The Yemen Primer: A History of Violence for Anti-Violence

Anti-Drone Graf­fi­ti, Sanaa, Yemen, Novem­ber 13, 2014. Image cour­tesy REUTERS/Khaled Abdul­lah.

The first duty in this joint effort,Pres­i­dent Trump said in Riyadh, Sau­di Ara­bia on May 21st, is for your nations to deny all ter­ri­to­ry to the foot sol­diers of evil.Trump went fur­ther to empha­size Amer­i­can resolve against the Tal­iban and Islam­ic State, while also sup­port­ing strong action against Houthi mil­i­tants in Yemen.Fur­ther, Trump accused Iran of sup­port­ing ter­ror­ists, mili­tias, and oth­er extrem­ist groupsin sev­er­al coun­tries includ­ing Yemen. It seems that Yemen is like­ly to see more direct for­eign involve­ment in its civ­il war, espe­cial­ly in light of a record break­ing $350 bil­lion arms deal with Sau­di Ara­bia (though it has recent­ly been put in doubt). The Trump admin­is­tra­tion is per­fect­ly aware that these weapons will be used in Yemen, rais­ing impor­tant ques­tions about the cur­rent war, and the future of Amer­i­can pol­i­cy in the coun­try.

$350 bil­lion of Amer­i­can weapons have been pledged to Sau­di Ara­bia over the next decade, with intend­ed sales of tanks, fight­er jets (includ­ing the infa­mous F-35 Light­ning II), com­bat ships, and Lockheed-Martin’s THAAD mis­sile defence sys­tem. Although many of the ‘sales’ aren’t tech­ni­cal­ly finalised con­tracts, at the very least these devel­op­ments should be inter­pret­ed as the Trump admin­is­tra­tion sig­nalling its con­fi­dence in Sau­di Ara­bia. Per­haps the Saud­is will nev­er receive THAAD, but the offer sends the mes­sage that the US cares about the Houthis fir­ing mis­siles into the coun­try. It is clear that Amer­i­ca will main­tain its role in what would more accu­rate­ly be termed the US-Sau­di War.

Thus far, Washington’s involve­ment has been ‘indi­rect,’ in that it has man­aged to bill itself as a moral­ly con­flict­ed sup­port­ing par­ty, while giv­ing weapons, diplo­mat­ic cov­er, and logis­ti­cal assis­tance (such as crit­i­cal refu­el­ing efforts) to coali­tion forces that are offi­cial­ly being led by Sau­di Ara­bia. How­ev­er, this is in addi­tion to a mix­ture of drone strikes, US Navy SEALs raids, and secret oper­a­tions like inter­ro­ga­tions in an under­ground net­work of pris­ons in south­ern Yemen, which are large­ly meant to tar­get Al-Qae­da in the Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la (AQAP) and Islam­ic State. As the con­flict grows more ruinous, with botched bomb­ings con­demned by the Unit­ed Nations  and mem­bers of the U.S. con­gress, the Pen­ta­gon may decide to take a more direct role in the con­flict. While this piv­ot would be done under the aus­pices of min­i­miz­ing col­lat­er­al dam­age, such a move would pro­vide Wash­ing­ton with fur­ther strate­gic con­trol on the ground. Whether these moves would be met with Trump’s bless­ings or indif­fer­ence, as is the case with Afghanistan, is uncer­tain. In either sce­nario, the left needs to map how it can resist the US-Sau­di push.

It is impor­tant to begin by putting the con­flict into per­spec­tive, by engag­ing with Yemen’s com­plex his­to­ry, par­tic­u­lar­ly as it relates to rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics, as well the ori­gins of its present cri­sis. Far too often, Yemen is crude­ly dis­cussed as a back­wa­ter nation, notable only for the pres­ence of AQAP and Islam­ic State. In such a ren­der­ing the pres­ence of Islam­ic mil­i­tants explains US mil­i­tary oper­a­tions in Yemen, and its cur­rent “law­less­ness” is seen to be a lab­o­ra­to­ry for new impe­ri­al­ist counter-insur­gency tac­tics. These are impor­tant and not with­out some truth, but Yemen is also a coun­try that boasts a remark­able lega­cy of rev­o­lu­tion­ary left­ist move­ments.

Unlike the ori­en­tal tropes, Yemeni pol­i­tics is a remark­able spec­trum of dif­fer­ent actors, includ­ing Marx­ist-Lenin­ists, Nasserists, lib­er­al reform­ers that seek greater eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment, trib­al con­fed­er­a­tions that com­prise a host of region­al and sec­tar­i­an iden­ti­ties, dic­ta­to­r­i­al gen­er­als that work with Sau­di Ara­bia and the Unit­ed States, and ter­ror­ist groups like AQAP, who, at dif­fer­ent times, will either seek to work with or over­throw any of the above. A full view of the nation’s his­to­ry and pol­i­tics chal­lenges easy nar­ra­tives of what a poor Mus­lim-major­i­ty post­colo­nial state is “sup­posed to look like.”

Such a study is not mere­ly aca­d­e­m­ic or even local in its appli­ca­tion. Yemen is a win­dow into the com­bined elite strate­gies of balka­niza­tion and mil­i­ta­riza­tion of social strug­gle in the Mideast, North Africa, and South Asia, impart­ing lessons with a more gen­er­al pur­chase.  What’s more, recall­ing this recent his­to­ry can impart key lessons from the fail­ure of Yemen’s recent demo­c­ra­t­ic move­ments to fill the pow­er vac­u­um that emerged in their wake, while the demo­bi­liza­tion of eman­ci­pa­to­ry move­ments high­lights the prac­tices that might com­prise an effec­tive anti-impe­ri­al­ist and anti-war move­ment in the Unit­ed States today.


Two major con­quests in the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry have shaped mod­ern Yemen. In 1839, the British East India Com­pa­ny land­ed hun­dreds of Roy­al Marines in order to take con­trol of the south­ern port city of Aden, and much of the Yemeni coast­line, to crack down on pira­cy and estab­lish coal­ing sta­tions. By 1849, the Ottoman Empire had tak­en large sec­tions of the north includ­ing Sanaa, which it held as an exten­sion of its inter­ests in Mec­ca and Med­i­na. North Yemen was ruled by a Zai­di Shi’a Ima­mate called the Mutawakali­at King­dom after the col­lapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, with Imam Yahya being assas­si­nat­ed in 1948. His son Ahmed ruled until his death in 1962, fol­lowed by the short tenure of Imam Muham­mad, inter­rupt­ed by army offi­cers in a repub­li­can revolt inspired by Egypts Gamal Abdul Nass­er.

These events dete­ri­o­rat­ed into a bloody proxy war. Nasserist repub­li­cans sup­port­ed by Egypt, fight­ing against Ima­mate roy­al­ists sup­port­ed by Sau­di Ara­bia, with fur­ther back­ing from Jor­dan, Britain, and Israel. It is impor­tant to note that Sau­di Ara­bia clear­ly did not believe that the Ima­mates Shiism was much of an issue. The civ­il war was about monar­chi­cal rule in North Yemen, not rank sec­tar­i­an­ism and intra-reli­gious squab­bling. Ana­lysts often fix­ate on the Sun­ni-Shia divide,which makes it dif­fi­cult to engage with the actu­al polit­i­cal his­to­ry of the region. Yemen is no excep­tion. The civ­il war end­ed with a repub­li­can vic­to­ry in 1970, includ­ing a par­tial inte­gra­tion of the monar­chists, but with enor­mous costs, par­tic­u­lar­ly for Egypt. His­to­ri­ans lat­er called the warEgypts Viet­namdue its unex­pect­ed drain on mil­i­tary resources and morale despite Nasser’s ini­tial expec­ta­tions of a quick vic­to­ry. The con­se­quences would be far reach­ing; Israel learned enough from Egypt­ian tac­tics in North Yemen to even­tu­al­ly crush Nass­er dur­ing the 1967 Six Day War.

In North Yemen, the end of the civ­il war saw an over­haul in state-tribe rela­tions that has con­tin­ued into the present. In 1911, Imam Yahya was able to tem­porar­i­ly uni­fy the area’s divid­ed trib­al net­works, gain­ing increased inde­pen­dence from the Ottoman Empire. After 1918, both Imams Yahya and Ahmed man­aged to keep the Ima­mate state stronger than indi­vid­ual tribes by con­stant­ly fer­ment­ing con­flict between them while dis­suad­ing revolt by keep­ing the sons and broth­ers of major sheikhs as “hostages” in Sana’a. They also gave month­ly stipends to sheikhs from the Hashid and Bak­il Trib­al Con­fed­er­a­tions, two of the largest trib­al net­works in Yemen, both dom­i­nant­ly Zai­di Shi’a. Crit­i­cal­ly, under the Ima­mate state and trib­al net­works were clear­ly sep­a­rate, with the for­mer man­ag­ing the lat­ter as some­thing out­side the state. Fol­low­ing the civ­il war, tribes were incor­po­rat­ed into the repub­li­can state as pow­er­ful (and armed) social actors with inde­pen­dent wealth and con­comi­tant polit­i­cal influ­ence.

Ana­lysts fre­quent­ly dis­cuss Yemeni trib­al pol­i­tics as anachro­nis­tic, but  trib­al lead­ers are mod­ern polit­i­cal actors that adapt­ed intel­li­gent­ly to a chang­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary order. The Hashid Trib­al Con­fed­er­a­tion was no longer being man­aged by the North Yemeni polit­i­cal process. Rather, it was shap­ing it dur­ing a peri­od of mas­sive state expan­sion; uni­ver­si­ties, cars and hos­pi­tals became wide­spread fol­low­ing the end of the Imamate’s extreme iso­la­tion­ism. Yet this “mod­ern­iza­tion” cam­paign was lim­it­ed. Even as urban­iza­tion and con­sump­tion of for­eign prod­ucts took place, the vast major­i­ty of Yeme­nis still lived in rur­al areas. The weak man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor was unable to do much more than export prod­ucts to South Yemen. From the 1960s to the present, with grow­ing ease of trav­el and mount­ing demands from cities like Dubai, Yeme­nis have been able to sup­ple­ment ane­mic for­eign invest­ment –– most­ly in the form of human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance –– with their own remit­tances. How­ev­er, the econ­o­my itself still requires much clos­er and more skilled atten­tion than has been afford­ed to it, to say noth­ing of the polit­i­cal will on the Gulf to allow Yemen to have an econ­o­my of com­pa­ra­ble strength to Oman or the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates. Such a sce­nario would, after all, require wealth and devel­op­men­tal redis­tri­b­u­tion on the Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la.

Turn­ing our atten­tion to South Yemen, in 1963, armed fac­tions includ­ing the Front for the Lib­er­a­tion of South Yemen (FLOSY), Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion Front (NLF), and tribes­peo­ple from the moun­tain­ous Rad­fan region, mobi­lized against British plans to reor­ga­nize its south­ern ter­ri­to­ries into the Fed­er­a­tion of South Ara­bia and Pro­tec­torate of South Ara­bia. Anti-British guer­ril­las launched major attacks against mil­i­tary forces, lead­ing the British to respond by declar­ing a state of emer­gency that same year. The Aden Emer­gency last­ed until 1967, when the impe­r­i­al forces with­drew, leav­ing the Peo­ples Repub­lic of South Yemen in its place. The NLF entered a peri­od of inter­nal upheaval, as it attempt­ed to assert itself against rival fac­tions like the more Nasserist repub­li­can FLOSY and the more Ba’athist Sons of the Arab League. Essen­tial­ly, Marx­ist-Lenin­ists slow­ly gained con­trol of what was orig­i­nal­ly a broad coali­tion of which the left was only one part.

British sol­diers, Al-Bay­da, Yemen, 1966.

NLF leader Qah­tan al-Shabi became the first pres­i­dent of South Yemen with strong Egypt­ian sup­port, and ini­tial­ly gov­erned as a Nasserist. He aspired to devel­op a strong mil­i­ta­rized state with staunch anti-impe­ri­al­ist for­eign pol­i­cy, while super­vis­ing major eco­nom­ic reforms that were devel­op­men­tal­ist but not nec­es­sar­i­ly social­ist. Unlike his left­ist oppo­si­tion, Al-Shabi’s inspi­ra­tion was Algiers and Cairo, not Bei­jing and the East­ern Bloc. Al-Shabi held pow­er until 1969, when Sal­im Rubai Ali, Muham­mad Ali Haitham, and Abdul Fat­tah Ismail (the most pow­er­ful of the three), led a Marx­ist-Lenin­ist fac­tion to win con­trol of the par­ty. On Decem­ber 1st, 1970, the NLF declared the cre­ation of the People’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of Yemen, and over the next eight years its orga­ni­za­tion absorbed var­i­ous Arab nation­al­ist groups as well as the local Com­mu­nist Par­ty into the new for­ma­tion: the Yemeni Social­ist Par­ty. The orga­ni­za­tion devel­oped ties with the Sovi­et Union, and adhered close­ly to the social­ist mod­el of the East­ern Bloc, form­ing a Polit­buro and Cen­tral Com­mit­tee based in Aden.

The  PDRY faced mul­ti­ple chal­lenges fol­low­ing inde­pen­dence, includ­ing the inter­rup­tion of vital ship­ping routes with the clo­sure of the Suez Canal from 1967 to 1975. Polit­i­cal­ly, the sit­u­a­tion grew more des­per­ate, with pres­sure from major social­ist pow­ers like the USSR that no longer shared its leadership’s mil­i­tan­cy and a fail­ure to “export rev­o­lu­tion” to its neigh­bors.  The PDRY played a sig­nif­i­cant role in Oman’s Dho­far Rebel­lion and North Yemen’s Nation­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic Front Rebel­lion in 1976. It also par­tic­i­pat­ed bor­der clash­es with both Sau­di Ara­bia in 1969 and 1973, and again in North Yemen from 1972 and 1979. Its defeats in these con­flicts pro­duced eco­nom­ic stag­na­tion, a grow­ing dis­sat­is­fac­tion with Pres­i­dent Abdul Fat­tah Ismail’s divi­sive lead­er­ship, and led to the 1980 rise of reformist Ali Nass­er Muham­mad Al-Has­sani. Adopt­ing a more mod­est stance on the inter­na­tion­al stage, Ali Nass­er ruled until the 1986 South Yemeni Civ­il War. There, a return­ing Ismail died in a bloody attempt to retake pow­er. It is impor­tant to note the rel­a­tive absence of straight­for­ward trib­al pol­i­tics in this peri­od of sec­tar­i­an vio­lence. There are pow­er­ful trib­al struc­tures in areas like Hadhra­mout and Rad­fan, shored up by British sub­si­dies in exchange for stay­ing away from the coastal areas. How­ev­er, South Yemeni rur­al areas were large­ly dom­i­nat­ed by non-trib­al land­ed elites such as sul­tans, who may have under­stood their large­ly inde­pen­dent con­trol through the lens of trib­al affil­i­a­tions, but did not nec­es­sar­i­ly orga­nize with them col­lec­tive­ly.

Fol­low­ing inde­pen­dence, the PDRY under­took a com­pli­cat­ed pol­i­cy of expro­pri­at­ing lands held by elites asso­ci­at­ed with many tribes, while not nec­es­sar­i­ly ban­ning trib­al asso­ci­a­tion. Regard­less, tribes sim­ply did not orga­nize as inde­pen­dent polit­i­cal actors in the south to the same degree that they were orga­niz­ing in the north. This not to say that there weren’t cas­es when trib­al affil­i­a­tion would cor­re­late with a cer­tain polit­i­cal posi­tion. For instance, the Hadhramis tend­ed to oppose Ali Nass­er in the 1986 South Yemeni Civ­il War. How­ev­er, there were also many oth­er times when trib­al and region­al iden­ti­ty was irrel­e­vant in polit­i­cal devel­op­ments, as shown by the fact that Sal­im Rubai Ali and Ali Nass­er were from the same area, but fought each oth­er in 1986. So while trib­al iden­ti­ty can have real effects in the nation’s pol­i­tics, it would be a mis­take to think that trib­al­ism as the sole or even prin­ci­pal cause of most polit­i­cal events in Yemen.

Fol­low­ing the vio­lence, Ali Sal­im Al-Bei­dh became Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary of the Yemeni Social­ist Par­ty. He start­ed tap­ping oil reserves and sought even­tu­al uni­fi­ca­tion with North Yemen, at that point ruled by Pres­i­dent Ali Abdul­lah Saleh. Saleh had become Pres­i­dent of North Yemen in 1978, ascend­ing from a pro­vi­sion­al mil­i­tary gov­ern­ing coun­cil that took con­trol fol­low­ing a string of coups and assas­si­na­tions. Yemen was uni­fied by May 1990, but bit­ter­ness grew over uneven resource dis­tri­b­u­tion, heavy rep­re­sen­ta­tion of north­ern­ers in par­lia­ment, uni­ver­si­ties, and major devel­op­ment projects. Per­haps worst of all, there was an obvi­ous cen­tral­iza­tion of south­ern oil wealth in elite north­ern cir­cles close to Saleh.

In May 1994, mul­ti­ple south­ern provinces tried to secede from Sanaa under the lead­er­ship of for­mer social­ist politi­cians like Al-Bei­dh and Nass­er Muham­mad. Iso­lat­ed from the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, the fledg­ling state was over­whelmed by July, and much of its lead­er­ship went into exile. Saleh con­tin­ued his uneven approach to uni­fi­ca­tion, seed­ing future mobi­liza­tion over thesouth­ern ques­tion,” but also deep­en­ing con­cerns over eco­nom­ic mis­man­age­ment and polit­i­cal dys­func­tion in the north.

Final­ly, it is impor­tant to briefly go over Al-Qae­da, and the Houthis, both of which became domes­tic and inter­na­tion­al con­cerns after the civ­il war. The Houthis began in the ear­ly 1990s as an edu­ca­tion­al and cul­tur­al orga­ni­za­tion known as the Believ­ing Youth, which tried to spark a Zai­di Shii revival in north­ern provinces like Saada. The Believ­ing Youth was react­ing to a feel­ing of Zai­di inse­cu­ri­ty in Yemen, as the large­ly Shi’a and Ismaili north encoun­tered rel­a­tive­ly nov­el forms of sec­tar­i­an­ism as the Sun­ni Islamist Al-Islah Par­ty and

a litany of Salafi preach­ers, media com­men­ta­tors, and com­mu­ni­ty groups gained influ­ence. Its own influ­ence grew along­side pop­u­lar oppo­si­tion to Salehs alliances with Sau­di Ara­bia and Unit­ed States, which were strength­ened sig­nif­i­cant­ly fol­low­ing Al-Qae­das bomb­ing of the USS Cole in Aden in Octo­ber 2000. While the US in par­tic­u­lar has always been wary of Saleh, it expand­ed mil­i­tary ties with the under­stand­ing that Yemen could become an impor­tant bat­tle­ground, a posi­tion that solid­i­fied with the War on Ter­ror, and for­ma­tion of Al-Qae­da in the Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la (AQAP) in 2009.

AQAP’s his­to­ry begins with the Sovi­et-Afghan War, when thou­sands of North Yeme­nis went to fight against the Red Army with the mujahideen. It was dur­ing the war that they met Osama Bin Laden, and when they returned, Saleh attempt­ed to use them against the south in the ear­ly 1990s. How­ev­er, he was forced to revise his posi­tion some­what, after the US start­ed to become con­cerned that its for­mer clients were now fol­low­ing Bin Laden’s 1996 Dec­la­ra­tion of War Against the Amer­i­cans Occu­py­ing the Land of the Two Holy Places. Al-Qae­da in Yemen uni­fied a group of Islamist dis­si­dents who were inspired by his mes­sage, many of whom were for­mer mujahideen with fond mem­o­ries of Bin Laden. Al-Qae­da in Yemen claimed respon­si­bil­i­ty for the USS Cole bomb­ing, and in the months that fol­lowed, Amer­i­can com­man­dos and intel­li­gence offi­cers began arriv­ing in the coun­try to work close­ly with Saleh in order to mon­i­tor and destroy the group. Drone strikes first began in 2002, before inten­si­fy­ing great­ly under Oba­ma, as ter­ror­ist attacks in the West that were planned abroad were increas­ing­ly linked to net­works that includ­ed Soma­lia and Yemen. In the late 2000s, Sau­di author­i­ties began crack­ing down on Al-Qae­da in Sau­di Ara­bia, chas­ing it across the south­ern bor­der with Yemen. Al-Qae­da in Yemen fused with the defeat­ed Sau­di branch, result­ing in AQAP, which became pub­licly known fol­low­ing an attempt­ed under­wear bomb­ing in 2009. The Yemeni-Amer­i­can cler­ic Anwar al-Awla­ki was involved with the group until he became the first Amer­i­can cit­i­zen to be killed by a drone in Sep­tem­ber 2011. Two weeks lat­er, his son Abdul­rah­man was killed as a civil­ian bystander in anoth­er strike, and his daugh­ter Nawar was killed in Jan­u­ary, dur­ing Trump’s dis­as­trous raid in Yemen.

In the mean­time, and espe­cial­ly in the chaos of the civ­il war (which now also fea­tures Islam­ic State) and US coun­tert­er­ror­ist poli­cies, AQAP, hav­ing changed its name to Ansar Al-Sharia, has grown immense­ly into an orga­ni­za­tion of hybrid war­fare. It is now a loose­ly affil­i­at­ed group of local actors, includ­ing AQAP mil­i­tants, local lead­ers, and tribes­peo­ple that may impose hard­line Salafism on the grow­ing num­ber of ter­ri­to­ries it holds, but also, is increas­ing­ly lim­it­ed by how mem­bers of the Ansar al-Sharia coali­tion envi­sion soci­etal gov­er­nance as well as the tar­gets of its attacks. The group is not a mono­lith, and to add fur­ther com­plex­i­ty, sev­er­al crown princes in Sau­di Ara­bia and the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates have been accused of sup­port­ing these groups even as their mil­i­taries are offi­cial­ly work­ing with the Unit­ed States to erad­i­cate them.

Return­ing to the Believ­ing Youth: ten­sions final­ly boiled over in 2004, when activists linked to the group orga­nized protests against the Iraq War in Sana’a, which was also an ear­ly exam­ple of the group chant­i­ng “death to Amer­i­ca, Israel, and Jews” (the lat­ter of which is par­tic­u­lar­ly offen­sive, but must be under­stood in the con­text of Israel’s self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as a Jew­ish state, and a Houthi eager­ness to emu­late Islamist chants from Iran). Saleh become con­cerned about the large­ly trib­al group’s increas­ing influ­ence, par­tic­u­lar­ly giv­en his role in the War on Ter­ror. Ini­tial­ly, Saleh tried to arrange a meet­ing with its founder Has­san Badred­din al-Houthi, before send­ing troops into north­ern Yemen to arrest him. Al-Houthi retal­i­at­ed with force, and when he was killed lat­er that year, the Believ­ing Youth mil­i­ta­rized, unof­fi­cial­ly going by the name “the Houthis,” though they are offi­cial­ly known as Ansar Allah.

The Houthis would fight mul­ti­ple wars with Saleh lead­ing up to the 2011 Yemeni Upris­ing, at the same time that Amer­i­can activ­i­ties against Al-Qae­da inten­si­fied dur­ing the War on Ter­ror. Saleh tried to take advan­tage of this to obtain Amer­i­can mil­i­tary assis­tance against the Houthis, who he accused of being linked to Iran, but at the time, the Unit­ed States dis­missed his requests due to a lack of evi­dence. In 2015, US Sec­re­tary of State John Ker­ry pub­licly accused Iran of sup­port­ing the Houthis, but Wik­ileaks cables from sev­er­al years ear­li­er clear­ly show that Amer­i­can diplo­mats were skep­ti­cal about the con­nec­tion. While the Houthis may start to build links with Iran in the face of mas­sive US-Sau­di pres­sure, it’s clear that the claims are large­ly untrue, and that the Houthis are being called a proxy in order to jus­ti­fy for­eign inter­ven­tion.


The Yemeni Civ­il War, now fea­tur­ing mas­sive US-Sau­di involve­ment, has grown out of unre­solved ten­sions between exist­ing elites over the course of sev­er­al decades, and which explod­ed short­ly after Arab Spring protests hit Yemen in 2011. The essen­tial point is that by the end of June 2011, pro­test­ers had suc­ceed­ed in crack­ing Salehs author­i­ty, open­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty for seri­ous polit­i­cal change, but lacked the resources, skills, and plan­ning nec­es­sary to seize the oppor­tu­ni­ty. As a result, exist­ing polit­i­cal fac­tions were able to cap­i­tal­ize on Salehs weak­ness, and a mix­ture of armed vio­lence and cyn­i­cal moves by exist­ing fac­tions trans­formed what was an ener­getic pop­u­lar revolt into an elite pow­er strug­gle.

Begin­ning on Jan­u­ary 27 of that year, tens of thou­sands of pro­test­ers gath­ered in the cen­tral squares of major cities like Sanaa, Taiz, and Aden, with fur­ther ral­lies on Feb­ru­ary 3 (a “Day of Rage” called by future Nobel Peace Prize Lau­re­ate Tawakkol Kar­man), and Feb­ru­ary 18. Inspired by the Arab Spring, protests were ini­tial­ly dri­ven by unem­ploy­ment (which in 2010 aver­aged at about 40% across the Mid­dle East and North Africa, reach­ing as high as 70% among peo­ple under 25 years old), slow eco­nom­ic growth, and plans to amend the con­sti­tu­tion to allow Saleh to stand for anoth­er term. The ral­lies quick­ly devel­oped into a more gen­er­al upris­ing, as an enthu­si­as­tic urban youth move­ment expand­ed into broad­er frus­tra­tions over eco­nom­ic mis­man­age­ment and a lack of polit­i­cal free­doms, with par­tic­u­lar­ly large gath­er­ings in the cen­tral squares of Sana’a, Ta’iz, and Aden. By the end of Feb­ru­ary, sev­er­al major trib­al fac­tions – split between rur­al and urban set­ting – joined the pro­test­ers, lift­ing their total num­bers past a hun­dred thou­sand, with Saleh fac­ing grow­ing calls to resign.

The turn­ing point of the protests is wide­ly held to be the Fri­day of Dig­ni­tyon March 18, after which Saleh’s res­ig­na­tion seemed inevitable, and his sup­port vapor­ized overnight. Gun­men with unde­ni­able links to gov­ern­ment offi­cials opened fire on pro­test­ers gath­ered in Sanaa’s Change Square, killing at least forty-five and wound­ing over two hun­dred. Saleh’s rep­u­ta­tion suf­fered in par­tic­u­lar because a para­mil­i­tary unit com­mand­ed by his nephew Yahya did not inter­vene to stop the vio­lence, and the gun­men were seen as com­mit­ting a mas­sive moral and cul­tur­al trans­gres­sion by fir­ing on unarmed peo­ple in an unpro­voked man­ner. The move attract­ed inter­na­tion­al con­dem­na­tion, and led to a state of emer­gency as Saleh’s grip on pow­er loos­ened. By the end of March, six of eigh­teen gov­er­norates were out of gov­ern­ment con­trol.

Despite his dete­ri­o­rat­ing posi­tion, Saleh spent months skill­ful­ly evad­ing a deal medi­at­ed by the Gulf Coop­er­a­tion Coun­cil (GCC) to end the cri­sis, in addi­tion to pres­sure from an inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty out­raged by the vio­lence and con­cerned about a pos­si­ble state col­lapse that would nur­ture AQAP. Mean­while, estab­lished polit­i­cal elites side­lined enthu­si­as­tic pro­test­ers who lacked the resources and infra­struc­ture to main­tain a pop­u­lar revolt. By June 2011, when Saleh was injured in a rock­et attack and a tem­po­rary cease­fire was called in Sanaa, estab­lished par­ties like Al-Islah, a Mus­lim Broth­er­hood affil­i­ate that received finan­cial and intel­lec­tu­al sup­port from Sau­di Ara­bia, and oth­er major elites such as those from oppo­si­tion­al trib­al net­works, began to take con­trol of the move­ments form­ing in the squares. Al-Islah in par­tic­u­lar quick­ly pushed out the grass­roots oppo­si­tion through its supe­ri­or orga­niz­ing resources, greater expe­ri­ence in deal­ing with polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions, divi­sive reli­gious rhetoric that frag­ment­ed pro­test­ers (espe­cial­ly through gen­der seg­re­ga­tion), and straight­for­ward phys­i­cal intim­i­da­tion of the non-Islamist oppo­si­tion.

At the same time, armed groups includ­ing the Houthis, and tribes in the provinces of Arhab and Nihm, began to take ter­ri­to­ries across the coun­try. Fear­ing their posi­tion in a rapid­ly chang­ing polit­i­cal order, the Houthis knew they had to act quick­ly in order to avoid being over­whelmed by mil­i­tary elites like Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, and high­ly influ­en­tial trib­al lead­ers includ­ing Sadiq al-Ahmar of the Hashid Trib­al Con­fed­er­a­tion. Fur­ther south, Islamist mili­tias linked to AQAP took the provin­cial cap­i­tal of Zin­jibar. Giv­en that Saleh had recalled mil­i­tary units to crack down on protests in Sanaa and Taiz, the US and Sau­di Ara­bia imme­di­ate­ly began to blame the insta­bil­i­tycaused by pro­test­ers demand­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic free­doms and major eco­nom­ic changes in the coun­try. Amer­i­ca respond­ed with inten­si­fied drone strikes and covert oper­a­tions against AQAP, fur­ther desta­bi­liz­ing an already unsta­ble sit­u­a­tion.

In Novem­ber 2011, Saleh final­ly signed a GCC ini­tia­tive that gave him immu­ni­ty, and trans­ferred pow­ers to his for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Abdu Rab­bu Mansur Hadi, with strong sup­port from the Unit­ed States, Euro­pean Union, and Unit­ed Nations. The fol­low­ing month, the remain­ing youth move­ment, the Houthis, and Hirak, a move­ment of south­ern nation­al­ists that grew out of pen­sion protests half a decade ear­li­er, staged a Life March from Taiz to Sanaa in oppo­si­tion to the deal. How­ev­er, the sit­u­a­tion was broad­ly out of their hands. In Feb­ru­ary 2012, Hadi was con­firmed as pres­i­dent in an elec­tion in which he was the only can­di­date, with the Houthis, Hirak, and many inde­pen­dents boy­cotting.

As agreed upon in the GCC ini­tia­tive, Pres­i­dent Hadi direct­ed the Yemeni par­lia­ment to pass an immu­ni­ty law for Saleh and five hun­dred of his aides. The move inten­si­fied divi­sions with­in Yemen, and drew wide­spread con­dem­na­tion, includ­ing from Navi Pil­lay, the UN High Com­mis­sion­er for Human Rights, and NGOs like Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al. Hadi imme­di­ate­ly moved against Saleh loy­al­ists in the mil­i­tary and over a dozen insti­tu­tions and launched the Nation­al Dia­logue Con­fer­ence (NDC) from March 2013 to Jan­u­ary 2014. Telling­ly, the youth and grass­roots move­ments that drove the orig­i­nal protests werent invit­ed. The NDC was intend­ed to be an agree­ment between estab­lished polit­i­cal actors on struc­tur­al reforms and a new con­sti­tu­tion. After the process was con­clud­ed, Hadi stoked exist­ing antag­o­nisms by extend­ing his man­date for anoth­er year, and gave lit­tle indi­ca­tion about how the NDC find­ings would even be imple­ment­ed.

Final­ly, Hadi began to seri­ous­ly lose ground in July 2014, when he made a deeply unpop­u­lar deci­sion to lift fuel sub­si­dies in order to appease the Inter­na­tion­al Mon­e­tary Fund. The Houthis took advan­tage of pub­lic out­rage to orga­nize protests with vicious crit­i­cisms of the NDC process, along with demands for fresh sub­si­dies, and a new gov­ern­ment. By Sep­tem­ber, an agree­ment was reached, but Houthi com­man­ders under­stood that there was now an open­ing. Sev­er­al weeks lat­er, the Houthis took con­trol of Sanaa, and dis­solved par­lia­ment by Jan­u­ary 2015. Regard­less of the devel­op­ments, the US con­tin­ued what it called coun­tert­er­ror­ist oper­a­tions, and briefly also had lines of intel­li­gence to the Houthis, which it called anti Al-Qae­da.” As usu­al, Amer­i­can inter­ests in Yemen were pri­mar­i­ly dri­ven by anti-ter­ror­ism, with oth­er con­cerns like democ­ra­cy and inter­na­tion­al legal norms being sec­ondary.

After Hadi fled to Aden, the Houthis formed a new Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mit­tee, and issued a Con­sti­tu­tion­al Dec­la­ra­tion in Feb­ru­ary 2015. In the doc­u­ment, the Houthis out­lined that the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mit­tee would lead the gov­ern­ment, rights and free­doms would be pro­tect­ed by the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mit­tee, and that a tran­si­tion­al state would work to imple­ment the Nation­al Dia­logue Con­fer­ence pro­to­cols over a course of two years, before sub­mit­ting a draft con­sti­tu­tion for a ref­er­en­dum. The Houthis also tried to work with local urban and trib­al elites (to some degree of suc­cess), replaced the Yemeni par­lia­ment and local coun­cils with a 551 mem­ber Tran­si­tion­al Coun­cil that for­mer offi­cials were enti­tled to join, and out­lined that a five mem­ber Pres­i­den­tial Coun­cil appoint­ed by the Tran­si­tion­al Coun­cil would replace Hadi. It was clear to local and inter­na­tion­al actors that while the doc­u­ment seemed promis­ing, and the tran­si­tion­al process under Hadi was flawed from the out­set, the Houthis sought to pre­serve their own posi­tion as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of armed Zai­di Shi’a tribes in north­ern Yemen. The group was par­tic­u­lar­ly opposed to plans to restruc­ture Yemen into a fed­er­a­tion of six regions, which would have great­ly frag­ment­ed Houthi influ­ence and polit­i­cal pow­er.

Short­ly after the dec­la­ra­tion, the Houthis began to advance through Yemen, and a cycle of crack­downs and revenge killings” quick­ly con­sumed the coun­try. The Houthis took Taiz by the end of Feb­ru­ary, where they were greet­ed with mass protests, and on March 25, had sur­round­ed Aden with Hadi leav­ing the coun­try. On March 26, at mid­night, Sau­di Ara­bia announced that a coali­tion of large­ly GCC nations, with gen­er­ous Amer­i­can sup­port, would inter­vene through a com­bi­na­tion of aer­i­al bom­bard­ments, ground troops, and even­tu­al­ly, state build­ing ini­tia­tives (to date it has been best known for the first). In May, despite fight­ing a six year insur­gency against the group, Saleh direct­ed his loy­al­ists to join the Houthis in an alliance that would bol­ster them mil­i­tar­i­ly, pro­vide them much need­ed influ­ence through Saleh’s old net­works, and also allow him to poten­tial­ly regain his lost pow­er.

As a result, the Houthis have been bet­ter able to resist the GCC/US push, but the group is still strug­gling with basic issues of gov­er­nance. The Houthis have tried to car­ry out impor­tant func­tions through agen­cies that report to the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mit­tee, but con­stant bomb­ings, a block­ade of Yemeni ports (includ­ing Hodei­dah, a major ship­ping point for inter­na­tion­al aid and local com­merce), and a reluc­tance to work with human­i­tar­i­an orga­ni­za­tions brought on by wartime para­noia and con­cerns over a hos­tile civil­ian pop­u­la­tion, have total­ly lim­it­ed its capac­i­ty to man­age the ter­ri­to­ries under its con­trol. It is no won­der that Yemen is over­whelmed by famine, inter­nal dis­place­ment, and med­ical scarci­ty. This is in addi­tion to grow­ing sec­tar­i­an­ism, par­tic­u­lar­ly in cities for­mer­ly held by the Houthi-Saleh alliance, where Salafi orga­niz­ers have pros­pered in the con­text of polit­i­cal hope­less­ness, human rights vio­la­tions, and indis­crim­i­nate tar­get­ing of civil­ians (by all sides, but the Houthis and Saleh are get­ting the most atten­tion). The Siege of Ta’iz has now become a sym­bol of the war’s bru­tal­i­ty, with snipers hunt­ing its streets, and orga­ni­za­tions like the Inter­na­tion­al Com­mis­sion of the Red Cross strug­gling to help those trapped in the city. Else­where, coali­tion bomb­ing runs hit mil­i­tants, aid work­ers (espe­cial­ly those from Médecins Sans Fron­tières), and civil­ians indis­crim­i­nate­ly.

It is a far cry from the hope and excite­ment that orig­i­nal­ly start­ed the revolt in 2011.


It is unclear how the war in Yemen will evolve from here, espe­cial­ly with regard to the Unit­ed States, which seems like­ly to get more direct­ly involved, but also con­tin­ues to oscil­late between dif­fer­ent posi­tions. As evi­dence of its often con­tra­dic­to­ry behav­iour, con­sid­er that the US Navy bombed mul­ti­ple Houthi radar sites in Octo­ber, short­ly after react­ing to hun­dreds of civil­ian deaths in a Sau­di funer­al bomb­ing by warn­ing that its sup­port is not a blank check.It is pos­si­ble that the Pen­ta­gon could push for a role in the con­flict that extends beyond the logis­ti­cal sup­port (with the US shar­ing intel­li­gence, and plac­ing Amer­i­can offi­cers in coali­tion tar­get­ing rooms), weapons man­u­fac­tur­ing, and diplo­mat­ic assis­tance that has already tak­en place. Giv­en the bad press that is being gen­er­at­ed about the bomb­ings in par­tic­u­lar, and how they are rad­i­cal­iz­ing forces on the ground, the Pen­ta­gon could seek to con­trol the dam­age done by its allied com­man­ders.

It is also impor­tant to note that the Repub­li­cans want to pub­licly con­front Iran, but can­not actu­al­ly do so in Iraq, Syr­ia, and Lebanon. The real­i­ty is that the Unit­ed States either needs Iran­ian coop­er­a­tion and sup­port, espe­cial­ly in Iraq, or lacks the capac­i­ty to con­front the coun­try in oth­er con­texts, such as through Hizb’Allah. The GOP could turn to Yemen for a rel­a­tive­ly safe vic­to­ry against Iran, either through full-scale deploy­ments, or engi­neer­ing a the­atri­cal and strate­gi­cal­ly insignif­i­cant oper­a­tion like Trump’s dis­ci­plin­ing of Assad ear­li­er this year.

Trump would sim­ply have to devel­op Sau­di Ara­bias already suc­cess­ful argu­ments that the war is one of self-defense and exag­ger­ate sto­ries about alleged Iran­ian sup­port for the Houthis. Of course, as the present coali­tion appears to be learn­ing, such an approach could eas­i­ly go the way of the North Yemeni Civ­il War, and Aden Emer­gency, when hopes of a quick and deci­sive win were swept away. It is also pos­si­ble that the Unit­ed States con­tin­ues with its cur­rent role, to ensure that it is not the pub­lic face of the con­flict, and force its allies to take offi­cial respon­si­bil­i­ty for the conflict’s bloody excess­es. The US would sim­ply be doing on a much larg­er scale what it already does through proxy deten­tion in Yemen, which is offload­ing main­te­nance tasks, along with the worst tor­ture of pris­on­ers, on for­eign secu­ri­ty forces like UAE Spe­cial Oper­a­tions, while achiev­ing its own objec­tives by inter­ro­gat­ing ter­ror­ism sus­pects. Essen­tial­ly, the deten­tion is a joint project between the US and its allies, but the for­mer claims that it is “Emi­rati-led” or “Sau­di-led” or “coali­tion-led” in order to gain cov­er as it pur­sues its main for­eign pol­i­cy objec­tives in Yemen, which are neu­tral­iz­ing the Houthis and oth­er threats to its allies and “fight­ing ter­ror­ists.”

Regard­less of what hap­pens, there are mul­ti­ple strate­gies going for­ward to resist the wars pos­si­ble expan­sion, and starve the Sau­di Ara­bi­an war machine. It is easy to lose hope when Trump brands the Houthis as part of the foot sol­diers of evil,but anti-war cam­paign­ers, media spe­cial­ists, and the left more broad­ly have mul­ti­ple options when it comes to rais­ing aware­ness, pres­sur­ing gov­ern­ments, and tar­get­ing arms com­pa­nies as part of a wider strat­e­gy of dis­rupt­ing sup­ply lines into Sau­di Ara­bia, end­ing Yemens naval block­ade, and forc­ing coali­tion forces to with­draw from the coun­try.

In the Unit­ed States, activists like Code Pink, in addi­tion to var­i­ous NGO and state agen­cies, already man­aged to pres­sure the Oba­ma White House to restrict clus­ter bomb sales to Sau­di Ara­bia. Obvi­ous­ly, these approach­es have become more dif­fi­cult with the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Trump. The GOP-dom­i­nat­ed gov­ern­ment is much less like­ly to bow to polit­i­cal pres­sure, unless it comes in the form of over­whelm­ing pub­lic oppo­si­tion and major dis­rup­tion by orga­nized anti-war groups. Activists need to exam­ine which nodesof the coali­tion mil­i­tary sup­ply chain are clos­est to them, espe­cial­ly in the Unit­ed States, giv­en its role in the con­flict, and stage their own anti-war inter­ven­tions.

Anti-gun mur­al, Yemen.

This can be done through stan­dard cam­paign­ing work such as leaflet­ing and ral­lies, but it will be eas­i­er to tar­get indi­vid­ual sup­pli­ers with direct actions that gen­er­ate a great deal of pub­lic­i­ty, includ­ing L-3 Fuz­ing and Ord­nance Sys­tems, Raytheon, and BAE Sys­tems. In Europe, activists cur­rent­ly have a greater abil­i­ty to car­ry out these actions, giv­en crack­downs on pop­u­lar dis­sent in the US, and a wider range of poten­tial­ly pos­i­tive out­comes. Orga­niz­ers like Cam­paign Against the Arms Trade have used a vari­ety of tac­tics to dis­rupt and chal­lenge the legal­i­ty of arms exports to Sau­di Ara­bia. Cam­paign­ers should also remem­ber that dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ments will be respon­sive to slight­ly dif­fer­ent strate­gies. For exam­ple, Ger­man activists can lever­age a spe­cif­ic sense of nation­al moral oblig­a­tion traced back to the down­fall of the Nazi regime, while Swedish arms exports run against its avowed poli­cies of Scan­di­na­vian paci­fism. Obvi­ous­ly, no one set of actions will be enough, and a broad inter­na­tion­al cam­paign is nec­es­sary to pre­vent coali­tion forces from get­ting the train­ing, sup­plies, and sup­port that they need, in addi­tion to mak­ing the US more cau­tious about expand­ing its activ­i­ties in Yemen.

From there, activists can press for a broad­er and more sweep­ing demil­i­ta­riza­tion of the coun­try, includ­ing the grad­ual dis­ar­ma­ment of its heav­i­ly armed pop­u­la­tion. That clear­ly wont solve Yemens prob­lems, which are a reflec­tion of decades of cor­rupt gov­er­nance, dwin­dling resources, insuf­fi­cient grass­roots pol­i­tics, and mas­sive inequal­i­ty both domes­ti­cal­ly and region­al­ly. How­ev­er, it could pro­vide the right set­ting for Yemeni activists to recu­per­ate and, with sup­port from activists inter­na­tion­al­ly, orga­nize the sus­tained actions that will be nec­es­sary to democ­ra­tize the coun­try in the long term. Its a process that will take years, but has no chance of begin­ning in the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, which cur­rent­ly seems far more like­ly to end with Yemen divid­ed into sev­er­al unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic admin­is­tra­tive units run by the Houthis, Salehs, var­i­ous trib­al group­ings, and old elites from the PDRY eager to sep­a­rate from the north.

Author of the article

is a freelance journalist and analyst who is currently writing an MPhil/PhD in Religions and Philosophies at SOAS, University of London, specializing in bodily violence and Islamist politics. They also write regularly for Souciant Magazine.