The Yemen Crisis: Impacts and Prospects

China International Studies, September/October 2015, pp.67-80 | 作者: Dong Manyuan | 时间: 2015-11-25 | 责编: Wang Jiapei
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Dong Manyuan[1]


The Yemen Crisis refers to the regime change and military intervention in Yemen since the “Arab Spring” of 2011. As different nations began their military intervention, the Yemen Crisis has far surpassed a civil war or religious conflict; it has become a strategic battlefield for military powers in the region, and has greatly influenced both Yemeni politics and the regional power structure.


Split of the Arab World


Since the end of January 2011, encouraged by the demonstrations in nations such as Egypt and Tunisia, Yemeni people took to the streets in numerous cities including the capital Sanaa, calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.[2] Although Saleh had announced that he would not be running for office again after his term ended in 2013, he had no choice, under pressure from tribal leaders, the military, the United Stated and Saudi Arabia, but to sign an agreement that handing over his powers to Vice President Abdrabbuh Hadi. On January 21, 2012, a general election was held in Yemen, with Hadi, the only running candidate, elected the new President.

On March 18, 2013, Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference began. On January 25 next year, a document was issued outlining the results of the conference, which extended the transitional period for one more year. In August, however, the Houthi insurgency led to mass demonstrations against the government’s decision to raise fuel prices. The insurgents surrounded Sanaa on September 19, eventually capturing the Presidential Palace and forcing Hadi and Prime Minister Khalid Bahah from office in January 2015. In March, Hadi fled to Aden, declaring that the Houthi takeover was illegitimate and that he remained the constitutional president of Yemen. The Houthi insurgency then attacked Aden, taking over Hadi’s temporary office, forcing Hadi to flee again, this time to Saudi Arabia. At Riyadh, Hadi called for emergency military intervention from Saudi Arabia. On March 26, under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, nations such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, and Morocco launched a series of air strikes against the Houthi forces in areas such as Sanaa, Taiz, and Aden, and enforced a blockade of the Gulf of Aden and numerous Yemeni ports along the Red Sea. This marked the beginning of a new phase of turmoil in Yemen, one characterized by both civil war and foreign military intervention.

The Arab World is now split into three over how to solve the crisis in Yemen: those advocating military intervention, those against military intervention, and those who are standing by.

The nations that took part in the fore-mentioned air strikes are in favor of military intervention. The UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain rallied around their “leader” Saudi Arabia in accordance to the regulations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and actively participated in the air strikes. However, other nations, such as Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, and Morocco, were more passive participants, participating merely as a gesture. Oman, despite being a member of the GCC, even refused to participate in the air strikes, and called for peace talks as soon as possible to resolve the crisis in Yemen.

The countries against military intervention include Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Libya. These nations have called for the respect of each and every Arab nation’s sovereignty, promoting the idea that no matter the size, wealth, and strength of any Arab nation, all nations must be treated the same as “there exists no leadership nation” among them. These countries call for peaceful measures to promote peace talks between all the factions in Yemen, with the aim of realizing a national agreement and the unity of the Yemini people. They believe that foreign military intervention is a form of invasion that apart from causing humanitarian chaos does not serve any positive purpose.

The nations standing by are Algeria, Mauritania, Tunisia, Palestine, Djibouti, and Comoros. These nations have not taken any side in the conflict: they are not supportive of foreign military intervention in Yemen, but are also reluctant to publically go against Saudi Arabia.

Arab nations are divided among themselves on the Yemen Crisis, and this is weakening the general unity and strategic influence of the Arab World. This not only provides powers outside the region an opportunity to pick Arab nations off one by one, but also makes the unity of the Arab people extremely difficult. 


Geopolitical Game


As soon as Saudi Arabia led the military intervention in Yemen, Iran responded swiftly with strong condemnation. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani consecutively expressed their concerns, accusing Saudi Arabia of “leading the invasion of Yemen,” and “acting as a US puppet.” They claimed that the act was “so tainted that it was almost equal to the act of Israeli massacre of the Palestinian people.” Iran predicted that “this disregard of Yemen’s sovereignty will no doubt end in shameful failure.”[3] Saudi Arabia rebutted this with equal ferociousness, accusing Iran of supporting the Houthi insurgency in an attempt to overthrow the Hadi administration, and that Iran was “indirectly attempting to swallow Yemen into its control.” Saudi Arabia has claimed that Operation “Decisive Storm” and Operation “Restoring Hope” are both diplomatic actions in hopes of quelling Iran’s “geopolitical ambitions.” [4]

The geopolitical tussle between Saudi Arabia and Iran is on-going, as each seeks to become the leader of the Islamic world and lead the direction of the Middle East. This struggle for influence has fueled the geopolitical arguments between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and sparked their strategic competition.


1. Scramble for religious legitimacy

Ever since Mohammed died in 632 AD, the division of Shiite and Sunni has come into being. Since Mohammed passed away without choosing a successor, or a Caliph, four Caliphs were appointed after the negotiations of major leaders on the Arabian Peninsula: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali. Those who hold that these four Caliphs are the proper successors of Mohammad are the Sunni Muslims, which constitute between 87 and 90 percent of the world’s Muslim population. Shiite Muslims, who hold that it was Mohammad’s son-in-law and cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, not Abu Bakr, who was his proper successor, constitute 10 percent of the Muslim population.

In modern times, the world’s most influential Sunni Muslim country is Saudi Arabia, and Iran is the most influential among Shiite Muslims. The Saudi royal family worship Allah’s unlimited authority. While considering the Shiite doctrine as heresy, they claim that different factions can seek common ground and put aside differences.

Iran’s policymakers, on the other hand, believe that the will of Allah shall be reflected in Imam (meaning “mentor”), with its former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini as the 12th Imam. Islamic Law was introduced across the country after he initiated the Islamic Revolution, and his teachings and ideas still guide the domestic and foreign policies of Iran. Khomeini held the view that the Sunnis are not legitimate Muslims, and that the Saudi royal family has no right to be the guardian of Mecca and Medina, the two holy lands for Muslims. Therefore, Iran must “export the Islamic Revolution” and “transform the Islamic world,” which is the will of Allah. [5]

Before Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, the contradiction between Saudi Arabia and Iran mainly focused on the above “legitimacy” issue. After 1979, Saudi Arabia decided Iran, which actively exported the Islamic Revolution to Sunni-ruled countries, constituted an “institutional threat.” On November 20, 1979, hundreds of militants, whose leader proclaimed himself Mahdi, occupied the Mecca mosque, claiming he would overthrow the heretical Saudi regime and rescue all Muslims. Saudi security forces regained the mosque after two weeks of fighting, with the Saudi royals saying that it was a typical “formulating of jihad” by the Shiites and Iran. On July 31, 1987, thousands of Iranian pilgrims in the Mecca mosque held Khomeini’s portrait, chanted anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans, and burned the pictures of US President Ronald Reagan. The pilgrims were eventually suppressed by Saudi security forces, with 275 killed and 303 wounded. According to Sunni Muslims, holding the pictures of Khomeini was “blasphemy,” because Sunnis will not tolerate idol worship; so was bringing the portraits of Regan into the mosque. Therefore, the Saudi royal family took all measures to restore order. Khomeini responded with a religious edict, criticizing Saudi Arabia for working for the United States and Israel to suppress “Islamic revolutionaries.” Iran and Saudi Arabia then declared each other as enemy and broke off diplomatic relations. (These were only restored in March 1991).


2. Scramble for sphere of influence

Saudi Arabia tried to undermine Iran’s sphere of influence while Iran tried to extend the “Shiite crescent.” More than half of the Middle East Islamic countries have Shiite Muslims, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen. However, except for Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has a leading role in the country, most countries that have Shiite populations are ruled by Sunnis, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Bahrain is now ruled by Sunni royals, which only constitute a minority of the country’s population. As the most influential Sunni-ruled country, Saudi Arabia has a bottom line: all the Sunni regimes should consolidate their ruling position and cannot let Iranian Shiites seize power. When the “Arab Spring” in 2011 triggered a large power shift to the Shiites in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia accused Iran and at the same time sent out troops with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait to suppress the Shiite movement.

In contrast, Iran’s religious policymakers believe that all “Islamic awakening” [6] in West Asia and North Africa should be supported, as has been the Shiite “awakening” in Bahrain and Yemen. Even the “awakening” of Sunni Muslims, they believe, should be supported. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Sudan’s Islamization movement was supported, so was Hamas in Palestine. Although hitting a bump in Bahrain during the “Arab Spring,” Iran gained significant progress in Yemen. The Houthi forces successfully overthrew the Hadi regime, winning back ground in the geopolitical strategic tussle between Iran and Saudi Arabia.


The Fate of Saudi Intervention


Since March 26, the military intervention led by Saudi Arabia has lasted for more than six months. The major means is air attacks on the Houthi forces and pro-Saleh forces, assisted by sea and land blockades and the cutting off of financial support. Moreover, the United States provides intelligence and logistics support to Saudi Arabia. Despite sea and air advantages and adequate funds to support military action, the military intervention cannot easily achieve its political goals or ease Yemen’s turmoil because of the following reasons:


1. Houthi forces are strong and resilient

The Houthis are the third largest Shiite tribe. Though Shiites only make up 46 percent of Yemen’s population, they played and still play a great role in the country’s politics, economy, society and religion, and they have a tradition of fighting against foreign invasion. For example, the Houthis were one of the three major Shiite forces that fought against the Ottoman Empire’s invasion from the 16th century and finally drove out the Ottoman army in 1635. Following the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Imam Yahya of the Shiites established the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen in what is now northern Yemen. Thus, northern Yemen is under the rule of Shiites. Although the doctrines of Yemeni Shiites, who are known as Zaydis or Fivers, are not the same as the Twelvers in Iran or Alawites in Syria, they all think that Sunni is unorthodox. Thus, Shiites in Yemen, including the Houthis, are closely linked with Iran’s Shiites, Syria’s Alawites and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Three generations of Houthi leaders have all studied in Iran’s Qom Seminary, and are against Wahhabism and Salafism. They advocate establishing an Imam-led Islamic State and uniting Yemen with Zaydi Islam, on which they based the Houthi Movement.

Since 1962, the Houthi family has been devoted to anti-government armed struggle, in violent contest with Yemen’s government army and the Egyptian army that interfered in northern Yemen in mid-1960s. The Houthi Movement is based in Saada and Al-Jawf, with a youth branch called Youthful Believers making up the elite Houthi forces. Hezbollah leader Sheikh Fadlallah and secretary general Hassan Nasrallah lectured at the Youthful Believers’ training camp respectively in 1994 and 1995, making the style and strategy of the Houthi forces similar to that of Hezbollah. 

In 2004, Sheikh Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the second-generation leader of the Houthi Movement, declared an Islamic government in Saada, but he died when commanding the battle against the government army led by then President Saleh. After Badreddin died, the Houthi movement chose his cousin Badr Eddin al-Houthi as spiritual leader and Abdul-Malik Badreddin al-Houthi as political leader to continue guerrilla warfare. When Badr Eddin al-Houthi died of an illness in January 2010, Yahya Badreddin al-Houthi was elected as his successor, and the Yahya-Malik leadership remains to this day.

In February 2010, the Supreme Court of Yemen sentenced Yahya to 15-year imprisonment for endangering national security. In March, Saleh and bin Abdulaziz al Saud, the king of Saudi Arabia, reached an agreement on suppressing the Houthi forces. Yemen’s government army and the Saudi Arabian army attacked Houthi forces converging from the north and south. Houthi forces took advantage of the mountain area in the north to conduct mobile combat, and even sent small but capable forces to shuttle back and forth across the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Houthi forces ambushed the Yemeni and Saudi armies and destroyed their strength, forcing Saudi Arabia to stop its offensive, and the Yemeni government to start peace talks and allow the Houthi family to implement Islamic law in areas it controlled.

From February 2011, when the anti-Saleh street movement broke out across the country and the government had no time to attend to the north, Houthi forces developed the strategy of “stabilizing the north and expanding to the west (meaning the Hajjah Governorate of Yemen)” and expanded their forces. By September 2014, the Houthi forces numbered 100,000. As the Saudi Arabian and Egyptian armies fought against the Houthi forces in 2010 and the 1960s respectively, both countries are clear about the capabilities of theHouthi forces, to this day they are still reluctant to send ground forces into Yemen.


2. The Houthi-Saleh alliance

Since the Yemen Crisis erupted, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Saleh, and between Saleh and the Houthi forces, have both changed. Saleh, once a friend of Saudi Arabia, has becomes its enemy; at the same time, Saleh became a friend of Houthi forces, which was once his enemy. Pro-Saleh forces and Houthi forces have united to fight against the Saudi-led intervention.

An important figure in the Arab world, Saleh became President of North Yemen and commander-in-chief of army in July 1978. He was elected president after the unification of North and South Yemen on October 1, 1994, and was reelected in 1999 and 2006. He was in office for 33 years until he was forced to leave office in November 2011. Saleh proposed protecting the common interests of the Arabian people, and took a strong anti-Israel policy, opposing Egypt and Jordan seeking appeasement with Israel. He was also opposed to the Palestine Liberation Organization led by Yasser Arafat reaching the Oslo Agreement with Israel. He sympathized with Saddam Hussein for dispatching troops to Kuwait, thus he was deeply hated by Europe and the US. When the USS Cole was attacked by Al-Qaeda in the Gulf of Aden in October 2000, European countries and the United States accused Yemen of being a “fertile ground for terrorism,” and put pressure on Saleh, this impaired Yemen’s external image and surrounding environment.

After Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the US, Saleh adjusted his foreign policy, and started to improve relationship with the United States and Saudi Arabia, condemning Al-Qaeda for attacking the United States, suppressing domestic terrorists, and supporting the Arab Peace Initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia. Yemen also increased high-level visits with the US, the UK, France and Germany, and expanded economic and trade ties in exchange for aid. To consolidate his ruling position, Saleh promised to improve the economy and improve people’s livelihoods. As Yemen is one of the least developed countries in the world, Saleh had to turn to Saudi Arabia for help. This fostered cordial relations with Saudi Arabia.

Nonetheless, the US and European countries still regarded Saleh as a dictator and an obstacle to democratization in the Arab world. While Saudi Arabia even planned to let Hadi replace Saleh, because of Saleh’s tough position on the border and island disputes between the two countries.

On the other hand, Saleh was once regarded as a vicious enemy by Houthi forces, as he aligned with Saudi Arabia to suppress Houthi forces in order to maintain his secular rule. However, when Houthi forces forced Hadi, from whom Saleh wanted to reassume power, to leave office, Saleh stated that he supported the Houthi forces leading the Yemeni people against invasion. To stand up to the Saudi-led military intervention, Houthi forces also agreed to ally with Saleh. With Saleh’s support, the 33rd Brigade of the Yemeni Army (based in Attal) and the 22nd Brigade of the Republican Guard Forces (based in Taiz) switched sides, cooperating with the Houthi to attack pro-Hadi forces.


3. Intervention put Yemen in humanitarian crisis

The Saudi air and sea blockades, although posing threats to Houthi forces to some degree, cannot reverse the trend on the battlefield, let alone get the Houthi forces to yield. The Houthi forces have grown accustomed to continued bombardment, become more nimble in their tactics, and regained the initiative on the battlefield. On the other hand, due to inaccurate intelligence, Saudi bombing raids against have caused suffering for Yemeni civilians.

International organizations, including the UN’s Humanitarian Coor-dinator in Yemen, UNICEF, ICRC, WFP, Médecins Sans Frontières, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have all continually issued statements, addressing the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and calling on Saudi Arabia to stop the air strikes and allow humanitarian aid into the country.

On July 15, Stephen O’Brien, Under-Secretary-General for Humani-tarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, released a statement, pointing out that the continued air strikes and conflicts have caused more than 3,500 deaths and 16,000 injuries. Around 1.3 million people have been forced to flee their homes in desperate search for safety and security, and 21 million people require humanitarian assistance, including food, water and medical equipment. Thousands of civilian households, schools and even refugee camps have been destroyed in the flames of war.[7]

The Saudi-led strikes even continued in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, despite UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s call for a ceasefire. The Houthi forces’ proposal of a humanitarian ceasefire for Ramadan was also declined, leading to public anger among Yemeni civilians.

Taking advantage of the situation, the Houthi forces raised the flag of “anti-aggression” and “protecting the people and country,” and gained popular support even from Sunni Muslims. By the end of July, the Houthi forces had not only gained control of the Capital Saana, and Taiz, the third-largest city in Yemen, they also controlled Saada, Amran, Dhamar, Hadramaut, Raymah and Al-Jawf, as well as most of Aden, the second-largest city. The ground situation in Yemen is currently in favor of the Houthi forces.


4. Inadequate coordination of the Saudi-led coalition

Despite participation in the intervention, almost none of the countries in the Saudi-led coalition are willingly involved.

The UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain had to join due to Saudi Arabia’s political power and its leadership in the GCC. Qatar joined the military intervention out of consideration of easing its relations with Saudi Arabia. In fact, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have had serious differences in recent years in terms of the Muslim Brotherhood-ruled Egypt under the Mohamed Morsi regime. Saudi Arabia accused the Qatar broadcaster al Jazeera of leading the unrest in GCC countries, and recalled its ambassador from Qatar along with those from Kuwait and Bahrain. THE House of Thani Qatar’s ruling royal family, after weighing up the pros and cons, finally decided to take part in the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, to take the initiative in showing “good faith” in a detente.

Other countries, including Egypt, Sudan, Jordan and Morocco, rely heavily on Saudi Arabia’s financial aid. Pakistan is also in need of Saudi Arabia’s financial support, and it was only by counting on the parliamentary vote against the fight that the weak administration of Nawaz Sharif had an excuse to avoid military intervention. As a “friendly gesture,” Pakistan sent naval vessels to join the blockade.

However, the efforts of these countries are inadequate to achieve any substantial tactical impacts. To win favor with Saudi Arabia, the coalition countries indicated support for a united Arabian force, but it is not yet been established so far. Currently, the conditions on the battlefield still favor the Houthi and pro-Saleh forces.




The “proxy war” has turned into a Saudi-led military intervention; the Yemen Crisis has ended up as the biggest geopolitical contest on the Arabian Peninsula since the unrest in 2011. The situation in Yemen has an important influence on the Middle East landscape.

Yemen is in the grip of its most severe crisis in years, as competing forces, especially Saudi Arabia and Iran, fight for control of the country. The “tussle for power” between the two countries has intensified the conflicts between Iran and some Arab countries, which is working against the restoration of unity and overall solidarity of the Islamic world.

Under the background of globalization’s gathering momentum, this third division within the Arab world could undermine its strategic impact in the world. It could also provide opportunities for the US and Israel to realize the tactic of “divide and conquer” among Arab countries.

The Saudi-led military intervention has become intertwined with the crises in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Palestine, complicating the situation in West Asia and North Africa, adding to the turmoil in the region. The civil war in Yemen has also undermined the country’s economic development, not only widening the gap between regional countries and developed economies, but also making it lag behind other emerging economies. And from a strategic point of view, the turmoil in Yemen has hindered the development of emerging economies as a whole.

With regard the future of the ongoing Yemen Crisis, the following scenarios are possible. First, although Saudi Arabia is economically capable of supporting the financial costs of military action for a period of time, the air strikes are not sustainable, since they will never achieve their political purposes. The involved parties eventually start negotiations with the Houthi forces mediated by the UN or other “stakeholders.”

Second, the Houthi forces do not say no to the negotiations. Currently the situation on the ground is in favor of the Houthis and the public opinion leans toward peace talks, which would very likely comply with the co-governance of Yemen proposed by Saleh. Thus Hadi would not return to the saddle, and Yemen would finally have a chance of fair general elections.

Third, Hadi does not accept a reelection nor a future role without real power in the new governmental structure. Most possibly, he would continue to ask the support of Saudi Arabia for his role as the head of Yemen. Under the circumstances, Saudi Arabia would show support to the reinstatement of Hadi as President, and if denied, it might continue the “proxy war” and the sea blockade as well as economic sanctions. If the situation were to turn out like this, the Houthi-Saleh alliance might organize elections of its own. Yemen would become a war between Houthi-Saleh alliance and pro-Hadi forces.

Fourth, since the beginning of the Saudi-led military intervention, al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State have expanded the territory they control, including Abyan, Hadramaut and the port city of Mukalla. If the situation in Yemen became a civil war, the pro-Hadi forces might join with AQAP and ISIS, since they already view the Houthi forces as the target of “Islamic jihadism” and have fought against them many times on the battlefield.

All in all, considering the domestic and foreign conditions, despite a long way to go for Yemen toward peace, stability, development and a better livelihood for the people, the international community should persist with efforts to promote peace talks, so that the Yemeni people can enjoy peace and stability.



Source: China International Studies, September/October 2015, pp.67-80.


[1]   Dong Manyuan is Vice President of China Institute of International Studies.

[2]    Nada Bakri and J. David Goodman, “Thousands in Yemen Protest against the Government,” The New York Times, January 27, 2011,; “Yemen protests: ‘People are fed up with corruption’,” BBC, January 27, 2011,

[3]“Iran Condemns Saudi Arabia’s Air Strikes in Yemen,” March 26, 2015,; “Iran’s Khamenei Accuses Saudi Arabia of Genocide in Yemen,” April 9, 2015,


[4]“Saudi Arabia rejects Iran’s calls for ceasefire in Yemen conflict,” April 12, 2015,; “Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of making threats to neighbors,”


[5] “Ayatollah Khomeini (1900–1989),” BBC,


[6]Meris Lutz, “Iran’s supreme leader calls Arab uprisings an ‘Islamic awakening’,” Los Angeles Times, February 4, 2011,; “Iranian Calls for ‘Islamic Awakening’ to Destroy Israel,” Arutz Sheva, May 17, 2012,


[7] “Humanitarian crisis in Yemen alarming: opposition activist,”