Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Soviet Union, the US, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates have especially driven their share of interests in Yemen since the 1920s.


Yemen is again on the brink of war escalation as the six-month-long truce between the two warring parties expires. The Ansar Allah movement, known popularly as the Houthis, have only come back stronger with reinvigorated agendas. The war that began eight years ago has already killed 400,000 people and presents itself as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

Against this sordid background, these are some facts about the current plight of Yemenis: 80% or 24.1 million of its population hang in the balance as they require humanitarian assistance; 3 million people have been internally displaced since 2015, falling victim to other disasters such as floods and disease outbreaks; 58% are under extreme poverty; the economy has lost $90 billion so far with more than 600,000 people losing their jobs; 54% (17.4 million) faced severe acute food insecurity in the first six months of 2022, of which 3.5 million are pregnant or breastfeeding women and children under five. Based on this trajectory, about 2.2 million children between one month to three years are estimated to fall prey to high to severe acute malnutrition. It is also highly likely that the number of adults facing malnutrition will increase to 19 million.
The World Food Program has provided food aid to approximately 13 million Yemeni people. However, an unfortunate funding crunch, coupled with food price inflation, and the effects of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, have forced the WFP to cut back on the food supply to Yemen. This decision is bound to affect the Yemenis reeling under the pressure of the war. The state’s health infrastructure has been decimated, leaving little to serve disproportionately heavy casualties. Hospitals, public health centres, and schools have been targets of bomb attacks or missile strikes, thanks to the civil war that began in 2014 and intensified as a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran in 2015.

Yemen is not new to being severely impacted by external forces. Intervention by regional and extra-regional powers has decided the course of the conflict as much as internal divergences and shortcomings have. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Soviet Union, the US, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates have especially driven their share of interests in Yemen since the 1920s. Yemen bore the brunt of Cold War politics that saw the North and the South standing on opposite poles. At any given point in its modern history, Yemen had been a ground of external power rivalry—between Egypt and Saudi Arabia till the 1960s, between the Soviet Union and the US through Saudi Arabia during the Cold War. To an extent, it can be said that Yemen embraced the client-patron relationship to compensate for the lack of state capacity. These interferences eventually caused societal disruptions, leading to a civil war and what now has manifested into a proxy war orchestrated and worsened by West Asia’s rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran, to carve their sphere of influence.

Saudi Arabia’s control over Yemen’s affairs dates back to the initial decades of the twentieth century when they supported the Imamate to keep republican revolutions under check. The northern neighbour’s theological and financial influence on prominent groups like the tribes and the political class has impacted Yemen’s stability. Riyadh has been particular about securing its border with Yemen and ensuring its regional influence does not wane away. The Arab Uprising demanded Riyadh’s increased attention to the developments in Yemen, especially after the Houthi forces took over Sana’a in 2014.
The United States took the war many notches up by supplying weapons used by the coalition forces in their fight against the Houthi forces. Supporting the coalition forces with arms was a prominent part of President Donald Trump’s policy toward Saudi Arabia. After being repeatedly criticised for its hand in the bloodshed in Yemen, President Joe Biden announced Washington’s decision to roll back its arms assistance. Even though the President has prioritised bringing peace to Yemen, it is easier said than done, given the highly anti-American sentiments prevailing among the Houthis.
Eight years into the war, the Saudi-led coalition has not found a way out, nor have been able to settle the conflict. In the process, whatever was remaining of Yemen’s institutions and infrastructure were further decimated. Clearly, the coalition’s strategies have not worked in defeating the Houthi forces. The dynamics had only gotten complicated with the United Arab Emirates finding itself on a different page than that of Saudi Arabia. Abu Dhabi’s initial support to the Southern Movement and associated tribes has now made the secessionists more assertive in holding on to their objectives, leaving little space for negotiation. Unlike Saudi Arabia, which concentrated on Norther Yemen, UAE focused on the South’s ports and the Island of Socotra to boost its maritime presence. Abu Dhabi’s peculiar involvement made it also a target for a Houthi drone attack, and this warning sign has to be more seriously considered with the Houthi forces’ recent alarming threat to strike oil firms in Saudi Arabia and UAE.
Meanwhile, Iran has optimally taken the pre-existing Houthi grievances to its advantage and ridden on it to push its interests ahead. Unlike other Iran-backed proxy groups in the region, the Houthis are not known to take orders from Tehran. The two parties became allies because of their overlapping anti-US, anti-Israel ideology and stance against Saudi Arabia’s offensive operations in Yemen. Nevertheless, despite domestic turmoil, Iran’s continued assistance has boosted the Ansar Allah movement, helping it exhibit better resolve in pursuing its goals without losing much. The ongoing mediated talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia have not seen enough progress to impact the war in Yemen. Even if, hypothetically, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other external powers withdraw entirely, their intervention has reinforced the conflict’s multiple complicated layers that will prevent its cessation.

The protracted conflict in Yemen is a repercussion of the deepening rift in state-society relations, fuelled by external power aspirations and leverage over the years. The involvement of external powers, which was, at times, welcomed by the state, has disturbed the state’s identity and paved the way for armed struggles. The regional and extra-regional powers involved in the conflict should let go of their vested interests and help the international community manage and resolve the conflict in due course. Yemen might irrevocably fall into a trap, leaving no possibility for conflict resolution. Even if a negotiated settlement is arrived at, post-war reconstruction will be an onerous feat considering the deep societal fissures caused by years of relentless war and its fallout. Misplaced priorities will only intensify the war in
Yemen and exacerbate outcomes such as food and health-related deaths, throwing the burden on its people and further weakening the fragile state.

B. Poornima is a Dr. TMA Pai Fellow and doctoral candidate at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal. She works on the protracted social conflict in Yemen for her PhD thesis. Her research areas include West Asia and North African geopolitics, conflict analysis and international negotiation. Twitter: @aminroopb