Yemen: Chronicle of a devastated country


December 21, 2017 – Fort Russ News – Paul Antonopoulos – Translated from Descrifranco la Guerra.

MADRID, Spain – Initiated as a popular revolution and ignited by the so-called Arab Springs that spread across North Africa and the Middle East between 2010 and 2013, what at first seemed like a hopeful attempt to overthrow the established regime soon ended up becoming a armed conflict with both national and international actors, which has plunged the country into one of the greatest humanitarian crises of recent decades. In this article we will analyze the factors, causes and development of the events that have sunk Yemen in a war and misery ignored by the media eye.

Yemen in the 20th century

Yemen, a country stuck to the force.

Undoubtedly, the main source for the conflict are the enormous differences between the north and the south of Yemen. Despite being a territory defined for millennia, it has rarely been completely dominated by a single force. We no longer speak of different tribes or cultures, we speak of Yemen being divided between two completely different States. Until 1990, there was the Arab Republic of Yemen (RAY) to the north, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Yemen (RDPY), the only Marxist country in the Arab world, to the south and east, due to the Ottoman rule of the north and the British colonization from the south. The British created, by means of pacts with the leaders of several regions, two territories: the Federation of the South of Arabia and the Protectorate of the South of Arabia. With the British withdrawal from the colony in 1967, the PDRY was formed, increasing the divergences between both parties. On the one hand, a state allied with Saudi Arabia, capitalist and Islamic. On the other, one with a decidedly Marxist and secular approach, supported by the USSR and Nasser’s Egypt. Despite an apparent antagonistic image that presaged an open conflict, it did not result in more than border incidents during the 23 years that this division was maintained.

In 1989 the USSR collapsed and the PDRY began to find itself without support at the international level. A very hasty process of unification is initiated – due to the existence of gas and oil deposits along the border that leads to the signing of joint exploitation agreements, creation of companies, demilitarization of the border … – which culminated in 1990 after the signing of a draft of joint Constitution between Saleh and the president of South Yemen, Ali Salim al-Beidh. Soon, the Socialist Party is persecuted and unable to act in the new government. Given this situation, the socialist leaders will proclaim independence in 1994, thus beginning a civil war in which they will have the support of, curiously, Saudi Arabia, in the face of the threat of a stable, united and Shia Yemen. Despite the defeat they will face, overtaken by the forces of the North, the seeds of southern separatism will be left well planted in the region, with the Southern Movement (Harak al-Janubi) re-emerging in 2007 as the union of several groups with ideologies and agendas divergent but united by the desire to make the southern part of the country independent.

During this process of unification and civil war the former president of the RAY and military Ali Abdullah Saleh, of whom we will speak later, will consolidate as a favorite candidate for the presidency of the new country due to his power and influence. It is not surprising, then, that he obtained 96% of the votes in the 1999 elections, starting a government accused of being corrupt and deeply dependent on his figure.

Border conflicts in the Red Sea

One of the most attractive elements of Yemen, along with its reserves of fossil fuels, is its position in the Red Sea, which allows control of one end of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, the Suez Canal gate and the Mediterranean. The control of such an important and profitable commercial route is not trivial, so it is not surprising that throughout the years there have been several clashes, some of great magnitude, between Yemen and the neighboring powers. Although they have taken place periodically throughout the twentieth century and along the entire length of the Yemeni border, we will cover the two most relevant at the end of the century, in chronological order.

The conflict over the Hanish Islands (Zukur-Hanish archipelago) begins in 1995 between Eritrea and Yemen. This territory belonged originally to the latter, but after its entry into the United Nations and its independence Eritrea began to dispute with Yemen the sovereignty of the islands. Two rounds of negotiations took place: during the first, with France as mediator, the two countries signed an agreement accepting UN arbitration and refraining from the use of force to contradict the court’s decision. This agreement would end on paper when Eritrean troops occupied one of the islands of the archipelago, Hanish al-Saghir; the UN ordered its withdrawal and it became effective. However, Eritrea began deploying Russian SAM systems purchased from Ethiopia on the coast, adding fuel to a fire that had little to light.

In the second round it was agreed to resolve the disputes through the negotiations themselves, prepared for February 96, and to obey the Hague tribunal if they failed. These did not happen. In 1995, a German company under the protection of 200 Yemeni soldiers began the construction of a tourist resort on the largest island of the archipelago. Taken as an attempt to establish “facts on the ground” that could favor their position in the negotiations, Eritrea issued an ultimatum to withdraw Yemeni troops that was ignored.

A large-scale operation was launched, including all ships available from the navy and even using fishing boats to land troops. Airplanes were also used to send troops to the island. Widely overcome, the Yemenis lost the island in 3 days. Much speculation has been given about whether the Eritreans had Egyptian or even Israeli help, and the possible motivations, following Saleh’s statements about what happened, but without more conclusive evidence. With no possibility of negotiations, the court in The Hague took action and ruled that most of the islands belonged to Yemen, Eritrea retained several islands very close to their coasts and fishing rights throughout the archipelago.

The second conflict that concerns us is with Saudi Arabia in 1998 for the control of Duwaima Island, of which the Saudis claimed 75% of the territory as their own, while Yemen declared the complete sovereignty of the island. With a long history of territorial disputes since Saudi Arabia emerged in the 1930s, and with a mid-1960s war, it seemed that a point of agreement had been reached in the signing of a memorandum of understanding in 1995, committing itself to resolve their disputes peacefully. However, on July 19, 1998, nine Saudi ships and artillery on the coast bombarded the island for 9 hours, according to the Saudi Interior Minister in self-defense. Several accusations were crossed in the following days, added to the announcement by Yemen to retake the island completely. At the end of July, the two countries reached another agreement to settle this and other disputes in negotiations. These finally materialized in the year 2000, with an agreement that regulated the entire border delineated by the Taif Agreement, as well as other unresolved issues. It should be noted that this was quite beneficial for Yemen, which received 40,000 square kilometers in the area disputed in the east, and around 3000 in the Red Sea area.

Insurgent and terrorist movements in Yemen

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It is not only the past that separates the territories of Yemen, because the religious diversity of the country is also a source of conflict, always combined with the political and territorial. There is a marked boundary between the Zidane Shiism of the North and the Sunism of the South, with small Ismailite territories, especially in the North. Although in the past these differences were not a matter of great dispute, and relations between the groups were cordial -marriages between different branches were common-, the appearance of political parties with a marked Salafist ideology such as Al-Islah (branch of the brothers Muslims) and the expansion of the same by zaidí territory results in that, in 2004, the Houthis emerge as part of a zaidí movement called Young Believers. This insurgent group, with great influence in the north, was a repeated objective of the Yemeni army, which was unable to disarm the organization and expel it from its strongholds in the mountains of the north of the country, from which they expanded slowly until 2011 .

Also the terrorist organizations found their place in Yemen. Fighters returned from Iraq and Afghanistan continued their activity in the deserts and mountains of the country. Under the name of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), they have proved to be one of the most effective branches of the organization, with plans of attacks on American targets inside and outside the US, and for which they have been one of the targets of drone operations and pursued by government troops. Since its installation in Yemen, AQAP has maintained active relations with other terrorist groups in the surrounding regions, such as A-Shabaab in Somalia, with whom the arms trade as well as training and mutual support is frequent.

Saleh, 3 decades of undisputed government.

Ali Abdulah Saleh has been the most important political actor in Yemen for more than 30 years, and even today he still has a great influence, despite not being president. He was born in 1942 in a small town south of Sanaa, as a member of the Sanhan tribe, a minority and unimportant among all those who formed the Hashid tribal confederacy, of Zaydi religion, who controlled several districts southwest of the capital. He received basic elementary education in a local Koranic school and in 1958, as a teenager, he entered as a private in the ranks of troops controlled by the Hashid, under the command of the Zaidi Imams. However, in 1962, the shayk of the confederation supported the coup d’etat against the monarchical government, so that their loyalty happened to be with the republican side. In 1963 he was granted the rank of second lieutenant. The war would last until 1970, with international support of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and United Kingdom on the part of the monarchists, and Egyptian support (with up to 70000 troops) and Soviet on the part of the republicans. He participated in the defense of Sanaa during the 70 days of siege between November 67 and February 68, and was in command of the military camp Khalid Bin Al-Walid between 75 and 78.

His leap to political life is fast and impressively effective. After the assassination of RAY President Ahmad al-Gashmi on 24/7/78, he is elected a member of the presidential council. Less than a month later, on July 17, he is elected president of the country. Due to the strong tribal divisions and loyalties of the country, Saleh accepts a power sharing with Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, the leader of the tribal confederation Hashid, and with General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the most influential military man in the country, in an agreement ratified in writing. In 1982 Saleh was also granted the rank of Colonel and was elected president of the political party General People’s Congress (CGP). He was re-elected in 1983, and in 1990 during the process of reunification with the South, he was elected President of the Presidential Council, as well as in 1993. Finally, after the approval of the Constitution in 1994, he was elected by Parliament as President of the country.

The first open elections in the country took place in 1999, in which Saleh obtained 96% of the votes. In 2001 a referendum was held to extend the duration of the presidential term from 5 to 7 years, the parliamentarian from 4 to 6, and creating a council of the Shura elected by the president, which was approved. In 2005, Saleh announced that he would not run for election. However, the Yemeni system requires that there be a minimum of two candidates, supported and voted on by the parliament, for which it was re-elected in the 2006 elections, not without certain controversies in the face of irregularities, but with the approval of the State Department of the USA. In 2011, Saleh announced again that he would not run for re-election, and this time the glances went to his son, who had already led since 2006 the Special Forces and the Republican Guard. However, with the start of the protests in the country and its development, these elections, planned for 2013, were not carried out.

The current conflict

2011-2013: From the demonstrations to the exit of the president.

Although since the resurgence of the southern separatist movement the protests had not stopped in the south of the country, it is the development of the popular revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya that ignites the spark of popular mobilization, clamoring and demanding Saleh’s departure from the country. government and a regime change that puts an end to the corruption and poverty that plagues Yemen. Massive demonstrations are taking place in the main cities of the country, against which state forces use increasingly violent means, such as the use of live ammunition against demonstrators on March 8, 2011 – although there is evidence of up to 19 dead in the protests of the city of Aden between February 16 and 25 (all with bullet wounds, but without confirming their origin) – and which were met with equally violent responses. The government maintained a strict blockade of information, denying access to journalists to hospitals and other buildings, keeping secret reports and accounts of deaths and injuries in the protests and blaming the violent actions of the demonstrators. There were also arrests, beatings and even the murder of activists, all fueling the bonfire of the revolt. Initially little involved in the protests, the tribal groups and insurgents of the country take positions next to the demonstrators, adopting some of their demands. In this context the Houthis begin a campaign of expansion towards the south that will find little resistance before an uncoordinated government and with hands full of problems.

Finally, Saudi Arabia will negotiate with Saleh to leave the government in exchange for immunity and permanent residence in Yemen. By an agreement signed with the Gulf Cooperation Council, it would be his vice president, Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who would take the reins of the government until elections were held within a year. Those elections are still to be carried out today. By allowing his stay in the country, Saleh was given the necessary time to organize a strategy that would allow him to retake it by force. He put on his side the elite bodies of the Yemeni army thanks to the millions obtained with the plundering and the multiple corruption plots of which he was accused, many of them trained in counterterrorism and equipped by the United Kingdom and the United States. Almost overnight, the Houthi rebels against whom he had fought for years became his allies, with the common goal of stripping Hadi of power, and as the two groups fought the same enemy they began to work together on the negotiations and diplomatic issues.

2014-2016: Towards the Stagnation of the Conflict

In 2014 the Houthis, taking advantage of the widespread chaos, launched a lightning offensive that took the city of Saana in just 3 days, one more step towards the conquest and control of the entire country. Another offensive is launched towards the south, directed to the port city of Aden, where Hadi had established the provisional capital of the country after being expelled from Sanaa, taking control of the Red Sea coast in its path. There, however, they would suffer one of their greatest defeats during the conflict, so they would limit themselves to besieging the city. Saudi Arabia will extract Hadi and her government from the country and give them asylum in 2015, while a coalition of 12 countries is organized with the aim of carrying out operations in Yemen and returning control to the internationally recognized government and which will rely on Harak to -Janubi for its operations in the south of the country. The coalition’s operations – which took place long before the UN approved the intervention in Yemen – denote a great division of interests among the members because of their support for one or other of the national factions, especially the Saudi support for Al-Islah (as indicated, part of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist ideology) causing clashes between these and the various southern groups supported by the United Arab Emirates, declared enemies of Al-Islah.

Despite an estimated cost of 200 million dollars a day, coalition operations have had meager successes on the ground. The Yemeni army of the south, supported by UAE forces managed to retake the city of Aden, and Saudi forces have gained ground in the northeast liberating the city of Mariib, in a region that owes its stability to the government of local tribes rather than to any international intervention. The price beyond the money has been more than 5000 vehicles destroyed, 78 planes downed, stolen equipment and more than 6000 casualties only in the Saudi forces, not to mention the image that Saudi Arabia has gained bombardment after bombing civilian populations. On the other hand there is a serious problem for the latter, because the conflict in the north of the country has been disastrous for them. The Houthis have penetrated into Saudi territory, destroying and taking bases and equipment, to the point of launching missiles at military bases near Riyadh.

For its part, AQAP and other terrorists have not remained outside the fight. Under the flag of Anshar al Sharia dominate various territories of the south and east of the country, coming to control the port city of Al-Mukalla (later recovered by the Yemeni army supported by UAE), and have an active presence throughout Yemen except in the territories controlled by the Houthi-Saleh alliance. The branch of ISIS in Yemen, although with a much smaller presence and without its own stable territory, controls training camps in the south and carries out attacks against Houthis targets.

Negotiation attempts

In spite of everything, all the parties are very clear that the conflict must end as soon as possible for the good of the country, although under their conditions and demands. Throughout these years there have been several meetings with the aim of agreeing on measures or an end to hostilities, but without any success that has produced significant changes in the situation.

For 10 months between 2013 and 2014, the most important of these took place, with more than 500 representatives of Yemen’s political spectrum, and to which Houthis representatives came. They were summoned by President Hadi to discuss and agree on measures to solve the most pressing problems in the country, with the presence of Ban Ki Moon and the president of the moment of the Security Council of the UN. 2000 resolutions were agreed, among which was a federalization project of the country, questioned as much by the Houthis as by Harak due to its organization and division of the territory. Finally, few of these resolutions have been carried out due to the situation of institutional division that lives the country, with its official organs distributed between one and the other side, although on the part of the government of Hadi this process is vital for the development of Yemen once the conflict ends.

Peace meetings in Switzerland, 2015

Later, in 2015, peace negotiations between the parties involved in the conflict sponsored by the UN began in Switzerland, with Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed as mediator. However, no agreement or fruitful conversation emerged from them. On the one hand, the Houthi-Saleh alliance hoped that their control of the country’s key provinces and their resistance to the coalition’s attacks would give them the winning hand in the conflict. On the other hand, Hadi and the coalition believed they had enough momentum to advance their positions towards a victory, and according to Ahmed, Saudi Arabia gave no sign of commitment or interest in the UN peace initiative.

Day by day

By 2017, there is not much travel left, and the situation in Yemen does not seem to be approaching an end, quite the opposite. Neither side has won a decisive victory and the intervention of the coalition has not been enough to reverse this situation of blockade. Without any peace in sight, all that remains is to prepare and strengthen positions, in all senses, to survive a war that is expected long.

The alliance between the Houthis and Saleh has ended up turning them into political and diplomatic allies as well as military. With the conquest of Saana, they took control of a large part of the country’s bureaucracy. They have faced common in all rounds of international negotiations and meetings. In order to strengthen their claims and legitimacy before the Hadi government, and to better organize the territory they control, the Supreme Political Council was created in 2016, a governing body made up of an odd number of Houthis and pro-Saleh representatives, chaired by the former governor of Aden, Abdulaziz bin Habtor, who won the support of the Yemeni parliament. He met again on August 13, 2016, in defiance of Hadi’s government. Currently, both the Political Council and the Parliament are chaired by Saleh Ali al-Sammad, due to his Houthi origin and his previous job as an advisor to the CGP, establishing himself as a figure of trust for both.

However, not everything is going well for them. The continuous Saudi bombings of civilians and infrastructure, the shortage of food and other products, the freezing of wages and high unemployment bring a palpable malaise among the population, which the inexperienced Houthi government has not been able to get rid of. And in the biggest open front currently, the siege to the city of Taiz, a status quo remains. The Houthis are unable to take the city, but the internal disturbances within it prevent the organization necessary to break the siege. Furthermore, the balance of this alliance is still far from perfect, with tensions and accusations such as those of the Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi this summer against Saleh for allegedly negotiating in secret with Saudi Arabia, and for his lack of military involvement in the front. These frictions have gone further recently, with the death of several Houthi rebels in a fight with government forces, or Saleh’s statements on October 19, threatening their allies with breaking their support due to the campaign of harassment and defamation of politicians. and like-minded journalists, both in the media and in person. In spite of everything, the military control on its territory continues being iron, and the advances on Saudi Arabia, undeniable. On November 5, a missile launched by the Houthis was shot down from the Riyadh International Airport, threatening to continue attacking the ports and airports of the coalition.

The south of the country, controlled by multiple factions loyal to Hadi, is also in a delicate situation. While it has the support of the coalition, especially the UAE, which trains and finances its troops and is making efforts to reactivate the economy of the area as with the purchase of part of the port of Aden, it faces other problems . Not being personally in the area, and depending on the dubious cohesion of all the small groups that make up the Southern Movement (which lack a similar agenda, and in many cases they face each other), the risk of it falling apart This territory is real and very present, besides that the increasing autonomy with which they act denotes that they do not need Hadi’s government. This situation is made even more delicate by the ban on visiting the territories allegedly under his government that Saudi Arabia has imposed on Hadi and his government, which has not set foot in Yemen since February. If we add to this the bad image they already suffered due to the withdrawal of the supposedly official government to Saudi Arabia where they have lived without difficulties while the population of Yemen lived (and still lives) in a very precarious situation, the fall in support for Hadi does not seem but completely natural.

It is worth highlighting the stability situation that the government of the local tribes have achieved in Mariib and adjacent areas, without any help from the government, taking decisions such as redirecting the profits from the sale of gas and oil to its branch of the central bank, before that to the central institution, that was transferred hastily from Sanaa to Aden before the taking of the city.

At the same time, the situation at sea is a very faithful representation of the international tension behind the scenes of the conflict. American ships, Saudis and Iranians walk up and down the Red Sea and the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, but not without consequences, because from the coast the Houthis have attacked with missiles American and Saudi ships, arriving to have plundered and destroyed 12 warships of the latter, according to reports.

And meanwhile…

While the entire political fabric develops, and positions are taken and lost, while the conflict inevitably lengthens, Yemen bleeds and suffers one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history. Its industry paralyzed and devastated by the bombings, without electricity or water in the vast majority of houses, and with a significant economic blockade, a country that imports 90% of the food consumed, sinks into famine, shortages and misery. The figures are very alarming. 19 million people are without access to drinking water. More than 14 million without insured food. More than 3 million displaced within the country due to shortages and fighting.

As if all this were not enough, another new disaster adds to the catastrophe ravaging Yemen. In April of this year, an outbreak of cholera in the country began due to the insalubrity of the water sources. In less than 6 months it has already claimed more than 2,000 deaths, a figure that will undoubtedly increase considerably due to the fact that more than half a million people have been infected. The shortage of humanitarian aid entering the country due to the blockade of the coalition and the international indifference to this situation predict that both the famine and the illnesses and the untreated wounded will continue to be a black reality of life in Yemen.


It is evident from all the above that Yemen has long passed the point of no return in the short term. With a stagnant armed conflict and no signs of moving in any direction -but with both sides seeing themselves as an advantage- all the country’s infrastructure shattered, widespread famine and a pandemic that threatens more people every day; it is clear that peace will be anything but simple and quick, if it is achieved and not a more pronounced division. And in any case the region will take years, if not decades, to get out of the hole of poverty and misery that the war has brought on Yemen. Only the unlikely entry into the conflict of new international actors, who were involved beyond perpetuating and supporting the conflict, could have a positive effect and accelerate the recovery of the country.

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