A Brief History of the Yemen Conflict

Author: Alison McIntyre

*All views are those of the writers and contributors of this blog

When the Arab Spring swept across North Africa and the Middle East in 2011, Yemen was ready for change. High levels of unemployment and dissatisfaction with the then president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been ruling since the reunification of Yemen in 1990, meant that a change in leadership was imminent. In 2012, the appointment of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi as the new president promised to bring stability to Yemen. Instead he inherited a country weakened by unemployment, food insecurity, jihadist attacks, separatist movements, political corruption and loyalty to the ex-president Saleh (BBC, 2019). In 2014, due to of the weakness of the state and its government, Houthi rebels were able to seize control of the Saada province, the surrounding areas and the country’s capital Sanaa. It was during these violent takeovers by the Houthi rebel group that the Yemeni civil war began(BBC, 2019).

The Houthi movement emerged in Yemen in the 1990s as a revivalist movement propagating the theological traditions of Zaidism, a branch of Shia Islam. By the 2000s, however, it had militarised and focused its actions against the Saleh and then the Hadi government. Yemen’s war is by no means as simple as the anti-government Houthis against the Hadi government. There are many actors, including groups of militia and the armed forces of external countries. International involvement has been the cause of controversy throughout the conflict. Beginning in 2015, Saudi Arabia led an international coalition into military engagement in support of the Hadi government (Independent, 2018). Comprising United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Morocco, Sudan, Jordan and Egypt, the coalition carried out airstrikes on the Houthi rebels and have been repeatedly accused of targeting civilians - a crime of which the Houthi forces have also been accused (Independent, 2018). Furthermore, the United Kingdom, the United States and France have provided logistical and intelligence support to the coalition. For the UK that has meant providing training and weapons to Saudi soldiers (Independent, 2019). While in legal terms trade of arms or intelligence does not make the UK responsible for the civilian casualties in Yemen, it has been opposed by humanitarian organisations and some politicians (Guardian, 2019). Adding to the complexity of armed forces and their sponsors   the Houthis have been supported by Iran throughout the war; actions which western media has interpreted as being a part of Iran’s long running and wide-reaching strategy to expand their influence across the region (BBC, 2019).     

After successful control of Saada province and the city of Sanaa, the Houthis attempted to gain control of the whole country, prolonging the conflict which has entered its fifth year. Ultimately, the years of conflict have lead to the deaths of more than 233,000 Yemenis while 13 million people remain at risk of starvation and death due to a lack of basic services (Independent, 2019) . The military recruitment of children, the use of indiscriminate airstrikes, the impediment to the delivery of international aid alongside other violations of international law by all parties have caused the United Nations to describe the situation in Yemen as the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe (UN, 2018).


Loa Pm