the interim ruling authority in Yemen. This takeover, declared on 6th February was condemned by a number of foreign governments and, more importantly, by the United Nations. On 21st February President Hadi fled from Sana’a to Aden, his hometown and stronghold in the south. He declared Aden as the temporary capital and called for recognition as the constitutional president of Yemen.

Following the Houthi takeover several Western countries have closed their embassies in Sana’a while some Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, have moved their embassies to Aden in a tacit move to legitimise Hadi’s claim. The Houthis in the meantime have continued to move south and now surround Aden. A fallout of the Shia uprising has been that the US counter-terrorism operations have been wound down, with all the Special Forces in-country being evacuated on 22nd March. By this time the Houthi forces had captured the international airport in Aden after fierce fighting. The Houthi forces represent a fundamental change in the balance of power in the Arabian Peninsula, effectively creating an opportunity for Iran to become an influential actor in Yemen, which Saudi Arabia until now had considered their private backyard.

It is interesting to note that the rise of the Houthis was the result of miscalculations, primarily by Saudi Arabia and only indirectly influenced by the actions of the Yemeni government. There are three elements to this development, First, the Saudi attempt at putting down the Arab Spring-related uprisings backfired when Hadi took over as President. For years Saudi Arabia had supported the infighting within the several Yemeni factions in an effort to keep them divided and weak. The Houthis were able to take advantage of this dysfunctional situation and bring sufficient number of tribes under one fold to create the momentum to come out of their northern stronghold in strength.

Second, Riyadh was preoccupied with a number of challenges that arose almost simultaneously—combating AQAP; containing the fallout from the revolutions of the Arab Spring; stemming the security issues associated with the arrival of transnational jihadi groups to the area; and assisting Bahrain in putting down a Shia-led democratic uprising. While engaged in these multifarious efforts Saudi Arabia did not anticipate the rapid rise of Iranian influence in Yemen. The fact that the Zaidis are not a traditional Shia group may also have played a part in their ignoring the factional fight in Yemen.

Third, Saleh returned to Yemen, an event that should have been prevented by Saudi Arabia. Not only did his return and subsequent pardon trigger yet another violent demonstration, he was actively involved in undermining the Hadi government whom he blamed for his own earlier downfall. This exacerbated the simmering fissures that already existed along tribal, political, religious and military lines, making it almost impossible for the interim government to function effectively. The Government was unable to control and even worse incapable of influencing the political developments to stop the Houthi insurgency from rising.

What Now?

The future prospects for Yemen look worrying, to state it mildly. The political and military developments are one side of the coin, while the humanitarian aspect forms the other side. It has been predicted that at least half the people of Yemen already face food insecurity and water crisis, and that the population expected to double within the next 20 years. There are dire predictions that Sana’a will become dry of any usable water by as early as 2017. Oil production that provided 75 per cent of the government revenue has reduced to a trickle because of the civil war and it is once again being predicted that by 2017 oil production will stop making any meaningful contribution towards the national revenue. To cap these domestic woes, Saudi Arabia will suspend its multi-billion dollar aid program to protest the Houthi take over. The stage is set for another humanitarian debacle to unfold.

Foreign Intervention

It was always apparent that the Sunni-led GCC, particularly Saudi Arabia, would not stand by and watch Yemen being taken over by an Iran-supported Shia group. When it became clear that the Houthi forces intended to clear the entire country of Sunni influence, the Saudi-led coalition took action, launching a military campaign called ‘Operation Decisive Storm’. It could be said that GCC has no choice but to take action. However, the unknown in this case is what Iran would do, since the Houthi forces have been fully supported and equipped by Iran from the beginning of their inception.

At the operational level, the Saudi-led intervention seems to be based on a similar concept to the war being fought against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria—an air war to degrade and thereafter, hopefully, defeat the insurgents. However, there is a significant difference—the Saudis have not ruled out a ground offensive unlike the case of the US-led coalition against the IS. Perhaps this difference underlines the higher stakes that Saudi Arabia understands rides on the outcome of this conflict. It cannot afford to fail in Yemen. Essentially the proxy wars of influence that the Saudis have been waging for some time against Iran has now come out in the open. The outcome will decide the future of the monarchy in Saudi Arabia. The US and other major Western nations have voiced support for the military action with the US promising logistical and intelligence support. At the base level the military operation has added another layer of unpredictability and confusion to the Middle-East, which has now become one large war zone.

The Houthi ‘rebels’, initially a simple group from the north, have now become a major military presence and a politically active entity controlling almost the entire country. At the beginning of their campaign against the government in Sana’a the links to Iran was tenuous at best. However, Iranian support has become increasingly apparent and Iranian authorities have openly admitted that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards elite Qods Force has been training Houthi combatants in both Yemen and Iran. On 20th March an Iranian ship docked at a Houthi-controlled port and unloaded 180 tons of weapons and ammunition.

The stage is set for a direct confrontation between the Shia group led by Iran and the Sunnis led by Saudi Arabia. This is the age-old conflict that has come back to haunt the Middle-East. All other past conflicts that have taken place in the region pale into insignificance in front of the brewing war.

A Saudi-Iran Confrontation—The Changing Balance of Power

The sudden arrival of the Houthis into the mainstream political process in Yemen was more the result of the infighting in the political leadership than any premeditated action by the Houthi leadership. The Saudi decision to undermine the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen lest their influence spread to Saudi Arabia also aided the rise of the Houthis. By the time the Houthis decided to oppose the government’s decision to cut fuel subsidies that led to street protests and riots, there was no viable opposition to reign in their organised onslaught. Even some of the military units actively assisted in the Houthi takeover of the capital Sana’a. The takeover of the capital and fleeing of the President were catalysts for evolving a movement that was primarily created to safeguard the Zaidi tradition into becoming an alternative government by consolidating its military and political potential. This transformation made it necessary for the Houthis to involve themselves in security, administration and other State institutions. The trappings of a government were thrust on them, and accepted, even if reluctantly.

The real political agenda of the Houthis is still subject to speculation with their adversaries accusing them of attempting to usher in an Iran-supported Shia ‘revolution’, which is part of Iran’s broader ambition of creating greater geopolitical influence for itself. Ansar Allah, the fighting element of the Houthi movement, can be considered an organisation wedded to the concept of restoring the nation’s security; fighting the AQAP; and defending national sovereignty. In what is a fundamental divergence from other radical and militant groups, Ansar Allah has attempted to publicise documents that prove Saudi bribes to Yemeni politicians for years and the complicity of the high ranking personalities of the previous regime with AQAP and radical Salafists. Ansar Allah remains an enigma in an otherwise predictable landscape of extremist groups! To be unbiased and fair, it must be accepted that the Houthis are not the fundamental cause of sectarian polarisation in Yemen, but a reaction to it.

The situation is ripe for the Saudi-Iran proxy fight to come out in the open. The question is whether or not Iran is reckless enough to intervene openly and with sufficient ferocity to take the Arab intervention to the next level of open conflict with the Saudis and their allies. It is obvious that Iran is measuring its strategic influence in the region. They understand that had it not been for the rapid spread of IS, Bashar al-Assad would not have been permitted to continue in partial power in Syria. His fall would have been a definitive defeat for Iran’s regional policies. The other Iran protégé, the Hezbollah in Lebanon, is not in as strong a position as Iran would have liked it to be.

Within Iraq and Syria where the IS is being fought, Iran already controls territory directly and through its militia agents, and has established its influence through financial and spiritual support. However, Iran is pragmatic enough to accept that a Syria ruled by Assad is not a viable end-state anymore. Further, the emergence of the IS as a strong Sunni force has unnerved Iran. Its long-term calculations seem to have gone somewhat awry in the past few months. The only consolation is that the Saudi calculations in terms of support for Sunni extremist groups have fared even worse. The IS, a Sunni entity, poses a direct threat to Saudi Arabia. However, this does not ease the Iranian situation and it is difficult to miss the extreme sectarian undertone in all Iranian activities. Syria is almost completely controlled by Iran and Bashar al-Assad is only a figurehead

Iran’s enterprise in Yemen must be viewed through this slight constraint within which Iran is currently functioning. Iran controls the activities of the Houthi element through its financial, materiel, and spiritual support. However, the rising power of the Houthis have send out a wake-up call to the GCC nations. The Iranian threat is now staring them in the face. Military action under these circumstances was a foregone conclusion.


The on-going conflicts in the Middle-East are multi-dimensional and the strategic scenario is extremely confusing in terms of alliances and cooperation. Scenario 1: the US backs the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen that is fighting the Iranian-backed Houthis/Ansar Allah; the US is also aligned along with the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria against the IS. Scenario 2: Egypt and the UAE are bombing Turkey and Qatar backed faction in Libya; all four of these nations work together in the Saudi-led coalition against Iran in Yemen. In Syria, the absolute base instincts and nature of all the nations can be seen while they compete nakedly for influence.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have firmly declared that their military operation, aimed at restoring the control of the ‘legitimate’ government of Hadi, is fundamental to the stability of the region. This may indeed be so, when viewed from Saudi Arabia’s and the GCC’s perspective. However, the military intervention in Yemen also demonstrates the abject failure of Saudi Arabia’s decades old initiatives. Saudi Arabia exported the fundamental Wahabi strain of Sunni Islam around the globe through direct and indirect support to terrorist groups. These groups have now morphed into al-Qaeda and the IS, threatening the very existence of the Arab kingdom itself. The turkeys are now coming home to roost. On the other hand, post the 1979 revolution, the Iranian theocracy has also provided unconditional support to the Shia majority nations and to Shia-oriented rulers. Their steadfast approach has culminated in a slightly more reliable support base in comparison to the results achieved by Saudi Arabia. For the Saudis Yemen exemplifies a humiliating culmination of expanding Iranian influence in the Middle-East. They view the events in Yemen as the epitome of diminishing Sunni influence in the region and will not let it take hold. A change in the balance of power is unavoidable.

Ever since King Salman took over the reins of the country, Saudi Arabia has engaged in frantic diplomacy to cement a Sunni coalition that would be willing to carryout military action against Iranian backed Shia encroachment or attempts at further spreading Shia influence. These Sunni powers would also include Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan along with other Arab nations. With the launch of Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudis are giving notice that any further expansion of Iranian influence will not be tolerated. It is also a statement that they will not wait for the US to protect their interests. The military intervention is really not about Yemen or its future, but a counter strategy to push Shia influence away and stop the Sunni Yemenis from joining hands with the AQAP and IS.

The Saudis seem to have decided that it is time for a showdown with Iran. On whether or not Iran will pick up the gauntlet will depend the future of the most impoverished Arab country—Yemen— now unwittingly being forced to become the Arab gladiatorial arena.

[Sanu Kainikara] [2015]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)


  1. Antony Tharakan Reply April 4, 2015 at 15:53

    There is a small town in Tamil Nadu called Shivakasi. The economy and survival of Shivakasi depends on the production of “crackers” or fireworks. In a hypothetical situation – safety, pollution, or whatever – if the Government were to ban these explosives, Shivakasi would implode and starve.

    The tenets of Shivakasi’s micro economics apply to the trillion dollar arms industry of the USA. America needs a good war going all the time or their economy would go into recession, and nobody wants that. Start with the Philippines of the 19th century; the USA has NOT been messing around in other people’s backyards for maybe only ten years.

    Yemen is just another sordid episode in an endless tragedy which the US exploits in lust and greed. The Saudi’s use US made aircraft to bomb Sana’a while the Houthis shoot at these planes with guns – also made in the US.

    Question: Who are the suckers, and who wins?

  2. Once again, a comprehensive analysis. Very interesting scenario.


  1. To Understand Yemen On Goings | Shivrana's Blog - April 8, 2015

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