What happened in Yemen in 2016

Domestic conflicts

Marie-Christine Heinze

is chairwoman of the board of CARPO - Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient. She has been researching in Yemen since 2008 and completed her doctorate on modern Yemen at Bielefeld University in October 2015. She also advises political and development cooperation institutions on Yemen. Email: [email protected]

A multi-front war has been raging in Yemen since 2015, in which Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened. A political solution is a long way off. With the spread of Covid-19, the country is threatened with another humanitarian catastrophe.

Refugee camp in Amran Province in North Yemen on November 25, 2019: 3.65 million internally displaced persons are cared for in camps. (& copy picture-alliance, AA)

Current conflict situation

Since the beginning of the war in late 2014 / early 2015, the humanitarian situation in Yemen has deteriorated dramatically. With a total population of approx. 29 million, 3.65 million internally displaced persons have to be cared for in camps. 20.1 million people do not have secure access to food, 14.3 million people are acutely threatened by hunger. After the first Covid-19 diseases in Yemen, another humanitarian catastrophe is feared in view of the deteriorating health system, years of hunger and malnutrition among many people and the cholera epidemic that has not yet been overcome.

The main conflicting parties are the Houthi rebels on the one hand and the internationally recognized government and the Southern Transitional Council on the other. In 2014, the Houthis formed an alliance with President Ali Abdallah Salih, who was ousted in 2011. This alliance controlled the capital Sanaa since September 2014. In December 2017, Salih was killed by the Houthis, who have since had sole control of Sanaa and the north of the country. The government under President Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi resigned in January 2015. Since then, he has been in exile in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia). In its endeavors to regain political power in Yemen, the Hadi government is politically and militarily supported by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia (SGK). The coalition consists of several, mainly Sunni states, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The coalition's military intervention is legitimized by UN Security Council resolution 2216, which among other things calls for the withdrawal of the Houthis from all areas, including the capital Sanaa.

The temporary capital Aden, which lies in the south of the country, is currently controlled by the Southern Transitional Council and the security forces allied with it, known in Aden as the "security belt". The South Transitional Council, founded in 2017, claims to represent the interests of all South Yemenis and aims to establish an independent "South Arabia" in the long term. The Southern Transitional Council is supported by the UAE and the Hadi government of Saudi Arabia. The tensions between the Southern Transitional Council and the Hadi government that escalated in August 2019 should actually be resolved with the Riyadh Agreement negotiated in November 2019 under Saudi mediation. But in April 2020 the Southern Transitional Council refused to allow the Hadi government to return to Aden and proclaimed self-government in the South. However, not all South Yemenis recognize the Southern Transitional Council as legitimate political representation. The anti-Houthi coalition is threatened with fragmentation.

To end the Houthi control of the north and their attacks on Saudi territory, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition is bombing Houthi positions, preventing the use of Sanaa airport and making access to al-Hudayda, the country's largest port, difficult on the Red Sea. The coalition's local allies include mainly opposition tribes in the northeast, such as in Ma’rib and al-Jawf, as well as fighters associated with the Islah party (including the Muslim Brotherhood) and the Salafiyya, such as in southwestern Taiz. The deteriorating economic situation in the country, the coalition siege, especially the port of al-Hudayda, and the non-payment of salaries in the public sector have resulted in a dramatic humanitarian situation that is made worse by the outbreak of Covid-19 becomes.

Causes and Background

The war in Yemen is the result of the failed transition process following the upheavals of the "Arab Spring" of 2011. After President Salih's resignation, against whose regime the protests were mainly directed, as agreed in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), his took over in February 2012 Deputy Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi took over the affairs of government as interim president. But the reforms agreed in the GCC initiative were only implemented half-heartedly. A reform of the security sector and a National Dialogue Conference (NDK) should help to overcome the division between the population, politics and the military that has arisen in the course of the protest movement. A new constitution and elections should follow. The reforms suffered from the fact that new political forces, such as the Houthis, the "Youth" [1] who participated in the protests in 2011 and the "Southern Movement", which strives for the independence of the South and from which the Southern Transitional Council emerged, from the transition process remained excluded. Parts of the "Southern Movement" did not take part in the NDK either, because the division of the country they were calling for should not be part of the negotiations.

The development boiled down to the continuation of the rule of the old elites. The interim government under Hadi was formed by the old and new ruling party "General People's Congress" (AVK) and the former opposition party Islah. Ex-President Salih remained chairman of the AVK. The promised reduction of corruption and the improvement of the humanitarian and economic situation remained lip service. As a result, the government rapidly lost trust and legitimacy, and groups critical of the government, such as the Houthis and the Southern Movement, continued to gain popularity as new social forces.

Parallel to the negotiations, strong political factions in the north (e.g. allies of Salih, AVK, Islah, Houthis) tried to enforce their interests by force of arms and to expand the areas they controlled. In September 2014, the Houthi / Salih alliance took the capital Sanaa and forced the transitional government to resign. A new technocratic government under Prime Minister Khaled Bahah was set up, but resigned in January 2015 in protest at the continued interference of the Houthis in government work. The conflict between the interim President Hadi and the government troops on the one hand and forces of the Houthi / Salih alliance on the other had already escalated beforehand.
Shiite Houthi rebels in Sanaa, Yemen, on October 22, 2015. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)
For Saudi Arabia, the ongoing military engagement in Yemen since March 2015 represents an enormous burden. The Saudi government faces massive criticism from the international community (including the United Nations). The reputation of the royal family and in particular of Mohammed bin Salman, the influential crown prince and defense minister, was massively damaged. On the other hand, the intention to defeat the Houthis militarily has not yet been realized. There are still tensions between the two allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which can be attributed primarily to the support of the Emirates for the Southern Transitional Council. The total cost of the military engagement in Yemen since 2015 is estimated at over USD 100 billion. [2] As a result of the "double shock" caused by the falling oil price and the COVID-19 pandemic, the Saudi economy is in an increasingly precarious situation.

It is therefore in the interests of the kingdom to end its involvement in the Yemen conflict as quickly as possible, but while safeguarding its fundamental interests - and those of the Crown Prince. In the struggle for regional influence with rival Iran, Saudi Arabia has to accept that its role in Yemen has increased. The attack on Saudi oil refiners in September 2019 made Riyadh aware of its own vulnerability, which has led to a gradual change in strategy. While the repression of Iranian influence (also in Yemen) has so far been pursued with intransigence and interventionism, a more cautious course is now emerging. I also show this in more active diplomatic efforts to bring about an end to the Yemen conflict.

Against this background, the failure of the Riyadh Agreement is a serious setback. Apparently, Saudi Arabia is increasingly losing influence in Yemen, as it cannot assert itself militarily or politically and is further isolated by the conflicts with the UAE. Riyadh also fears that the influence of militant forces, such as al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), could expand and - as most recently in March 2020 - the rocket attacks from Yemeni territory could continue.

Processing and solution approaches

Since the beginning of the conflict, the UN has been trying in vain to end the military conflict. The peace consultations organized near Stockholm in December 2018 did not lead to the hoped-for breakthrough. In the meantime, a prosperous war economy has developed in Yemen, from which elites on all sides benefit. President Hadi also fears losing his office if negotiations are successful. For their part, the Houthis see themselves as winners and are not prepared to accept the compromises demanded by the Hadi government. But even if a peace agreement should be reached, the situation cannot be expected to bring about a quick pacification, because many other actors fighting at the local level, including AQAP, will not feel bound by it. Therefore, the international community is currently endeavoring to involve more actors in an expanded peace process.

The West continues to recognize the government-in-exile in Riyadh and President Hadi as the legitimate representatives of Yemen. However, the West is divided when it comes to its position vis-à-vis the Saudi intervention: The USA and Great Britain in particular play an active supporting role (arms deliveries, provision of information, planning) in military operations. On the other hand, the German federal government has expressed "understanding" for the actions of the Saudi-led coalition (and also allows arms deliveries to a lesser extent), but is working primarily at the diplomatic level in cooperation with the UN to end the conflict. This also applies to the European Union as another important actor.
Protesters demand resignation and prosecution of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, December 2011. (& copy AP)

History of the conflict

The roots of the current conflicts lie in the increasingly authoritarian and divisive rule of long-term President Ali Abdallah Salih, who has ruled North Yemen since 1978 and all of Yemen since its unification with the South in 1990. In the north in particular, Salih sowed distrust between the tribes in order to turn them against one another and weaken their ability to act. In addition, he marginalized the Shiite current of the Zaydiyya, which is associated with the traditional system of rule, from which he himself comes. The heartland of the Zaydiyya lies in the province of Sa’da on the border with Saudi Arabia. From the religious elite of the Zaydiyya, the descendants of the prophets known as Hashemites, the imams who ruled in the north emerged until the revolution in the 1960s.

Salih succeeded in marginalizing Zaydiyya, among other things, by allowing Saudi Arabia to promote the spread of Wahhabiyya in Yemen. It was also because of this policy that the Houthis came into being, which formed in opposition to the political and cultural-religious marginalization of the Zaydiyya. From 2004 to 2010, the Houthis in Sa’da province fought a series of six brutal wars with the Salih government. The name of the rebel group goes back to the leading al-Huthi family. But not all Zaydites support the Houthis.

Map of Yemen (& copy Kämmer-Kartographie, Berlin 2012)
The Southern Movement also emerged from systematic economic, political and cultural marginalization under the Salih government after the civil war in 1994, in which the South wanted to regain its independence shortly after the two parts of the country were unified in 1990. The north won this conflict militarily. As a result, Salih fired thousands of South Yemeni military and administrative employees. Important posts in the south were occupied by northern Yemenis; Giving strategically important land to North Yemeni elites and denying the independent history of South Yemen before 1990. The first protests in 2007 were followed by an increasing number of supporters, also because Salih repeatedly countered these protests with violence.


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