The Complex Politics Behind the Chaos in Yemen

Houthi supporters shout anti-Saudi slogans and wave their guns in the air during a protest against airstrikes carried out by a Saudi-led coalition against Houthi positions, in Sanaa, Yemen, April 10, 2015. Yahya Arhab/EPA

The casual reader of a recent New York Times op-ed by Yemen's exiled president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, might come away with the impression that all Yemen's problems are the fault of Iran and its "puppets," the Houthi rebels who in January drove Hadi out of Sanaa.

That's a gross oversimplification; Yemen has been smoldering for decades. Most of the problems are homegrown, and it's hard to argue that Iran has had more influence than other foreign powers.

The poorest country in the Middle East and a corrupt autocracy for three decades, Yemen started unraveling in 2011, when then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh reluctantly ceded power, under pressure from Gulf states and Western powers, during the Arab Spring. He was succeeded by his vice president, Hadi, who had popular support and a mandate to oversee a transition to more democratic rule through a so-called national dialogue that was supposed to usher in a new era for Yemen. The United Nations sent a special envoy, Jamal Benomar, and other bureaucrats to help Hadi's government stamp out corruption and create a new constitution.

For years, little has functioned in Yemen, from schools to hospitals, ministries and the disastrous water system. Half the population is illiterate, there is a huge problem with malnutrition, and an archaic patriarchal system rules daily life for most Yemenis. In 2013, while traveling through the country with the NGO Oxfam, I met girls as young as 11 who were forced into marriages out of economic necessity. Their mothers, rather than being horrified at signing over their prepubescent daughters to men three times their age, were delighted they had one less mouth to feed.

At the same time, the United States maintained an alliance with Yemen against Al-Qaeda, under which U.S. forces conducted drone strikes that sometimes missed their targets, exacerbating anti-government and anti-American feelings.

Yemeni security forces stand guard in front of a poster bearing the portrait of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi during a pro-government demonstration on August 26, 2014, in the Yemeni capital Sanaa. Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty

There is also a history of deep regional and tribal divisions. Until 1990, South Yemen was a separate country, home to a mostly Sunni population, and a civil war racked it in the mid-1990s. In the north, Saleh waged six military campaigns against those who belong to a distinct branch of the Shiites called the Zaidis. The Zaidis, who make up 20 percent of Yemen's population, responded to years of oppression by forming a civil rights movement, known as the Houthi.

In 2013, Hadi's national dialogue was losing momentum, politics were as corrupt as ever, and the Houthis had had enough. Their militias started pushing south from their homeland in the north, promising, "We will save you from a corrupt regime."

"The Houthis weren't the only ones who got nothing from the state, even back in the days of Saleh," says one former U.N. official. "But the reason they upped the ante was that there was a tacit agreement between the state and tribes that everyone somehow scratched everyone else's back—with the state being the main banker."

The Houthis, with the backing of their Shiite brethren in Iran, arrived in Sanaa by mid-2014. By January 2015, they had taken over the capital, as well as carved out a sizable chunk of the country. They brought in a new government that was broadly technocratic, and forced Hadi to resign and flee to his hometown, Aden. "From then on, the country unraveled, and the U.N.—still overseeing the transition process—lost all credibility," says one former EU diplomat.

The U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Jamal Benomar, has been the target of criticism, but Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, an academic from Mauritania who is deputy director of a think tank called the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, argues that: "The U.N. did not completely fail in Yemen. Benomar arguably did a good job…. Faced with unpredictable and unreliable parties, he managed to get a decent deal [for Saleh to step down], while other volatile post-Arab Spring theaters, like Libya, went into chaotic drift."

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Now, however, Yemen and Libya are both aflame. Former President Saleh is actively backing the Houthis. In March, Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes, citing Iranian interference in Yemen, and mobilized other Arab countries to join the cause. The United States, seeing Yemen as a key in the fight against terrorism, has offered qualified support for the Saudi-led offensive.

Today on the streets of Sanaa, the Saudi missiles, meant to take out Houthi military installments, are hitting far too many civilians. Hospitals are filled with survivors whose blackened skin and broken bones are brutal evidence of how hard it is to root out militarily adept rebels in an urban setting. The U.N. has said more than 600 people have been killed by violence since March 19. Water is scarce, electricity is intermittent and food is in short supply in parts of the country.

Yemen was top of the agenda at the Arab League Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh at the end of March, but there was little progress in talks there, and threats of a ground invasion by Egyptian and Saudi forces raised fears of the crisis escalating. "Our country is being destroyed now," says Najla Mohammed, a 34-year-old teacher in Sanaa. "And the mediation to end this crisis or a new constitution won't actually stop the Saudi airstrikes, or provide people with what they need—food, drinking water, oil. What we need first is to stop airstrikes, then go for dialogue."

Nearly 60 percent of Yemen's population is under 25, and their top concerns are employment, education and a less corrupt society. The U.N. focus on building a new constitution after the fall of Saleh seems remote to many, especially given the latest violence. When asked about this, Najeeb al-Resafi, a 34-year-old civil engineer, says, "Constitution? We are being killed…. Our children and women are being killed. And you are talking to me about a new constitution and dialogue? What I want is these airstrikes to stop shelling us!"

Finding a solution for this crisis will require an honest assessment of what caused it, so it's not merely finger-pointing to ask: Who lost Yemen? Was it the legacy of Saleh's greed, Hadi's inefficiency, Iranian meddling, or the miscalculations of Western countries that saw Yemen only as a bulwark against terrorism rather than a failed state that would soon collapse?

In his New York Times op-ed, Hadi said the Houthis must withdraw and disarm their militia and return to dialogue, or face further military action from the Saudi-led coalition until his government is restored. "If the Houthis are not stopped, they are destined to become the next Hezbollah, deployed by Iran to threaten the people in the region and beyond," he wrote. "The oil shipments through the Red Sea that much of the world depends on will be in jeopardy, and Al-Qaeda and other radical groups will be allowed to flourish."

In other words, it's all about terrorism and oil. If only it were that simple.

— With additional reporting by Almigdad Mojalli in Sanaa.