The Saudi coalition is closing in on the rebel Houthi movement, moving steadily up from the southern port of Aden, where 2,800 Saudi and United Arab Emirates troops are alleged to have landed along with soldiers loyal to President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, in early August. These forces not only took Aden back from the Houthis, but have conquered five southern provinces and are now besieging the country’s third-largest city, Taiz. The months of heavy Saudi and coalition airstrikes, some of them appearing to target civilians, and of heavy fighting between Hadi forces and the Houthis, have left a swath of destruction across the already desperate country that bodes ill for the future of the region.
The Houthi movement, based among the Zaidi Shiite minority in Yemen and allied with deposed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, clearly bit off more than it could chew when it attempted to take over the whole country this winter and spring. Although the Houthis marched into the capital of Sana last September, they initially cohabited with the elected government of President Hadi. But in January, the Houthis made a definitive coup, and Hadi and many members of his government fled the northern capital of Sana.
Their alliance with elements of the Yemeni military still loyal to Saleh and access to the country’s military weapons depots gave the Houthis some initial tactical advantages, allowing them to move south and take Sunni cities such as Taiz and Aden this spring. But it was never very likely that the Yemeni Sunni majority would accept Houthi rule, especially in the south, where Sunnis predominate, and the mobilized youth who had overthrown Saleh during the 2011–12 Arab Spring protests were dismayed at the idea of a tribal, fundamentalist coup.
Most consequential of all, the Houthi takeover alarmed the incoming government of King Salman in Saudi Arabia, who acceded in January on the death of his more cautious half-brother, King Abdullah. A hawk obsessed with the threat of encirclement by Iran, Salman decided to launch the first major Saudi war since King Abdel Aziz Ibn Saud conquered the Hejaz in 1924–26.
Although the Houthis are routinely called “Iran-backed,” they are an indigenous movement pushing back against Wahhabi and Salafi hard-line Sunni incursions into Zaidi Shiite regions like Saada. They have probably received a few million dollars in aid from Iran, but that is peanuts. Most of their weapons are American, captured from army depots after the collapse of the Yemeni military in September of 2014. The Saudis and the United Arab Emirates, however, see the Houthi takeover of Yemen during the past year as a plot hatched in Tehran to extend Shiite soft power in the Middle East. In fact, the Zaidi branch of Islam is not very close to Iranian Shiism, lacks ayatollahs, and has often been seen as straddling the Sunni-Shiite divide.
From the late 1960s, Yemen was two countries, a communist south and a nationalist north. In 1990, with the fall of the Eastern Bloc in Europe, the two unified, though strong southern secessionist sentiments remained. Unified Yemen began spiraling out of control in about 2004, when the Houthi movement began rebelling in Saada in protest against well-funded Saudi Wahhabi proselytizing of Zaidi Shiites. At the same time, in some regions of the south, insurgent Sunnis influenced by Wahhabis, called Salafis, had gravitated to Al Qaeda. The president for life, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who came to power as a left-leaning nationalist in 1978, proved unable to put down these rebellions. In 2011–12, he faced a third movement against his government, that of rebellious youth and reformists who demanded more democracy, accountability, and better economic management, and which forced Saleh to step down.