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Yemen a Battle for Regional Dominance

Yemen: Battle for Regional Dominance April 2015

A Saudi-led military coalition has launched airstrikes on Houthi positions since 25 March at the request of President Abdurabbu Mansour Hadi, who fled the country after the security environment deteriorated significantly. Saudi Arabia has amassed a coalition of Arab and Sunni Muslim states, with US support, to counter the advance of the Shi’a Houthis amid fears of growing Iranian influence in the Arab world, but most of all in Iraq and Syria. Although Operation Decisive Storm has now given way to Operation Renewal of Hope, airstrikes are continuing on Houthi positions, mainly in the southern regions.

The Houthis, an armed political group from the northern regions of Yemen, have taken advantage of declining security and political control since a series of uprisings in 2011, gradually gaining greater control over their traditional strongholds in Sa’ada province. Since 2013, the group has extended its reach and, following a reported alliance with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, entered Sana’a in September 2014. In subsequent months, the group expanded southwards and usurped political offices, declaring a presidential council in January before placing President Hadi under house arrest. Amid growing resistance to the Houthi’s gradual coup and Hadi’s escape to Aden, Saudi Arabia announced its aerial campaign, aiming to restore the legitimate government and destroy the Houthi’s military capabilities and ability to threaten neighbouring states.

There is limited evidence of direct Iranian support for the Houthi rebels, but the Saudi coalition’s role in the conflict and the use of arms drops and weapons deliveries is likely to prolong the war and deepen the humanitarian crisis. With little prospect for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, the possibility of total state collapse in Yemen will accelerate the risk of wider regional conflict.

Key Observations

  • Near-state collapse following Saudi-led airstrikes has precipitated country-wide violence and a political vacuum
  • A fragile alliance between the Houthis and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh is disintegrating, while al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and tribal militias are capitalising on the chaos to carve out their own territory
  • The aerial campaign is likely to prolong the conflict by utilising arms drops and essential supplies deliveries. The longer the conflict persists, the more likely it is that Saudi Arabia and its allies will launch a ground offensive.
  • Fighting is likely be concentrated around southern urban areas, particularly Aden, Taiz, Huta and Daleh as tribal militias become the main defence against Houthi advancement
  • With little prospect for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, full-scale state collapse and anarchy are likely to persist in the medium-term

Political Outlook

Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US have signalled their interest in stabilising Yemen via a political solution. Despite efforts by Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif to broker a ceasefire, the initiation of intra-Yemeni dialogue (including all groups involved in the national dialogue) and the establishment of a broad-based government, negotiations are unlikely to begin while the Saudi-led coalition continues the aerial bombardment of Houthi positions. The Saudi-led campaign has entered a new phase, namely Operation Renewal of Hope, which is focused on political developments, but the ongoing military element of the campaign is likely to hamper peace negotiations as the Houthis will increasingly feel marginalised.

The UN’s implementation of sanctions, travel bans, an arms embargo and asset freezes against Houthi leaders as well as former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family, has singled out the group and may limit their ability to fully engage in political dialogue, a key driver of its decade-long insurgency. The announced appointment of a new UN special envoy to Yemen underscores the body’s role in stabilising the conflict, but perceptions of bias may hamper the envoy’s ability to bring all parties to negotiations. The release of the defence minister by Houthi fighters, required under the UN resolution, is a positive development that indicates a degree of pragmatism within the group.

With no state to speak of, the worsening situation has left little indication of the key players to involve in talks. President Hadi has left the country, has yet to return, and lacks a powerbase, despite his appeal to the Southern Movement (an umbrella group of secessionists calling for a southern state) and tribal militias to establish an armed force on his behalf, compounded further by the the overt support of Saudi Arabia. With the southern tribal militias vowing to fight on to “purify” the south of Houthi and pro-Saleh fighters, and the Houthis suffering heavy military losses, the potential for viable and productive talks is muted.

Security Environment

The crisis in Yemen has exposed the near-total collapse of the country’s security environment. It is feared that the demise of central authority will allow armed non-state actors to extend their power across the country and further entrench themselves as local leaders. Developments such as tribal clashes in Hadramawt and Marib provinces, the taking up of arms by local residents to defend Yemen from a Houthi advance and abandonment by military personnel of their bases across the country all indicate the plethora of power bases that are competing for territory and the withdrawal of loyalties to, or dependence on, the state.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has already begun to capitalise on the disorder by seizing control of parts of Mukalla, including its port and airport. This was achieved with little-to-no resistance from the military personnel deployed to protect the city. AQAP are expected to expand such efforts in Hadramawt province, as well as in al-Bayda, Shabwa and Abyan, where it has previously held territory, and remains entrenched in rural locations. Multiple emerging conflict fronts will further destabilise the country. With no single force strong enough to unite the fracturing security forces, it will become steadily more difficult to oust AQAP from seized territory, as the army did with US support in 2012.

With the near-collapse of the state, military leaders appear to be losing their patronage networks and monetary influence and therefore the allegiance of their fighters. This is allowing tribes to carve out their own spheres of influence with little resistance from the armed forces. Although the majority of the security forces remain loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, or commanders from his regime, several commanders have pledged allegiance to Hadi. In Taiz, a major population centre which was the main centre of anti-government protests in 2011 and anti-Houthi sentiment, military forces appear to have turned on the Houthis, signalling an end to the informal alliance that drove their initial advance. The conflict is likely to further entrench tribal and individual loyalties at the expense of state loyalty, especially as Hadi remains a weak unifying figure from his position in exile in Saudi Arabia. It is possible that rival commanders may seek to exert their authority over the military forces and present themselves as candidates to lead a post-conflict Yemen. Intra-military competition, however, will do little to resolve the current conflict, and could even accelerate the fragmentation of the security forces and deepen the power vacuum.

Regional Impact

  • Saudi Arabia vs Iran not Sunni vs Shi’a

Although AQAP denounces the Houthis as heretics, it would be a mistake to cast the current conflict within the parameters of Islamic sectarianism. The Iran-Saudi rivalry is too often characterised as a simple Shi’a-Sunni split, when the overwhelming driver of the current campaign is to increase their regional influence. This is not to discount the fact that the majority of Iran’s allies are in fact Shi’a, but Iran does not necessarily see itself solely as a bulwark of Shi’a Islam. Indeed, for a country seeking to extend its influence and compete with Saudi Arabia and others for regional dominance, doing so on the basis of Shi’ism is unlikely to succeed as only around 30 percent of the Middle East’s Muslim population is Shi’a.

The Houthis are not a religious group, but rather a political force drawn from the Shi’a Zaidi population in Sa’ada province. The group has failed to attract significant support from the rest of the 45 per cent of the population that is Zaidi due to its overtly regional and political agenda. This lack of overt religious motivation helps explain why both the Houthis and Iran deny strong links. The Houthis had sought to lead a mostly peaceful coup after years of conflict with the government over their lack of power, representation and opportunities. However, the group’s proximity to the Saudi border has elicited a strong response.

The timing of the military offensive comes at a point when Saudi Arabia and its regional allies are occupied with US-Iranian relations, as a nuclear deal nears. The US has pledged logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi-led coalition, and with drone strikes continuing to be reported against AQAP targets, it appears unlikely that rapprochement on the nuclear issue will result in a sharp turn in US counter-terrorism policy and alliances in the region. The nuclear talks, Iran’s strong presence in Iraq and growing Iranian regional influence have pushed Saudi Arabia’s new king and new, young defence minister into demonstrating the Kingdom’s ability and willingness to take action against perceived Iranian aggression and attempts to gain sway in traditional Saudi spheres of influence. It has yet to be seen whether a ground invasion into inhospitable terrain will benefit Saudi Arabia or engross it in a costly quagmire. The 2009 Saudi Arabia-Houthi conflict indicates that the latter is more likely.

Although sectarianism is not a key driver of the conflict, it is being used by other groups to justify attacks against the Houthis, namely AQAP. When the Houthis first seized control of Sana’a in September 2014, AQAP vowed to attack the “heretics” across the country, with clashes and attacks reported in al-Bayda and Abyan provinces as the Houthis moved south. However, this comes as AQAP’s territorial influence is endangered by the Houthi advance, so is driven more by geopolitics and fears of operational restrictions than by religious conviction.

  • Increased risk of terrorism

The regional success of Islamic State (IS) affiliates is largely attributable to the erosion of state control and the proliferation of ungoverned spaces, allowing militants to move freely across borders, acquire weapons and train recruits. This has seen the group expand from its bases in Syria and Iraq to form strong cells across Libya, as well as affiliate relationships in Nigeria and Egypt. Yemen’s deteriorating security situation may also facilitate the formation of such militant groups, further aided by the presence of large numbers of AQAP fighters and, reportedly, foreign nationals coming for religious training (often associated with more militant interpretations) in the country. Saudi Arabia now perceives itself to be encircled by in-crisis states, and to present a valuable target to jihadists such as IS and AQAP. These, it believes will seek to infiltrate the Kingdom and conduct attacks on state institutions and foreigners, as well as travel elsewhere to join affiliates or conduct attacks in Western countries.

Operating Environment

Foreign businesses have largely withdrawn from Yemen in recent months and the YLNG terminal in Balhaf has entered force majeure due to the conflict. The US Embassy withdrew its staff in February as security deteriorated in the capital, followed by the withdrawal of US Special Forces from the al-Anad base (from where it conducted counter-terrorism training) on 21 March. Since then, the majority of diplomatic missions have also evacuated the country. Multiple countries have deployed ships and aircraft to evacuate their citizens, including China, Malaysia and India.

As airstrikes and clashes continue across the country, much of the critical infrastructure has been damaged and water shortages and power cuts are being reported across the conflict zone. Fuel shortages are affecting the operation of emergency services and the transport of goods. Balhaf and similar infrastructure are likely to be increasingly targeted by armed groups as they seek to monopolise key industries as a means to exert political control or gain finance sources for their newly-acquired territory. Reports from Mukalla indicate that AQAP has taken over the port there and has already taken shipments of oil and grain.

Oxfam reports that at least 120,000 people have been displaced due to the fighting, with 18 out of 22 governorates affected, particularly Sa’ada and Hajjah provinces. The new displacement figures are in addition to the 300,000 people who were internally-displaced (IDP) prior to the Saudi-led aerial campaign, with many having to flee for a second time. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has raised particular concerns over the lack of water; already a desperate problem in Yemen. With sources of clean water scarce, the risk of the spread of diarrhoea and other diseases is heightened. Coupled with a collapse of the health sector and a lack of medical supplies, an outbreak would be difficult to contain and treat.

The food, water and commodity shortages are exacerbated by the closure of points of entry into Yemen, including sea ports. Multiple vessels have reported being turned away from ports and aid shipments are struggling to gain permission to land at Sana’a’s airport. The Saudi-led coalition is reportedly behind the closures, citing concerns over weapons shipments to the Houthi rebels. The UN has warned of a humanitarian crisis in Yemen unless grain shipments, medical supplies and other aid can be distributed. However, the evacuation of dozens of aid workers and other foreign nationals who staff agencies (including the World Bank) has also damaged the ability to distribute such aid to the population. A continued blockade of the country will hinder the ability of aid agencies to get people and supplies on the ground, while the dangerous security environment will also prove an impediment to movement and distribution, particularly in the worst-affected areas. Although Saudi Arabia has pledged to meet the UN aid bill, until the country allows full access to Yemen by aid workers, the country will teeter on the edge of a humanitarian disaster.


  • Highest impact: Saudi-led ground invasion from the north and across the Red Sea triggering an intensification of the Houthi insurgency. The Southern Movement (SM) secessionists declare a separate South Yemen state as AQAP carves out its own enclave in southern provinces, including Hadramawt and Abyan. Tribesmen establish their own mini states as the military collapses along tribal lines.
  • Best case: Multilateral ceasefire declared and peace talks organised with effective, non-partisan mediators. Decline in fighting to coincide with a new transition plan agreed with fair representation of all key stakeholders, including the Southern Movement, the Houthis and President Hadi.
  • Most likely: Airstrikes continue in the southern regions where Houthi fighters continue to attempt to advance. Tribal militias become the main defence against Houthi advancement, entrenching an entitlement for increased autonomy in defended areas. Stuttering peace talks are unlikely to appease all parties, especially as the Houthis are likely to object to the reinstatement of Hadi as president.

This Report is the latest free report on the Yemen produced by the G4S Risk Analysis team and republished with their permission.  

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