Yemen has endured enormous turmoil and conflict over the past decade since the Arab Spring protests of 2011 led to the eventual ousting of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemen’s political crisis rapidly escalated into a violent civil war by 2014, which has raged on with the involvement of numerous internal factions and external powers. The Yemeni conflict is commonly characterized as a proxy war with both regional and international dimensions. This paper examines the complex web of regional and global actors and dynamics that have shaped and prolonged Yemen’s post-2011 crisis.
Regional Dimensions of the Conflict
The civil war in Yemen contains a number of important regional dimensions, most significantly the involvement of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Competition between these Middle Eastern powers has been a major driver of the ongoing conflict. Other regional actors like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, and Oman have also been involved to varying degrees.
Saudi Arabia’s Interventions
Saudi Arabia has intervened extensively in Yemen, launching a major military offensive in 2015 aimed at rolling back Houthi rebel gains and reinstating Yemen’s Saudi-backed government. Saudi Arabia views the Houthis as an Iranian proxy force and thus a threat to its own security. The Kingdom has backed loyalist factions, conducted air strikes targeting the Houthis, and enforced a blockade of Houthi-held areas. However, the Saudi intervention has largely failed to achieve its objectives and has instead exacerbated the conflict. Saudi air strikes have been blamed for thousands of civilian deaths and their blockade has contributed to famine conditions.
Saudi involvement in Yemen long predates the current war, however. Saudi Arabia has a history of backing conservative Sunni partners in Yemen to counter hostile forces seen as proxies of Saudi rival Iran. Saudi Arabia strongly backed President Saleh for decades with financial aid and military assistance. Riyadh also supported development of Salafist groups in Yemen as a bulwark against Marxist and leftist forces during the Cold War. Saudi patronage enabled the growth of Yemeni tribal-Islamist constituencies that would later form key components of the anti-Houthi war coalition like Al-Islah.
The Arab Spring uprising against Saleh disrupted this alliance, as Saudi officials grew concerned about Yemen’s instability. However, Riyadh remained focused on placating Sunni Islamists and containing northern Houthi rebels with ties to Iran. The Saudi-led intervention since 2015 has aimed to restore the pre-Arab Spring status quo in Yemen and re-empower Saudi allies like exiled President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Riyadh perceives the Houthis as the greatest threat to its national interests and regional security.
Iran’s role in Yemen has been the subject of much debate. Saudi Arabia exaggerates Iranian influence in Yemen to justify its military intervention against the Houthis. In reality Iranian support to the Houthis is limited, although Tehran does use the Houthis as a way to project power and counter Saudi influence. Iran initially maintained cordial ties with former President Saleh and had minimal relations with the Houthis, who subscribe to a different sect of Shi’ism. As the Houthis expanded their power, Iran began providing some assistance as a low-cost way to destabilize its Saudi adversary.
However, Iranian aid to the Houthis pales in comparison to Saudi assistance to anti-Houthi factions. Claims of the Houthis being an Iranian “puppet” are overstated, as the Houthis have shown a high degree of self-sufficiency and autonomy. Still, the Houthis importance to Iran has increased given their battlefield resilience against Saudi forces. The perception of Iran’s expanding regional influence through partners like the Houthis has been a prime motivation for Saudi intervention in Yemen. In reality, Iran’s role in the Yemen conflict has largely been reactive and opportunistic rather than the main driver.
The Saudi-Iranian Rivalry
The Yemen crisis is partly rooted in the intense geosectarian rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia views itself as the rightful leader of the Arab and Muslim world, a position challenged by Iran’s ambitions to expand its Islamic revolutionary influence. Yemen has been central to this power struggle. Saudi Arabia strives to keep Yemen within its sphere of influence by backing Sunni allies to check the Houthis, while Iran supports the Houthis to counter Saudi dominance. Control over Yemen also has implications for the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait.
Some optimistically hoped the 2015 Iran nuclear deal could moderate tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, but proxy battles continued raging in Syria and Yemen. The Saudi intervention against the Houthis was partly intended to signal its rejection of rising Iranian influence. US President Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018 and renewed sanctions on Iran further dampened hopes for Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. As long as relations between the regional rivals remain confrontational, Yemen will likely remain an arena for their proxy struggle for power and influence.
The Role of the UAE
The United Arab Emirates has been Saudi Arabia’s main partner in the Yemen intervention, contributing air power and ground forces. But the UAE’s interests and actions in Yemen have also caused friction with Saudi Arabia. The UAE has focused on combatting Al-Qaeda and other extremists in southern Yemen rather than the Houthis in the north. The UAE recruited and backed separatist militias in southern Yemen, helping revive the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC). These UAE-aligned groups have sometimes clashed with Saudi-supported Islamic conservatives like Al-Islah who oppose southern secession.
In August 2019 the STC seized control of the interim capital Aden from Saudi-backed forces, exposing divides between Gulf allies. The UAE announced troop drawdowns in 2019 but remains active in Yemen through local militias and proxy forces. Abu Dhabi’s policy appears aimed at ensuring future influence in Yemen through partners like the STC, rather than restoring Yemen’s unity. The UAE intervention has empowered new factions that further complicate the conflict.
Role of Oman and Kuwait
Oman has been the only Arab Gulf state to maintain relations with the Houthis, owing to its neutral foreign policy. Oman has provided a venue for ceasefire talks and hosted Houthi representatives for consultations, acting as an informal intermediary. Kuwait has also played a mediating role. Kuwait hosted political negotiations in 2016 that helped establish a transitional government but failed to stop the conflict. Divisions among Gulf states over Yemen reflect their divergent security priorities. Oman and Kuwait have promoted diplomatic solutions, but tensions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE remain an obstacle to peace.
Qatar’s Fallout with the Anti-Houthi Coalition
Another complication has been the effects of the intra-Gulf dispute that erupted in 2017 between Qatar and a bloc led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This rift saw Yemen divided into pro and anti-Qatar camps, further fragmenting the anti-Houthi coalition. Qatar had participated symbolically in the Saudi-led intervention, but was expelled from the coalition after Saudi Arabia and others severed ties with Doha. The feuding among Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar has impeded coalition cooperation and benefited the Houthis.
International Dimensions of the Yemen Conflict
The Yemen civil war contains international dimensions as well, most importantly the involvement of the United States and Britain in supporting Saudi Arabia. Competition for influence between Western powers and Russia has also impacted the conflict.
US Support for Saudi Campaign
The United States has provided extensive military, intelligence and logistics support to Saudi Arabia throughout its Yemen campaign. This includes arms sales, training, targeting assistance, and in-air refueling for Saudi warplanes. The US has also deployed special forces to Yemen to fight Al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates. The US justifies its involvement as necessary to reassure Gulf allies and aid their counterterrorism efforts in Yemen. However, human rights groups have harshly criticized US support to the Saudi coalition given its responsibility for civilian casualties. Some argue that enabling Saudi intervention in Yemen perpetuates conflict rather than moving towards a settlement.
In 2019 the US Congress passed resolutions withdrawing US support for the Saudi military campaign, citing the humanitarian disaster. But the Trump administration vetoed the resolutions and continued arms sales and military assistance. President Biden announced in 2021 the US would end offensive support for Saudi military operations and withdraw backing for offensive operations against the Houthis. But the US still considers Saudi Arabia an important strategic partner, limiting how far it will go in censuring Riyadh’s policies in Yemen.
Britain’s Arms Sales and Assistance
Britain has also provided significant support for Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen. Like the US, the UK has supplied advanced arms and munitions to the Saudi military. British personnel have been deployed to Saudi Arabia to provide targeting training for air operations in Yemen. And UK officials have lobbied internationally against condemnations of Saudi conduct in Yemen. The British government insists its training helps the Saudi military improve targeting and avoid civilian casualties. But human rights groups contend that British arms and assistance make the UK complicit in unlawful Saudi air strikes.
The UK Parliament has tried to halt arms sales to Riyadh, but successive UK governments have resisted citing Saudi ties as vital to national interests. Britain also justifies its support as necessary to combat terrorist groups in Yemen that could threaten the West. While the UK has pressed for diplomatic solutions, its military aid to Riyadh undermines these efforts. The UK remains reluctant to jeopardize its extensive security partnership with the Gulf.
China’s Balancing Act
China has sought to expand its economic and strategic interests in the Middle East, including through ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Yemen crisis has forced China to carefully balance these competing relationships. China condemned the initial Saudi intervention in Yemen, and has urged political compromise since. As Saudi Arabia’s ties with the West have frayed over Yemen and human rights issues, China has cultivated closer economic links with the Kingdom. But China also continues pursuing long-term investment and oil agreements with Iran. The Yemen war puts China’s regional ties in a delicate balance as Beijing treads cautiously between Saudi and Iranian interests.
Russia’s Growing Regional Role
Moscow has postured as a peace broker in Yemen while expanding military cooperation with Gulf powers. Russia has engaged with Yemeni factions and hosted peace consultations to raise its regional profile. Seeking greater leverage, Russia has also strengthened ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, expressing interest in Gulf security. Russia sold sophisticated S-400 air defense missiles to Saudi Arabia in 2017. Moscow likely calculates that prolonging instability in Yemen can distract the US while Russia expands influence in the Middle East. Russia’s balancing act aims to curry favor in the Gulf while stymying Saudi-US ties.
The Yemen crisis emerged from an internal power struggle during the Arab Spring, but was dramatically exacerbated by interventions of regional and international actors. Competition for influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran, especially their promotion of sectarian proxies, has fueled the conflict’s escalation. Interventions by Saudi coalition partners like the UAE have empowered separatists, further splintering the anti-Houthi bloc. Global powers like the United States and Britain have backed the Saudi military campaign despite its disastrous consequences for Yemeni civilians. Russia has opportunistically postured as a peace broker while courting rivals on both sides. The Yemen conflict has come to epitomize the modern Middle East’s complex intersecting rivalries. The multiplicity of regional and international actors involved provides opportunities to move towards peace, but has so far had the opposite effect of prolonging Yemen’s misery. Until key domestic and external parties reconcile their divisions and unify around a power-sharing settlement, peace will remain elusive. Yemen’s future depends on cooperation from both regional and global powers to resolve rather than exploit the country’s divisions.
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