Many international commentators continue to present the war in Yemen through the lens of Saudi Arabian intervention or sectarian conflict. This narrative has even influenced the US Congress, where some members have passed legislation that rests on the assumption that the war is between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, rather than against their fellow Yemenis. While the Saudis have intervened in the conflict and the Houthis have often played the sectarian card, neither narrative accurately reflects the current conflict between the Houthis and the UN-recognized government of Abd Rabo Mansour Hadi.
Instead, the latest war is a continuation of the six domestic conflicts fought between the Houthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime between 2004-2010. Violent internal clashes ensued in the following years and briefly spilled over into Saudi Arabia’s border regions. The conflicts of the 2000s, in turn, have their roots that go back to the creation of the modern Yemeni state in the 1960s. The state failed to develop the institutional capacity to provide Yemenis with equal access to the state’s resources or opportunities, with power concentrated in a narrow elite.
Yemen’s inability to address these problems has engendered a series of violent conflicts, coups, and civil insurrections since then. In essence, Yemeni internal stability has been undermined by widespread political disenfranchisement and socio-economic marginalization. The Houthis exploited this alienation, which was not merely sectarian – many Zaydi Shiites rejected their message as anachronistic and anti-democratic, while many Sunnis shared their non-sectarian resentments.
The Houthis capitalized on frustrations with the dysfunctional Hadi government and a weak economy to sweep into Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in September, 2014. Their rapid advance was aided by supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was determined to regain power. Drawing on popular opposition to a government plan that drastically reduced fuel subsidies and pledging to end elite corruption, the Houthis toppled the government and forced Hadi to flee the country. But they quickly abandoned their reformist guise and expanded their drive to seize control of the entire country by force, precipitating the events that led to today’s conflict.
Along with the Obama Administration, the Saudis had been warily watching conditions inside Yemen deteriorate since the fall of 2014. Despite Saudi frustrations with the Hadi government, the rising chaos in Yemen revived concerns of instability on its southern border. These security concerns have been a factor in Saudi engagement with Yemen from the earliest days of the modern Saudi state, when the Saudis fought a brief border war with the theocratic Imamate, a Zaydi Shiite state led by Imam Yahya. That conflict ended with the Treaty of Taif, which established the de facto border between the two countries (the de jure border demarcation was not agreed until the Treaty of Jeddah in 2000) and handed control of three border provinces – Asir, Jizan, and Najran – to the Saudi state.
In subsequent years, Saudi concerns with the threat of a destabilizing spillover continued to inform decision-making. In the 1960s, Riyadh supported the Imamate in its decade-long civil war with republican forces (who launched a coup against the Imamate in 1962) largely because they saw a hostile Yemen aligned with Egypt’s pan-Arabist, anti-monarchist President Gamal Abdel Nasser as a greater threat. In the ensuing decades, Riyadh built links with politicians and tribal leaders in Yemen, especially Sheikh Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar of the powerful Hashid tribal federation, based in Amran in northern Yemen. Al-Ahmar led the Islah political party and served as speaker of the Yemeni parliament under Saleh, whose government he largely supported against the Houthis, provoking a reaction from some Zaydis.
The Houthis’ ties to Iran, which they emphasized after they took control of the government in 2014, reinforced Saudi historic fears and caused Saudi Arabia to perceive Yemen as part of an Iranian plan to encircle the Arabian Peninsula with a ring of hostile, pro-Iranian regimes, a fear epitomized by the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards statement that “winning the battle in Yemen will help define the balance of power in the Middle East.” Thus, the Saudis concluded that Yemen had become an existential threat to Saudi Arabia itself.
The international community, frustrated by the humanitarian catastrophe the conflict has inflicted, continues to focus on the role of outside actors. But Yemen’s problems can only be resolved internally, as the Yemenis themselves tried to accomplish in 2011 and in the 2013-2014 National Dialogue Conference. The true origins of the conflict must be recognized - the political disenfranchisement and socio-economic marginalization that have afflicted the country for decades – if the international community is to play a positive role in supporting a sustainable end to the 60-year conflict.
Gerald Feierstein was the United States Ambassador to Yemen under President Barack Obama from September 2010 to October 2013. From 2013 until his retirement, Amb. Feierstein was Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. He is senior vice president at the Middle East Institute.