Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could be done to avert sectarian violence, to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and to promote reconciliation? The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...

Imagine the following scenario: On a peninsula with seven nation states, one has the highest per capita GDP in the world, and one is so poor that it relies on foreign aid from its wealthy neighbors to survive. The six wealthy states are ruled by family dynasties, and the poor neighbor is a republic, seeking a form of democracy after over three decades of authoritarian rule. All of the states have some level of oil and gas production, but the poor state earns the lowest profits, insufficient to meet its basic needs. In addition to the economic and political disparity, there is sectarian religious diversity. The six wealthy states are mostly part of the large Islamic umbrella known as Sunni, while the poor state has a significant Shi‘i population. All but one of these wealthy states start a bombing campaign against the poor state. The bombing destroys the limited infrastructure of the country, all known military installations, several schools, mosques, and historic sites, as well as many civilian buildings.  Casualties are mounting, and a total shutdown of the economy results. A naval blockade also prevents essential humanitarian aid from reaching the suffering people.

There is no need to imagine this scenario, as it has been Yemen's reality for over six months. The military campaign called Operation Decisive Storm pits Saudi Arabia and most of the GCC states, along with the United States, Britain, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and several other minor players, against the Houthis in Yemen, which possess only moral support from the real target in this proxy war, Shi‘i Iran. How did such a lopsided war come about? Why has Yemen become the new battleground in a Sunni-Shi‘i fault line emerging as an ideological rival to the Cold War mentality that saw Soviet communism versus Western capitalism? What precisely is this sectarian crisis all about?

Yemen’s Historical Context

The modern nation state of the Republic of Yemen was born in May 1990 with the union of the northern Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Today, it has an estimated population of 26 million, with several million people currently displaced and numerous refugees outside the country. In 1962, a republican revolution in the north deposed the millennium-old Zaydi imamate with support from Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser. After the assassination of two of its early presidents, Colonel Ali Abdullah Saleh came to power and remained the de facto ruler until 2011, when he was replaced following Arab Spring protests. The south, especially the major port of Aden, became a British protectorate in 1839, but achieved its independence in 1967 as a socialist regime. Yemen’s geographical diversity, from a hot and dry coastal zone to the highest mountains on the Arabian Peninsula, has helped to impede unified political control of the entire area. Yet it has long been a strategic location, only 19 miles across from Djibouti at the narrow Bab el-Mandeb entrance to the Red Sea, which all ships using the Suez Canal pass through.

Yemen’s culture is as diverse as its ecology, with a dominance of tribes in the north and more of a peasant-landlord base in the south. At the end of the ninth century CE, the Zaydi sect, known as “Fivers,” was introduced in the north, around the city of Sa’dah, and today represents about 40 percent of the population. This brought in a class of Sayyids, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, who provided religious and mediation services to the local tribes in return for their protection. Although this group constitutes a branch of Shi‘i Islam, there are few similarities with the Shi‘a, known as “Twelvers,” who dominate Iran. Most of the rest of the country belongs to the Sunni Shafi‘i school, although a small number of Ismailis, known as “Seveners,” are also found in Yemen. Up until the 1980s little sectarian violence occurred between Zaydis and Shafi‘is, but political rivalry could be found among the broad sects.

The conflict between Yemen and its neighbor Saudi Arabia goes back to the founding of the kingdom, which annexed the southwestern Asir region with affinities to Yemen and Najran in the 1930s. The Saudis supported the royalists defending the Zaydi imamate during the protracted civil war in Yemen’s north, but after reconciliation they began providing aid to the impoverished Yemeni republic in the north. By the 1980s, the Saudis’ Wahhabi or Salafi views had filtered into Yemen, demonstrated by the establishment of a Salafi madrasa in the northern town of Dammaj by the Saudi-trained Yemeni cleric Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi‘i.  President Saleh tolerated the Salafi presence as a balance against political rivals, including Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a Zaydi cleric with Iranian Shi‘i leanings who Saleh ordered killed in 2004. This resulted in a series of internal wars between Saleh and the so-called Houthis, which Qatar provisionally mediated in 2009.

The last three decades have seen the influx of two sects that contribute to the current crisis. One is the Yemeni party known as Islah, modeled after the Muslim Brotherhood in 1990—with Saudi support—as a northern counter to the socialist party in the south. A second is al-Qa‘ida, introduced by several Yemenis returning from service with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, and which resulted in the bombing in 2000 of the USS Cole in Aden’s harbor. By 2003, most of the small number of al-Qa‘ida operatives had been rounded up or killed, but several escaped in 2006 and later formed AQAP (al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula). Despite a vigorous drone campaign by the United States, this terrorist group has evolved into a more localized movement known as Ansar al-Shariah, which has expanded its area of nominal control since the fall of Saleh. Ironically, both Islah and Ansar al-Shariah are targeted by the Houthis, but the former now control most of Yemen’s south.

The Arab Spring and its Aftermath

In anti-regime protests and demonstrations during 2011, activists and youth played a significant role in many Arab countries. Some of them succeeded in ousting their head of state. Among these, Yemen went through a transitional path unique from Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, which also saw a leader toppled. In 2011, Tunisia witnessed the exile of its president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the Egyptian Army announced President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi was murdered after a 42-year rule. These three former leaders are now completely out of the political scene. But in Yemen, though President Saleh stepped down, he remains a powerful political actor as the head of the ruling party, the General People's Congress (GPC). Although street demonstrations have called for change, most of the state institutions and military structures remain as they were under Saleh’s regime.

Despite brokering a transitional government for national reconciliation, the GCC and Western countries were deeply concerned about AQAP, or Ansar al-Shariah, because it is these countries that terrorist groups would target if they gain a broader foothold in Yemen. The central government of Yemen almost stopped functioning in 2011, as it became increasingly divided into pro- and anti-Saleh camps. Ansar al-Shariah took advantage of this disorder and expanded its control in many areas, especially the south, where sentiment against Saleh was strong. Saleh had been a valuable ally of the United States on counterterrorism since 2001 and, until 2011, received much U.S. support for containing terrorist elements in Yemen.

Although it was the youth and ordinary citizens that led the protests against Saleh’s regime, it was the GCC that negotiated the transition for Saleh to step down in November 2011 in return for immunity. Among those countries that experienced the Arab Spring uprisings, Yemen was the only one that had a concrete plan for state rebuilding when the president stepped down. This plan was a result of lengthy negotiations between the ruling and opposition parties and involved a special envoy from the United Nations.

According to the agreement, the coalition government, whose cabinet seats were equally shared by the ruling and opposition parties, would implement a two-year plan to be completed with general elections under a new constitution. This transitional process was to be supervised by Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who had been the vice president under Saleh since the mid-1990s. The transitional government officially kicked off in February 2012, when Hadi was elected as head of state in a single candidate election. Leaving most of the institutions of the Saleh regime in place, the plan was carefully designed to avoid provoking a rapid change that might cause a political vacuum benefiting AQAP or other terrorist groups. The two-year plan was supposed to finish in February 2014, but unfortunately did not, and Yemen today is facing escalated civil strife and a devastating humanitarian crisis.

Operation Decisive Storm and the Houthis

When the original term of the two-year plan came to expire in early 2014, the Hadi government was still concluding a nationwide meeting, the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), to discuss the main framework of a new constitution. Constitution drafting, national votes for it, and general elections under the new constitution were all yet to come. At that point, the transitional government added a one-year extension of the president's tenure, set to expire with a final document of the NDC. The conclusion of the NDC was celebrated, and especially welcomed internationally, but it was necessary for Hadi to remain in office to complete the transitional process. Local reception of the proposed governmental restructuring had critics from all sides, as competing domestic forces demanded more participation in the politics in return for accepting the extension of the presidential term.

The most vocal criticism of the transition process, which was riddled with corruption and economic stagnation, came from the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah. The Houthis represented a combination of local northern tribes and followers of the Zaydi politician and cleric, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, whose assassination in 2004 triggered a series of small wars with Saleh’s military and even a confrontation with the Saudis in 2009. Hussein al-Houthi had lived in Iran and borrowed the anti-American and anti-Israel rhetoric of the regime there; he also admired the founder of Hezbollah. Despite claims by Saleh, there was little direct support from Iran, and the main Houthi objection was local and political. The Houthis, a movement then limited to the north, participated in both the 2011 Arab Spring protests and the NDC negotiation, but they rejected the call for a new six-fold structure of Yemen’s governorates. In September 2014, an alliance of the Houthis and Yemeni military still loyal to Saleh entered Sana'a, gaining support of Yemeni citizens frustrated and dissatisfied with the poor performance of the central government. The indirect takeover of the government was relatively peaceful, although it was clear that there was no strategy to actually form a new government.

In January 2015, a coalition of the Houthis and troops loyal to Saleh took over the presidential palace and residence as well as most ministries. The four-month negotiation ended in failure between Hadi’s government, the Houthis, and Saleh, forcing Hadi to resign. Ironically, the Houthis gave President Hadi political grounds for further extending his tenure even after February 2015, but he was kept under house arrest until he managed to escape in late February to Aden.

In Aden, Hadi reestablished his role as president, and was recognized by Saudi Arabia, the GCC, and the West as the head of the legitimate government. The Houthi-Saleh alliance, with Iran’s moral support and little else, expanded its control into the other major cities, including the southern port of Aden, forcing Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia a month later. Meanwhile, Ansar al-Shariah, the transformation of al-Qa‘ida in Yemen and an archenemy of the Houthis, expanded its control by creating sympathy with those who wanted secession from the north.

Along with its allies, Saudi Arabia launched an air war on March 26 over Yemen at the request of the Hadi government to “protect Yemen and its people from the continued Houthi aggression and to support it in fighting al-Qa‘ida and ISIS,” as Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir announced on March 25. Since that time, the bombs have targeted only the Houthi-Saleh forces, while al-Qa‘ida and ISIS have expanded their control with virtually no resistance. Over six months of bombing has not yet dislodged the Houthi-Saleh alliance from all the areas it controlled at the start of the bombing, with the exception of the recent introduction of Saudi-backed ground troops in Aden. None of the announced ceasefires have been successful, as the bombing has continued virtually nonstop, and all sides remain in stubborn opposition. Critics of the Saudi campaign note that there appears to have been no exit strategy and no clear path to a military victory without a major, and bloody, ground war using outside troops. 

The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has reached the highest stage due to an almost total blockade by air and sea of food and medical supplies. Unofficial estimates place the death toll at over 4,500, with many wounded unable to receive adequate medical treatment. Oxfam estimates that some six million Yemenis are on the brink of starvation, while half of the population is facing a major food crisis in addition to lack of potable water and medical supplies. Several million people have been internally displaced from their homes, especially from Sana‘a and Aden, and the situation is so desperate that some Yemenis have fled to Somalia and Djibouti. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 21.1 million people require some form of humanitarian protection or assistance. This figure represents almost 80 percent of the population.

Concluding Remarks

The scenario imagined at the start of this essay has sadly come to rival the sectarian and terrorist violence that has gripped Iraq and Syria. The situation in Yemen is exacerbated by a combination of local political rivalries and the Saudi proxy war. The political rivalries within Yemen are temporary and at times represent Faustian bargains. Although Saleh waged a brutal war on the Houthis, his quest to retain power drove him to ally with them in their takeover of Sana‘a. Without the support of the military still loyal to Saleh, the Houthis would never have left Sa’dah and would have been a minor player. The Houthi opposition to Islah, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood, would seem to be something that the Saudis, who had branded the Brotherhood a terrorist group, would favor. Similarly, the Houthi pledge to rid Yemen of al-Qa‘ida or Ansar al-Shariah would also seem to have made them allies of the Saudis and the Americans. The current anti-Houthi sentiment in southern Yemen is clearly not due to the popularity of Hadi, but it has allowed Ansar al-Shariah to expand its control, even in the Hadramawt Province.

It is too early to predict a likely outcome of the current civil war in Yemen, although it is obvious that the country will need a massive influx of development and humanitarian aid once the fighting stops. The Saudi bombing campaign has increased anti-Saudi sentiment in the north exponentially. The secessionist call in the south may make it impossible to reestablish a united Yemen. The sectarian overtones of the present conflict have destroyed centuries of tolerance between the Islamic schools in Yemen, fueled in part by the Saudi promotion of Salafism. Indeed, the Houthi movement started as a counter to the anti-Zaydi influence of the Saudis in northern Yemen. Uprooting the extremist Ansar al-Shariah and ISIS will not be easy, nor is it likely that the political insecurity now entrenched in Yemen will be confined to its borders.

The geopolitical implications of the war in Yemen are ominous. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia, with its new king and young defense minister, is promoting a war that has clear political and sectarian overtones. Given their ability to amass the largest military arsenal on the Arabian Peninsula, and their apparently unlimited funds to promote their conservative brand of Islam, the Saudis’ current proxy war against the Houthis will affect the entire Middle East. The Saudi fear of Iran has even made the Saudis, at least indirectly, partners with Israel on this issue. The destruction of Yemen, on the other hand, has emboldened the Sunni enemies of the Saudis, especially the various al-Qa‘ida groups and their affiliates and ISIS. The bombing campaign, supported by the major Western powers, increases the insecurity and sectarian rhetoric that provide a powerful recruitment tool for regional terrorism.

Meanwhile, Yemen now follows Somalia and Syria as a failed state and breeding ground for future conflict. This is unfortunate, since Yemen had a history of bouncing back from external and internal conflict, including the resolution that ended the 1960s civil war in the north, the promising unification of north and south in 1990, the relatively peaceful Arab Spring protests, and the potential of the NDC. There is no single cause to blame, as all sides have contributed to the continuing violence, propaganda, and inability to put aside differences for the good of the people. When the history of Operation Storm is written, it will have to be rewritten as Divisive Storm, one of the most divisive in the history of the country.

Further Reading

Majed al-Madhaji et al., "The Roles of Regional Actors in Yemen and Opportunities for Peace," Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, 2015.

Laurent Bonnefoy, Salafism in Yemen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Giorgio Cafiero and Daniel Wagner, “Saudi Arabia and al-Qaeda Unite in Yemen,” Foreign Policy Journal, September 23, 2015,

Gregory Johnsen, The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qa‘ida, and the Battle for Arabia (London: Oneworld Publications, 2013).

Helen Lackner, ed. Why Yemen Matters (London: Saqi Books, 2014).

Yezid Sayigh, “Crumbling States: Security Sector Reform in Libya and Yemen,” Carnegie Middle East Center, 2015.

Daniel Martin Varisco, “Dancing on the Heads of Snakes in Yemen,” Society 48, 4 (2011): 301-303.

Brian Whitaker, “Yemen and Saudi Arabia: A Historical Review of Relations,” 2015,…;




















空と海を通じた食糧や医薬品の流通がほとんど遮断されている状況において、イエメンの人道状況は最悪を極める。非公式の統計によれば、死者は4000人を超え、これを上回る数の負傷者は適切な治療を受ける環境にない。国際NGOオクスファムは、およそ600万人のイエメン人が飢餓に瀕しており、人口の半分が食糧、水、衣料品の深刻な不足に苦しんでいると報告している。特にサヌアやアデンなど各地で数百万人が家を追われ国内避難民と化し、ソマリアやジブチに避難した者もいる。国連人道問題調整事務所(UN OCHA)によれば、イエメンにおいて2110万人が何らかの支援が必要な状態にある。これはイエメン全人口のおよそ80%に相当する人数である。





今後に見通せる推移を計算するなら、9月は重要なチェックポイントである。国連総会が開催され、並行してさまざまな会合も執り行われる。国際社会はイエメン危機を見て見ぬふりというわけにはいかないだろう。その解決の糸口は、3つの重要文書の中から見えて来よう。ひとつめは、2014年9月にハーディー大統領とホーシー派らが結んだ「平和・国民パートナーシップ合意」と呼ばれる文書である。これは、ホーシー派が首都サヌアを占拠した後、国連が仲介して成立した和平合意である。国連の潘基文事務総長も声明を発して同合意を歓迎した。ふたつめは、安全保障理事会決議 2216(2015)だ。これはサウジ率いる湾岸諸国が原案作りに携わり、強力に後押しして採択された決議である。非常任理事国のヨルダンがGCC諸国の意向を安保理に伝達する役回りを演じた。同国は2015年末に非常任理事国の任期を終えるが、この後任として安保理入りが目されている国家は日本にほかならない。そして、最も重要なみっつめはイエメン新憲法案である。これはインターネット上に全文公開されている。この憲法案こそが数年にわたる移行プロセスの成果にほかならないのであるから、イエメン危機の現実的な解決は―多少の修正はあるにせよ―この新憲法案を土台としたものでなければならない。




【Additional reference in Japanese language】














The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.