Country Profile


Situation Report

A variety of local conflicts and grievances with central government throughout Yemen are being increasingly framed in religious and sectarian terms, particularly since the 2011 youth uprisings toppled a 30-year old regime, writes Thanos Petouris of the School of Oriental and African Studies.


The Republic of Yemen emerged in 1990 as a by-product of the end of the Cold War and the unification of the northern Yemen Arab Republic and the southern People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Although it is nominally a multi-party parliamentary democracy, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC) has dominated the politics of Yemen since unification. This allowed him to consolidate his authoritarian rule, alienating in the process key partners of his regime. In 2011, as Saleh reached his thirty-third year in power, divisions within the regime came to the fore as a youth uprising gripped Yemen in the wake of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Throughout that year, young, educated, middle class Yemenis succeeded in forging a broad civic revolutionary movement bringing together activists, women, tribes-people and a cross-section of supporters of the country's political parties to pressure Saleh to resign. For a comprehensive account of the youth uprising in Yemen see: Carapico, Sheila (2014). "Yemen Between Revolution and Counter-Terrorism", in Helen Lackner (ed.) Why Yemen Matters: A Society in Transition, pp. 29-49. London: Saqi Books.

After high-ranking members of the regime joined the revolutionaries' ranks, and having escaped an assassination attempt that left him hospitalised in Saudi Arabia over the summer of 2011, president Saleh agreed in November of that year to step down in February 2012. Juneau, Thomas (2013). "Yemen and the Arab Spring: Elite Struggle, State Collapse and Regional Security". Orbis 57:3, pp. 408-423. Saleh's resignation was the result of months of protracted brinkmanship within the Yemeni political elite with mediation from Western and Gulf governments. The results of these negotiations were enshrined in what became known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreement. The full text of the agreement can be found here: This allowed for the then vice-president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to assume power after an election where he was the only candidate. More importantly it initiated a two-year political transition process intended to lead the country to a new constitutional and political settlement. However, by the summer of 2014 the most tangible results of the transitional process were the conclusion of the year long National Dialogue Conference and the commencement of a constitution drafting exercise, aiming to put in place a federal system dividing the country into six distinct federal regions. al-Sakkaf, Nadia (2014)."Yemen Celebrates New Map of Six Regions". Yemen Times (

The meagre achievements of the "Yemeni Model", which has nevertheless won even President Obama's praise, have been further compromised by the rapid ascendancy of the Houthi Movement. The Houthi's takeover of government institutions and effective control of the capital Sana'a has brought about the de facto breakdown of the GCC plan and ushered in an entirely new balance of power in the politics of the country. Philbrick Yadav, Stacey and Carapico, Sheila (2014). "The Breakdown of the GCC Initiative". Middle East Report No 273, pp. 2-6. This was best exemplified by the concurrent resignation of both President Hadi and the technocratic government of Prime Minister Khalid Ba Hah on 22 January 2015 in protest for what they termed a Houthi coup. A month later, President Hadi re-emerged in Aden as the legitimate president of the country, having escaped from his Houthi enforced home confinement. Baron, Adam (2015). "Crisis in Yemen: Hadi's Great Escape". European Council on Foreign Relations. ( With two poles of power forming in both major cities of the country, the potential for widespread armed conflict in the event of President Hadi attempting to re-establish his authority and governmental control becomes extremely likely.

Religion in Yemen

In terms of religion, the 1990 unification brought about significant changes in the demographic make up of the new country, joining the Zaydi Shi'a population of north Yemen with the Shafi'i Sunni population of the south. However, owing to centuries of peaceful co-existence and to the fact that the Zaydi sect is much closer in its religious practices to Sunni Islam than to its Shi'a heritage, the unification of the country did not per se cause friction between the two communities. Today, Yemeni followers of these two Islamic schools are practically indistinguishable from one another, but their presence in the country remains largely geographically determined. The Zaydis are concentrated in the areas of the north, in the cities of Sa'dah and Sana'a, and inhabit the north-western highlands. The Shafi'is, which are numerically superior, occupy the central lowlands, around the cities of Ta'izz and Ibb, and the coastal plains of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden into the eastern governorate of Hadhramaut. Dresch, Paul (2000). A History of Modern Yemen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Islamist groups have been used by the regime to bolster its ability to constrain rival political actors.

Under President Saleh, the relationship between Islamism and the state in Yemen has been characterised by co-optation rather than confrontation or direct repression. Different Islamist groups have been used by the regime to bolster its ability to constrain rival political actors and institutions that have the potential to undermine its authority. The so-called Afghan Arabs, radical fighters who returned to Yemen after participating on the side of local mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan conflict, and the Salafi proponents who set up seminaries in northern Yemen are notable examples. This has inevitably led to conflicts that, while seeming to be driven by sectarianism, are in essence the manifestation of mostly localised yet deeply rooted political and social grievances against the regime. As such, one can distinguish the six rounds of the so-called Houthi wars, an armed insurgency in the northern governorates of Sa'dah, Amran and al-Jawf between 2004-2010, from the continued threat posed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the south-central areas of Marib, Abyan and Shabwa. However, although both conflicts are antithetical in their nature and scope, they both represent the perennial inability of the regime to establish effective state control over the whole country. This inability not only allows for the active involvement of local and regional actors, but has seen successive economic and humanitarian crises plaguing the country over the last decade, further fuelling these conflicts. 

Political Islam

The history of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, or al-Islah party, epitomises the development of political Islam in Yemen and its evolving relationship with the regime. Hamzawi, Amr (2009). Between Government and Opposition: The Case of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform. Carnegie Middle East Centre No 18. Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ( Islah was founded after the unification of the country with the tacit support of the ruling GPC party and entered Yemeni politics as its junior partner in government, remaining in that position until 1997. Its main role was to counterbalance the influence of the southern Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) and ensure that the Marxist ideology of the former PDRY did not influence the new polity. It is an umbrella group encompassing conservative tribal and business leaders, radical Salafi activists and the more moderate Yemeni contingent of the Muslim Brotherhood. cf. Philbrick Yadav, Stacey (2013). Islamists and the State: Legitimacy and Institutions in Yemen and Lebanon. London: I. B. Tauris, pp. 20-64.

The emergence of Islah can therefore be viewed as a response to the new political environment of a united Yemen. Religion provided this loose political coalition with a common language in the absence of a distinct ideological framework. Under the influence of the militant cleric Abd al-Majid al-Zindani during the North-South civil war of 1994, the radical wing of the party played an active role in inciting violence against southerners, particularly attacking their Shafi'i and Sufi religious practices as un-Islamic. However, in spite of this long history of mutual distrust, in 2002 Islah joined YSP in a political coalition of opposition forces including other minor parties. A useful analysis of the Yemeni political system can be found in: Phillips, Sarah (2011). Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis. London: Routledge for the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), as this alliance is called, has been transformed since then into an important focal point for opposition to the regime, laying the groundwork that enabled the emergence of the youth uprising in early 2011. cf. Philbrick Yadav, Stacey (2011). "Antecedents of the Revolution: Intersectoral Networks and Post-Partisanship in Yemen". Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 11:3, pp. 550-563. Nevertheless, although Islah has gradually moved towards operating more as an organised political party, its prominent members, including Zindani and the al-Ahmar family that heads the influential Hashid tribal confederacy, continue to pursue their independent political agendas.

Since the descent of Houthi Movement militia on the capital of Yemen, and their occupation of the homes of prominent Islah members, such as that of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkul Karman, the party has entered an existential crisis. The reasons for its inability to positively react to the latest developments have been the defeat of its main sponsor, the al-Ahmar family, by the Houthis in their very tribal homeland, but more importantly the delegitimising effect of its perceived preferential treatment by the GCC plan. Philbrick Yadav, Stacey (2015). "Yemen's Houthis and Islamist Republicanism under Strain". The Washington Post. ( With the resignation of the national unity government, the Islah party appears to have become increasingly irrelevant to the political developments in Sana'a. Its political isolation makes it therefore more likely for the party to enter into a broader anti-Houthi coalition with other political forces, increasing the potential for a further deepening of the already strained communal rifts in Yemen.

Radical Salafism

Radical Salafi groups have been another major actor in the development of religious conflict in Yemen. They have been operating with the encouragement of the regime and are supported by certain Islah hardliners, such as Zindani who runs the Islamic al-Iman University in the capital Sana'a. For a full account on the history of Salafism in Yemen see: Bonnefoy, Laurent (2011). Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity. London: Hurst & Co. Apart from operating from individual mosques and religious schools in most of the country, the epicentre of Salafi activity is the Dar al-Hadith school in the village of Dammaj in the Zaydi heartland of Sa'dah that was established in the early 1980s. The Yemeni strand of Salafism subscribes to a quietist, 'apolitical' type of Islam, one that pledges absolute allegiance to the regime and desists from participating in partisan political activity. Unsurprisingly this stance has resonated with the Saleh regime, which saw in Yemeni Salafis a useful ally. It sponsored the founding of Salafi schools and tolerated the large numbers of foreign students that they accommodated in an attempt to undermine other forms of political Islamic mobilisation, such as the Muslim Brotherhood within Islah and the Houthis, as well as to counter the southern socialists.

Salafis include radicalised Westerners, who come to study 'true' Islam in Yemen.

Thus, the Salafi movement came into direct confrontation with other religious groups in the country, the Zaydi community in particular. It founded centres of learning in their midst and employed deliberately divisive, sectarian language against them, even to the point of calling them infidel, an extraordinary accusation by Islamic standards. Its membership consists mainly of Yemenis with connections to Saudi Arabia; local youths disaffected with the elitism of the older generation; and foreigners from the region and further afield, including radicalised Westerners, who come to study 'true' Islam in Yemen. These zealots directly challenged local religious traditions and the tribal social order, inevitably becoming part of local conflicts, especially against the Houthi movement.

The latter's domination of the Yemeni political field has severely weakened Salafi influence in northern Yemen. It remains to be seen whether this rather small group can be used against the Houthis, especially since their patron within the old regime, General Ali Muhsin, has left the country.

Key Groups: Believing Youth (Houthi Movement)

The Believing Youth movement, known collectively as 'the Houthis', after the name of its leader, and its political party as Ansar Allah, the 'Partisans of Allah', is a Zaydi revivalist movement that is active in the northern governorates of Sa'dah, al-Jawf, Hajjah, and Amran. It first appeared in the late 1990s in response to local pressures by Salafi groups in those areas An early example of local disputes between Zaydis and Salafis can be found in: Weir, Shelagh (1997). "A Clash of Fundamentalisms: Wahhabism in Yemen". Middle East Report No. 204, pp. 22-26. ( and to regime attempts at promoting a uniform version of Islam through the education curriculum. An overview of Zaydi identity and its relationship to the state in Yemen can be found in: King, James R. (2012). "Zaydi Revival in a Hostile Republic: Competing Identities, Loyalties and Visions of State in Republican Yemen". Arabica 59, pp. 404-445. ( Thus, the emergence of the movement can be placed within a broader popular reaction to violations by the Saleh regime of local traditions and basic human rights. In this sense the Houthis' demands for autonomy, respect of local practices and the rule of law are no different to those of the young activists in the 2011 uprising or of other regional movements such as the Southern Movement, albeit framed within a religious discourse.

The Houthi rebellion began in the summer of 2004 as antagonism between the regime and the Houthis culminated in armed conflict in the northern governorate of Sa'dah, the stronghold of the Houthi leader Hussain Badr al-Din al-Houthi. Over the next ten years the conflict involved six rounds of warfare, interspersed by an equal number of truces. The cruelty with which the Saleh regime has attacked the local population in the Houthi heartlands is vividly told in Weir, Shelagh (2011). "The End of Bayt Zayd". The Middle East in London, 7:6 (Oct-Nov), pp. 7-9. The last round involved intervention by Saudi Arabia. For a comprehensive analysis of the Houthi rebellion see: Salmoni, B. Loidolt, B. & Wells, M. (2010) Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen: The Huthi Phenomenon. Rand Corporation. ( Throughout the extended conflict, the Yemeni regime has framed the rebellion within a sectarian narrative. It overemphasised the Shi'a heritage of Zaydi Islam and disseminated unsubstantiated allegations about collusion between the Houthis and Iran in order to gain support from its regional and Western allies. The conflict was also used by the regime as a way of discrediting army officers, notably General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar who led the governmental offensive against the Houthis and posed the most credible threat to Saleh's son succeeding his father as president.

The unprecedented way in which the Houthi Movement has been able to dominate Yemeni politics since September 2014, and dictate its terms to the government has once again placed its relationship with Iran in the spotlight. Although Iran appears willing to rhetorically support the Houthis, thus aggrandising their influence in the region, the extent to which it has been able to substantially support their current operations and moreover to influence key Houthi decisions remains doubtful. Despite the fact that the Houthis have modelled their movement on the Lebanese Hizbullah, their leadership has indicated in the first instance willingness not to upset Yemeni relations with its neighbours. Besides, the political ambitions of the Houthis are clearly concentrated on reshaping domestic Yemeni politics, rather than being used as a foreign proxy against dependable Arab neighbours. Furthermore, Zaydi and Twelver Shia are religiously distinct, and there would be fears that such a powerful patron would try to influence religious practice.

Key Groups: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

Militant Islam has a long history in Yemen that is mainly associated with the Southern governorates. For precursors to AQAP see: Carapico, Sheila (2000). "Yemen and the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army". Middle East Report ( During the North-South civil war of 1994, the Saleh regime deployed groups of Yemeni jihadis, the Afghan Arabs that had just returned from the war theatres of Afghanistan, to fight against southern Marxists. A leading figure among them is Sheikh Tariq al-Fadhli; a scion of the ruling family of the former British Protectorate that corresponds to parts of the present governorate of Abyan. More on al-Fadhli in: Clark, Victoria (2010). Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes. London: Yale University Press. The brother-in-law of General Ali Muhsin, al-Fadhli's enmity towards the southern leadership and alliance with the Saleh regime was more about the loss of his ancestral lands than for ideological reasons. Today, disaffected by the regime's unwillingness to restore his lands, he has allied himself with the secular Southern Movement, al-Hiraak, which advocates the revival of an independent Southern state. He is considered one of its leading figures in Abyan. As an influential tribal leader, his opportunistic strategy and unclear ideological positioning vis-à-vis local jihadi groups illustrate the broader difficulty for both the Yemeni government and the West to rely on any meaningful local alliances in their fight against militant Islamists in Yemen. Gordon, Sasha (2012). "Abyani Tribes and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen". Critical Threats Project of the American Enterprise Institute.(

Signs of deep-rooted connections between AQAP and high-ranking members of the regime and army.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) emerged after the amalgamation of al-Qaeda branches of Saudi Arabia and Yemen in 2009. An exhaustive account of the group's history is provided in: Johnsen, Gregory (2012). The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia. Melbourne: Scribe. Although it has been less successful in exporting terrorism, taking responsibility for a couple of foiled attempts on US bound airliners for example, AQAP has waged a very effective campaign against domestic targets and the Yemeni army, especially since the resignation of President Saleh. It has conducted targeted killings of army officers who fought against it; regularly coordinated prison escapes of its members; and made territorial gains in the governorate of Abyan in 2011. The lack of significant state reaction to these attacks indicates the existence of a deep-rooted network of contacts between AQAP and high-ranking members of the regime and the army.

The group has also been successful in winning support among local young men through a process of 'rebranding' itself under the name Ansar al-Sharia 'Partisans of Sharia'. This allowed it to shed negative connotations associated with the name 'al-Qaeda' and adopt the religious mantle of promoting Islamic values in the areas where it operates. The Ansar's local popularity can also be attributed to the provision of basic services in the central-eastern areas of Marib, Shabwa and Abyan that see little, if any, state presence. It has effectively applied Islamic law (Sharia) in the resolution of festering local disputes, mostly concerned with land tenure, and has provided salaried and purposeful employment to disenfranchised, unemployed youth. Apart from this more pragmatic support from local youths, the core supporters of AQAP consists also of Somali al-Shabaab operatives, Saudi nationals and a number of Westerners. As such, AQAP is largely perceived as foreign to local communities, which, despite pockets of continuing resistance, helps to explain its quick retreat by mid-2012 in the face of a concerted army offensive. Further to the relationship of AQAP to local communities in: Koehler-Derrick, Gabriel (2011). A False Foundation? AQAP, Tribes and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen. West Point: Combating Terrorism Centre. (

It is unclear what effect the current political turmoil will have on AQAP. On the one hand lawlessness will help them to boost their presence in areas in which they are already operating, and perhaps even expand beyond those. On the other, key governmental institutions and political momentum are in the hands of their ideological and religious enemies. In this sense, the Houthis are emerging as a natural and potent ally of the West, particularly now that the Yemeni army and security services are unable to mobilise against AQAP. However, Houthi expansionism may boost support for AQAP in southern areas that perceive the latest events as threatening.

Future Prospects for Conflict: 2011 Youth Uprising

The January 2011 youth uprising, which became the longest lasting of the recent peaceful protests in the Arab world, changed the political landscape of Yemen and had a profound effect on the dynamics of the aforementioned conflicts. As the state security apparatus attempted to contain the wave of protests and then was used by different factions of the regime against each other, both the Houthis and AQAP were able to reinforce their positions and place whole governorates under their effective control. At the same time in urban centres, people from seemingly disparate social strata, with minimal previous common political experiences, found themselves for the first time in modern Yemeni history struggling towards a common agenda of civil rights, democratic reform and economic development.

The January 2011 youth uprising changed the political landscape of Yemen.

However, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreement has failed to instil sufficient political legitimacy in the transitional process, despite being a collaborative attempt by regional powers and the West to stabilise the country. One reason for this may be that stabilisation meant stemming the impetus of the independent youth uprising towards a common agenda, that had, to a large extent, no political or coercive capability beyond the urban areas, and instead healing the widening rift that was forming in the inner core of the Saleh regime. al-Deen, Maysaa Shuja (2014). "How Gulf Initiative has Worsened Yemen's Crisis". Al Monitor ( This failure has severely jeopardised the major proposal of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), which was to transform Yemen into a federal republic of six federal regions, four in the North and two in the South. 

A major challenge for the federal experiment was going to be the prevention of the takeover of federal institutions by the very groups the state has been fighting as this would lead to a further weakening and delegitimisation of the state itself. However, throughout the transitional process, the very political constituency that had a vested interest in the success of the NDC and the implementation of its remit to build a secular civil state in Yemen, that of the young activists, has been surely and steadily eroded. The young protesters who precipitated the unravelling of the Saleh regime have been the great losers in both the GCC plan and domestic politics. This is exemplified in the ways in which the Houthis have treated their erstwhile Change Square fellow activists since their takeover of Sana'a. Proof of abuses and mistreatment of protesters, who saw in the Houthi takeover nothing more than an overt coup pushing into the pole position just another despot, abound. Reports of unlawful detention, intimidation, even torture of protesters paint a troubling picture of a movement whose self-claim is the protection of the achievements of the youth revolution, and do not bode well for the future.

Future Prospects for Conflict: The Federal Plan

Furthermore, the proposed federal plan may become a source of serious and protracted conflict in the area among local stakeholders. In the case of the Sa'dah governorate, for example, the participation of the Houthis movement in the NDC coupled with their absence from the controversial GCC agreement has provided the movement with wider social acceptance and political legitimacy. Bolstering its popularity well beyond the northern governorates, this has allowed it to display its ability to participate constructively in the national political scene. With the inability of the transitional government to effectively control most parts of the country, this renewed confidence gave the Houthis the opportunity to exercise full political and security control over the four governorates where their power base lies from as early as 2011. As it stands at the moment, the Houthi leadership has rejected the federal plan because it effectively breaks up their territorial power base by attributing two of the four governorates they control to different federal regions. It also places the area of Sa'dah in the same federal region as the capital Sana'a further limiting any hope of consolidating its hold and achieving local autonomy.

A direct fallout of this, and perhaps a precursor of further hostilities, was the Houthi siege of the Salafi Dar al-Hadith school in Dammaj between October 2013 - February 2014, under the pretext that its residents had moved in heavy weapons and were preparing for an assault. The attack quickly escalated with the involvement of the al-Ahmar family and their tribal supporters from the Hashid confederacy. They purportedly wanted to rescue the inhabitants of the village but were in reality responding to what they perceived as Houthi expansionism. A succinct account of the latest developments in the Houthi wars can be found in the International Crisis Group Middle East Report No 154. The Huthis: From Saada to Sanaa. Brussels, 2014. ( This new round of conflict can be seen as a direct result of attempts by local actors to create local spheres of influence that will inevitably be taken into account in the finalisation of the federal map of Yemen. Characteristically, although the Hashid tribes also belong to the Zaydi sect, the language the al-Ahmars have used against the Houthis has been particularly factional and divisive because of their fears that the Houthi movement is steadily gaining national importance and has been able to forge alliances with the Sunni South. In essence, religious differences continue to be used as a pretext for the perpetuation of local cycles of violence and revenge, and for political domineering in the Northern governorates of Yemen.

The recent Houthi 'victory' places their movement at the heart of political developments in Yemen.

Houthi expansionism reached its climax at the beginning of September 2014, after a well-orchestrated military campaign, which saw the capture of Amran in July. By September Houthi irregulars had surrounded the capital Sana'a, putting up roadblocks, as pro-Houthi demonstrations were organised in different parts of the city. After early clashes and open battles with security services, and within a week, Houthi supporters overran the city, occupying strategic governmental buildings, such as the Central Bank, Prime Minister's Office, and the Ministry of Defence. On recent developments see: Smitz, Charles (2014). "The Huthi Ascent to Power". ( This resulted in the resignation of the transitional government and the signing of the 'Peace and National Partnership Agreement', which ensures the appointment of Houthi and Southern advisors to the new government that will be formed.

This Houthi 'victory' after a year of military successes and territorial gains against their longstanding adversaries, places their movement at the heart of political developments in Yemen, and in a way attempts to restore the basic demands of the 2011 youth uprisings, insofar as Houthi rhetoric is concerned. Recent events, such as the attacks on the al-Iman University in Sana'a, are worrying signs that the Houthis might attempt to extract revenge from political opponents, perpetuating conditions of violence and mistrust. However, in early statements the Houthi leadership has indicated its preparedness to reconcile with their islahi rivals.


The situation in the South appears more complicated. Here, the Yemeni government is confronted both by the secular secessionist al-Hiraak and the delegitimising religious rhetoric of AQAP, which accuses it of submissiveness to foreign powers in implementing the GCC agreement and for allowing foreign counter-terrorism operations on Yemeni soil. On the Southern Question see: International Crisis Group Middle East Reports No 145. Yemen's Southern Question: Avoiding Breakdown. Brussels, 2013 (; and No 114. Breaking Point? Yemen's Southern Question. Brussels, 2011. ( President Hadi, being a Southerner from Abyan himself, has paid particular attention to both of these challenges to state authority in the south, albeit with little actual effect. On the political level he has attempted to address Southern grievances through the NDC and the federal plan, but this has not been well received by al-Hiraak. On the military level he has succeeded in driving AQAP militants from Abyan. Alongside the army, he mobilised local groups of tribesmen and loyalists, the so-called Popular Committees, which managed to push AQAP operatives out of the towns they controlled and restore a semblance of security on the ground. However, the continued absence of full state control over the Southern governorates increasingly sees these Committees turn into a security threat themselves as they consolidate control over much of Abyan. For a review of the positive and negative role of these groups see: al-Dawsari, Nadwa (2014). "The Popular Committees of Abyan, Yemen: A Necessary Evil or an Opportunity for Security Reform?" Middle East Institute. (

The USA's aerial drone programme remains a significant source of resentment throughout the country and the most important driver for radicalisation and for any popular support AQAP might enjoy. Johnsen, Gregory D. (2013). "How We Lost Yemen" Foreign Policy ( The programme's failures have not only affected the delicate social fabric of the mostly tribal countryside, but the refusal of both the Yemeni and American governments to acknowledge their responsibility for, and to compensate, the loss of life and the destruction of vital infrastructure is perpetuating a sense of injustice that fuels the rhetoric of militant Islamists. Human Rights Watch (2013). "Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda: The Civilian Cost of US Targeted Killings in Yemen". Washington DC. (; and Baron, Adam (2013). "The Red Wedding: A Botched Drone Strike in Yemen shows how America's Anti-al Qaeda Strategy has gone off the Rails". Foreign Policy ( Furthermore, the recent AQAP attacks in the capital Sana'a, against the Ministry of Defence and Central Prison, indicate that members of the group have been able to disperse, regroup in different parts of the country, and strike at the heart of state institutions that are pivotal to the success of the developing political transition. This geographical dispersal may also result in AQAP connecting with the Salafis in the north and becoming embroiled in the Houthi conflict. So far the creation of the Ansar al-Shari'a in the Central Regions to specifically combat Houthi expansionism has been announced, though the extent to which this grouping is able to carry out its threats in the face of continued Houthi ascendancy remains questionable.

The US is confronted with a problematic situation; they are nominally against the Houthis but recognise that each blow against them is one for AQAP. This difficulty is encapsulated in the Houthi flag, which reads "Death to America" (an idle threat, given their purely local ambitions), and an ironic sight when placed against the backdrop of Houthi fighters protecting the US embassy from attacks. The Saudi situation is similarly complex, with the Houthis representing natural enemies to the Muslim Brotherhood and Islah, which have been placed on the Saudi black list. Because of this, using a shared rhetoric of 'terrorism' for both the Houthis and AQAP is very dangerous for international policy makers.


Under both President Saleh and President Hadi, Yemen has been an important ally of the United States and the West in the War on Terror in the Arabian Peninsula and Horn of Africa region. Especially since attacks by AQAP against Western targets were foiled and the emergence of connections between 'homegrown' terrorists in Britain and the US and the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen were discovered, the country has received much international attention. This was true well before the Arab youth uprisings, being expressed in 2010 by the formation of the Friends of Yemen group. The aim of this inter-governmental body was, and still is, to coordinate international development aid to the country in the face of its then-anticipated political and economic collapse, and to prevent Yemen becoming another 'failed state' in an already volatile region. Yet in spite of systematic efforts, humanitarian conditions in the country continue to deteriorate. For a detailed overview of humanitarian indices in Yemen see: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen 2014-2015. ( At the same time international military aid continues to increase, despite the marked inability of the Yemeni government to absorb much needed development funds. To mitigate its poor record in managing international aid, the Yemeni government established in March 2014 the Executive Bureau for the Acceleration of Aid Absorption and Implementation of the Mutual Accountability Framework.

In this socio-political environment, the increased militarisation of local conflicts is likely to cause further outbreaks of violence and instability in most parts of the country. The continued absence of state control over large areas of the country, coupled with the effects of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, will keep providing opportunities to local militant groups for the recruitment of supporters and for haphazard attempts at expanding their territorial base. And although conflicts in Yemen are driven by tribal and very much localised causes, the use of religious differences, especially charged sectarian language, will continue to provide plausible motivations for their continuation, masking their political and contingent nature. This is particularly pertinent in view of the current political impasse. With President Hadi fleeing the Houthi-controlled capital into the South, and without a functioning government, there is a real danger for the gradual 'Somalisation' of the country along communal/sectarian lines.

From a southern perspective, the deadlock in Sana'a involves the old, corrupt, political elites and has no relevance to the ongoing crisis in the South. If anything, a break from Sana'a is increasingly becoming an attractive way of providing the former PDRY provinces with much needed stability. At the same time, recent unilateral declarations of independence, first by the Southern Movement, and then by the people of the eastern governorate of al-Mahra, though inconsequential, indicate the extent to which southern politics have been alienated from developments in the capital but also how polarised they have become.

From a southern perspective, the deadlock in Sana'a involves the old, corrupt, political elites and has no relevance to the ongoing crisis in the South. If anything, a break from Sana'a is increasingly becoming an attractive way of providing the former PDRY provinces with much needed stability. At the same time, recent unilateral declarations of independence, first by the Southern Movement, and then by the people of the eastern governorate of al-Mahra, though inconsequential, indicate the extent to which southern politics have been alienated from developments in the capital but also how polarised they have become.

International response to developments in Yemen has been equally unproductive. The Friends of Yemen group has not held a high profile meeting since its New York meeting in September 2014. Though the "group of ten" ambassadors of the participating countries coordinate in Sana'a, there has been a marked lack of willingness to engage with the Houthis since their descent on the city. More importantly, the international community does not appear to have devised a strategy to deal with a rapidly deteriorating situation, other than insisting on the dead letter of the GCC plan. Thus, recent Houthi developments can also be viewed in the context of the continued isolation of the movement by international and regional actors. It is also important to note, that the international community failed to grasp the pressures President Hadi would come under in Yemen's volatile political conditions, and did not provide him with adequate political and material support. If anything, the insistence on following through with a widely unpopular agreement, coupled with continued drone attacks in many parts of the country, robbed President Hadi of what little legitimacy he had been able to command after three years in power. With foreign ambassadors having abandoned Sana'a, in a direct indication that their governments do not support Houthi actions, foreign actors interested in Yemen's stability, the US and Saudi Arabia in particular, will need to find ways out of the current impasse, including devising a strategy of dealing with Yemen's new kingmakers.

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

This report was first published on 24 September 2014 and updated on 25 February 2015.