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The Future of Yemen Hangs in the Balance

Updated: Jan 2

International Affairs Analyst

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Over recent years, Yemen, a small country located on the Arabian Peninsula, has been ravaged by a brutal and complex multilateral civil war. With 4.5 million people displaced and two-thirds of the population in dire need of assistance, the United Nations Refugee Agency identified the humanitarian crisis as “the world’s worst” earlier this year. However, recent diplomatic negotiations have fuelled hopes that a resolution could be achieved. The following article will recount the history that led to the civil war, examine the current situation, and analyse the difficulties moving forward.


North-South divide

Yemen was only established as a country in 1990 with the unification of the Yemeni Arab Republic in the north and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south. By coming together, it was hoped that stability, economic development, and socio-political cohesion could be brought to the region. Unfortunately, longstanding internal divisions have undermined these aspirations. Despite their close geographical proximity, northern and southern Yemen have experienced different historical trajectories. For instance, while North Yemen was part of the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, South Yemen was a British colony. Similar divisions existed in the second half of the twentieth century. Neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the United States (US) backed the tribal, conservatively structured northern Yemeni Arab Republic, whilst the southern, socialist-structured People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen was supported by the Soviet Union.

Economic disparities have also been a flashpoint for tensions. Southern Yemen is considerably more developed as a result of its oil reserves (particularly in the Shabwah and Hadramawt regions) and maritime trade access, such as through the strategically located port of Aden. In the years following unification, secessionist movements in the south sought greater autonomy, with the Southern Movement emerging as a significant force advocating for independence. Originating from within the Southern Movement, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a more formalised specific political and military organisation, was established in 2017. The fight for an independent south has been a key factor in the Yemeni civil war, underscoring the significance of these divisions.


Widespread dissatisfaction and instability

The pervasive issues of political corruption, lack of opportunities and high unemployment gave rise to poverty and led to civil war in Yemen. Prevalent discontent amongst the population played into the hands of anti-government groups whose support increased along with their cause for mobilisation. This is illustrated by the rise of the Houthis, an Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim political and military group which rose against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government six times between 2004 and 2010. The Houthis have played a leading role in Yemen’s civil war.

Against a backdrop of economic challenges and demands for political reform, the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings were the catalyst that brought about President Saleh’s eventual resignation. His successor Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi came to power as part of a negotiated settlement facilitated by the Gulf Cooperation Council. Inheriting a difficult situation, Hadi’s failure to implement effective political and economic reforms sealed his fate as Yemen continued on its path to civil war. When Houthi forces seized control of Yemen’s capital Sanaa and overthrew the government in September 2014, Hadi was forced to flee and seek sanctuary in Saudi Arabia.


External actors

The Yemeni civil war has been abetted in no small part by interference from numerous regional and international actors with competing interests. In particular, involvement from Iran and Saudi Arabia has resulted in Yemen becoming another battleground for their regional rivalry. Saudi Arabia’s military intervention was prompted by the growing threat posed along its shared southern border with Yemen. Iran’s involvement largely stemmed from the strategic value of undermining Saudi Arabia’s efforts as part of their broader campaign to counter Saudi influence in the region. Saudi Arabia intervened in March 2015 as part of a coalition of Sunni-majority Arab states including Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Coalition forces sought to restore Hadi’s government and push back Houthi rebels. Their strategy consisted of targeted airstrikes, deploying ground troops, and implementing a naval blockade to prevent weapons and supplies from reaching Houthi-controlled areas. Despite denial from Tehran, evidence has corroborated Iran’s supplying of military equipment and financial aid to the Houthis. This proxy war dynamic has had an inflammatory effect on the conflict.

Adding another layer to an already complex situation has been the role played by Islamist terrorist groups. According to the Congressional Research Service, Hezbollah has provided weapons and training to Houthi militants. In addition, Al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia have captured territory in the south and east. Islamic State, albeit to a lesser extent, has also established a presence and carried out attacks. Causing further destabilisation, these groups have clashed with forces fighting on all sides as well as each other. Similar to the Syrian Civil War, the fact that Islamist militant groups are exploiting the chaos and gaining a foothold reflects the extent of Yemen’s instability. The presence of terrorist groups has also maintained the involvement of the US, which has continued counterterrorism operations as a result. The US maintains a strategic interest in protecting the free flow of shipping (particularly oil) through the maritime chokepoint that is the Bab al-Mandab Strait. The US has sold arms supplies and provided logistical support to the Saudi-led coalition fighting against the Houthi rebels.

Yemen has recently returned to the headlines because of several Houthi attacks following Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Although they were mostly intercepted, in October, the Houthis fired missiles at Israel in a show of solidarity with Hamas. Once it became evident that this approach was failing to have the desired impact, the Houthis changed their strategy; rather than attempting to directly attack Israel, the Houthis began targeting Israeli-linked trade ships transiting through the Bab al-Mandab Strait with anti-ship drone and cruise missile attacks. However, many of the ships that were attacked had nothing to do with Israel. With several shipping firms refusing to sail through the Red Sea, the additional mileage incurred from sailing around Africa has pushed up oil prices. In response, naval vessels from the US and United Kingdom have increased their presence in the area and shot down several Houthi drones. Should the Houthis continue to threaten the global economy, their actions will risk provoking further anti-Houthi intervention from Western countries and Israel.



In recent years, diplomatic efforts have been made in an attempt to bridge the gap between the internationally recognised Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council. Their recognition of the mutual benefits of presenting a united front against the Houthis led to the signing of the Riyadh Agreement in 2019. Plans were drawn up for a more inclusive government involving members from both parties and the integration of military forces, but the agreement fell short due to implementation delays and political divisions preventing the terms from being realised.

Having fled to Saudi Arabia in March 2015, Hadi returned to Aden in September after Saudi-backed forces recaptured the city. However, he was later placed under house arrest in Riyadh following accusations of corruption. In April 2022, Hadi (who had been in exile since 2014) handed power to a Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) due to pressure from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In the same month, a nationwide truce in Yemen was struck by the United Nations - the ceasefire has largely been held even after the six-month expiration date passed. Then, in March 2023, a Chinese-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran helped to normalise relations between the two, paving the way for a change in their approaches. Political and economic instability in Iran as well as Saudi Arabia’s growing realisation that their anti-Houthi campaign had fallen short of expectations paved the way for improved bilateral relations.

In April of this year, a delegation from Saudi Arabia visited Sanaa to negotiate with the Houthis. Following discussions, the largest exchange of prisoners occurred since the war began, fuelling hopes for de-escalation. While this dialogue represents an improvement, the path towards comprehensive peace remains long and complex. For instance, Saudi-Houthi diplomacy was done in isolation, without the involvement of the PLC and the STC, two key actors whose support is paramount to accomplishing meaningful peace.


What next?

The path to peace is riddled with complexities for Yemen, with both external and internal dynamics requiring resolution. The Tehran-Riyadh détente signifies a positive development for Middle Eastern stability, after all, both countries have their reasons to avoid being dragged back into costly intervention in Yemen. In addition, with the war in Gaza escalating, interest in Yemen may decline as the geopolitical focus shifts. However, the situation remains fragile and the potential for a flashpoint to reignite Saudi-Iranian tensions must be accounted for. Ayham Kamel, the head of Middle East research for the Eurasia Group, points out that “you don’t shift from competition to significant cooperation overnight”. If reduced hostilities between Saudi Arabia and Iran can be maintained, common ground will still have to be established in negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis. Houthi demands include the lifting of restrictions on Sanaa airport and Hodeida seaport, payment of state salaries and compensation for reconstruction costs. With such stern demands, it remains unclear whether their mutual desire to end the conflict will enable the parties to reach an agreement.

Yemen’s problematic internal dynamics arguably represent an even greater obstacle to navigate. The Houthis continue to face significant opposition on multiple fronts. Conflicting and uncompromising objectives between groups make it difficult to envision how intra-Yemen mediation can work. The PLC and the STC will be more willing than Riyadh to continue fighting and will therefore be less receptive to making concessions to the Houthis. Other anti-Houthi groups such as the UAE-backed Giants Brigades, who have repelled the Houthis in the provinces of Shabwah and Marib, will also have to be onside. In addition, so long as Yemen remains divided, terrorist networks will continue to be a disruptive force in the region.

In September of this year, the head of the STC Aidarous al-Zubaidi renewed his call for an independent southern Yemen. Considering that the Houthis desire to preside over a united Yemen, it remains unclear how an agreement can be reached that works for all parties involved. The requirement for significant concessions has led many analysts to be cautious when discussing the potential for diplomacy to bring about permanent peace. As Hans Grundberg, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen aptly warned, “escalation can quickly reverse hard-won gains”.



The war in Yemen is complex, dynamic, and unpredictable. With so many variables at play, it is difficult to envision exactly what the future holds. With a multitude of groups involved, one group alone intent on acting as a spoiler could easily plunge Yemen back into war. The war in Gaza serves as a reminder of how quickly a prolonged conflict can escalate. As a protracted conflict, should a new phase of fighting begin in Yemen, it would likely take years to produce a decisive winner. This raises the stakes of failing to resolve the situation now while the seize fire holds. Although the potential for permanent peace is greater now than it has been since the war’s inception, achieving it would be a multilateral undertaking, with both regional and domestic elements needing to be addressed. Accomplishing this through diplomacy will be a massive undertaking and must be approached with caution. Nevertheless, should these efforts fail, many will surely look back on this as an opportunity missed.


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