Hot Issue – Is This the Beginning of the End of the War in Yemen?


Executive Summary: Defeats, plummeting oil prices, and a global pandemic are forcing Saudi Arabia to rethink its involvement in Yemen. Ironically, the end of overt Saudi involvement in Yemen may help it achieve some of its aims as new alliances dilute Houthi control and minimize Iranian influence. While Yemen faces years of low-intensity conflict, the beginning of the end of its interlocking wars may be in sight.

On April 9, Saudi Arabia announced a two week unilateral ceasefire in its war with the Houthis and their allies (al-Jazeera, April 9). The ceasefire follows a renewed offensive by the Houthis and their allies across multiple fronts, most notably in the governorate of Marib. The ceasefire also comes after Saudi Arabia offered direct talks with the Houthis in Riyadh (The National, March 31).

After five years, billions of dollars, and little success, the government of Saudi Arabia seems to understand what was clear from the beginning of the Saudi and Emirati-led intervention—defeating the Houthis is not going to happen. The Houthis and their allies, which include a broad and growing base of old and emergent northern elites, have excelled on both the martial and political battlefields. Little doubt exists that the Houthis are the predominant political and military force in northwest Yemen. This will be the case for years to come.

While a negotiated peace with the Houthis is not the outcome Saudi Arabia—or much of the international community—wanted, it may mark the beginning of the end of Yemen’s interlocking wars. This is not to say that conflict will not continue in Yemen. It will persist at a low level for years. However, an end to overt Saudi involvement in Yemen and some kind of negotiated settlement between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis may pave the way for a return to relative stability. Such a settlement may also bring about an opportunity for reconciliation between the Houthis, their allies, and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which controls much of southern Yemen. Additionally, by ending its direct involvement in the war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia may finally achieve two of its primary objectives: minimize Iranian influence and weaken the core Houthi leadership’s hold on power.

Parallels Between 1967 and 2020

Saudi Arabia could have avoided its disastrous war in Yemen if its leaders had looked to the history of Egypt’s invasion of northern Yemen in 1962. Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser, like Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Muhammad bin Salman, thought that intervening in Yemen would quickly and easily achieve his aims. In the case of Nasser, he intervened to support a military coup by Abdullah al-Sallal against northern Yemen’s newly installed Imam, Muhammad al-Badr. Imam al-Badr was forced to flee his palace in Sana’a, but that was just the beginning of five years of war. Abdullah al-Sallal led Egyptian-supported Republican forces in a bitter war against Royalist supporters of the Imam. The war cost Egypt at least 10,000 men, it helped end Nasser’s Pan-Arabism movement, and left Egypt unprepared to fight Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.

Despite deploying in excess of 40,000 soldiers, MiGs, and even chemical weapons, Egypt was defeated in North Yemen by lightly armed men who often fought with 50-year-old rifles. Royalist forces, who were funded, supplied, and advised by Saudi Arabia, Iran, Britain, and Israel leveraged northwestern Yemen’s rugged terrain, small highly mobile units, and excellent human intelligence to battle their better equipped adversaries. [1] The Houthis, whose grandfathers and great-grandfathers fought with the Royalists, use the same tactics.

By 1967, Egypt knew it had lost its war in Yemen and began a hurried withdrawal of troops. Yet this withdrawal did not bring about a Royalist victory. The imamate was never restored. Instead, the Royalists who had largely won on the battlefield, were incorporated into a new Republican government that acknowledged the primacy of tribal organization and leadership in northwest Yemen.

While Saudi Arabia failed to learn from Egypt’s invasion of Yemen, it can still learn from its aftermath.  Just as the Egyptian withdrawal from northern Yemen did not lead to a Royalist restoration of the imamate, an end to the Saudi intervention in Yemen does not mean that the Houthis will unilaterally control Yemen or even the country’s northwestern region.

Much like what happened after the Egyptians left northern Yemen, the absence of outside powers allows Yemen’s internal political systems at the national and local levels to function. Much of Yemeni society is hardwired for negotiated solutions to complex problems. [2] Despite the headlines, Yemeni culture, and the dozens of sub-cultures set within it, place great importance on de-escalation. This is borne out by hundreds of years’ worth of written and unwritten tribal laws designed to prevent fighting and to limit it when it does break out.

Diminishing Houthi Control and Iranian Influence

Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s intervention in Yemen has been just as counter-productive as the Egyptian intervention. Rather than defeating or even substantially weakening the Houthis, the war has made them militarily and politically stronger. Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s often indiscriminate aerial campaign in Yemen has bought the Houthis a great deal of support from those who live under the threat of bombardment. The aerial campaign, which has targeted farms, schools, hospitals, and critical infrastructure, has had little impact on the Houthis’ ability to fight (Middle East Monitor, March 26).

The UAE’s and Saudi Arabia’s territorial ambitions in Yemen also generate support for the Houthis and their allies. The UAE, which has largely ended its overt involvement in Yemen, still maintains bases on the Yemeni island of Socotra and outside the Yemeni port city of al-Mukallah. Saudi Arabia is trying to establish a permanent presence in the Yemeni governorate of al-Mahra. There, Saudi Arabia has plans to build an oil pipeline that will allow it to bypass the Strait of Hormuz. Many Yemenis view Saudi and Emirati ambitions in Yemen as a threat to the territorial integrity of the country.

In al-Mahra, Saudi Arabia faces stiff and persistent resistance from local tribes (al-Jazeera, February 18). In the south, the UAE, particularly before its withdrawal of forces, was increasingly perceived as an occupying power and a malign influence. The Houthis and their allies benefit from the idea that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are trying to carve up Yemen. The Houthis and their allies portray themselves as defenders of Yemeni sovereignty. While this is self-serving propaganda, it is effective and even appeals to some Yemenis who formerly counted themselves as enemies of the Houthis.

The Saudi and Emirati-led intervention in Yemen has helped achieve exactly what it wanted to stop—empowerment of the Houthis and the growth of Iranian influence. By ending their intervention in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will actually begin the process by which the control of the Houthis—especially that of the core leadership—is slowly diminished. The wars in Yemen are the glue that hold the Houthis and their allies together. Without these wars and their accompanying threats to national sovereignty, the cohesiveness of the alliances that the Houthis have stitched together will deteriorate. [3] Tensions between members of the Houthi leadership will likely surface. For now, the necessity of prosecuting offensives on multiple fronts keeps internal conflict among the Houthis and their allies to a minimum. This will change as the war winds down. Internal conflict among the Houthis and allied forces will fracture old alliances and produce new ones. This does not mean that the Houthis will go to war among themselves. However, it does mean that their grip on power will weaken as alliances are recalibrated.

These recalibrations will further minimize what was already limited Iranian influence. Despite the prevailing narrative that the Houthis are the proxies of Iran, this is not the case. Iran has provided the Houthis with technical assistance, specific parts and plans for the Houthis’ indigenously produced drones and missiles, as well as financial assistance. Yet, Iran has little or no say on the decisions made by the Houthi leadership and their allies. Just as many Yemenis resent Saudi and Emirati involvement in Yemen, the same applies to Iran. Some among the Houthi leadership are concerned about appearing to be too close to Iran. Many of the Houthis’ allies militate against Iranian influence, and against their religious influence in particular. A significant percentage of the Houthis allies are, as expected, Zaidi tribal and political elites who are determined to preserve Zaidism. They do not want Zaidism contaminated with Iranian-introduced beliefs and jurisprudence. Many already resent attempts by some Houthi elites to introduce Iranian religious practices. This resentment will build in the coming months and years.

Shifting Loyalties

As counterintuitive as it sounds, a victory by the Houthis and their allies over the Saudi-backed forces of Yemeni president Abd Raboo Mansur Hadi may dilute Houthi influence in northwestern Yemen. The Houthis and those who support them know that capturing the governorate of Marib, the last real stronghold for Hadi-aligned forces, will be the coup de grâce for Yemen’s government-in-exile. Taking Marib will give the Houthis and their allies control of Yemen’s most important oil and gas production facilities.

While the Houthis and their allies are fighting to retake the governorate, all sides, including some among the Saudi-supported Hadi government, want to avoid a costly battle that will destroy important and lucrative infrastructure. This coincides with Saudi Arabia’s decision to reduce funding and support for the Hadi-allied forces. Despite spending billions of dollars paying, equipping, and training these forces, Saudi Arabia has seen little return on its investment. What Hadi and Saudi Arabia call the Yemeni Army is not a cohesive force. Rather, it is riddled with factions who often have little interest in fighting the Houthis. A significant percentage—as high as 40 percent—of the soldiers on the payroll are “ghost soldiers” who only exist to extract money from Saudi Arabia.

Without Saudi support, the Hadi-allied forces will melt away. Tribal elites who allied themselves with the Hadi government know this. Most will make deals with the Houthis before they will risk a damaging and protracted fight. Many low and mid-level elites now associated with the Hadi government will also realign themselves with the Houthis in exchange for influence and continued control of the licit and illicit trade that transits Marib and the governorate of the Hadramawt.

Over time, these deals that turn enemies into allies will erode the control of the Houthis as new iterations of old patronage networks are re-established. This has already partly happened as the Houthis allowed established tribal elites and emergent elites to join their coalition. While the core Houthi leadership continues to exercise firm control over military operations, at which they excel, they rely on technocrats, tribal leaders, and Saleh-era bureaucrats to administer areas and run government institutions. This is a trend that will pick up pace as the Houthis negotiate with Marib’s tribal elite and with those who, at least for the moment, are aligned with the Hadi government.

Détente Between North and South?

A combination of defeat, a global pandemic, and plummeting oil prices have pushed Saudi Arabia to begin to alter course in Yemen. However, now that it is reducing support for the Hadi-aligned forces, it is only a matter of time before these forces are either defeated or subsumed by the Houthis and their allies.

The Southern Transitional Council (STC), which is the preeminent political and military force in southern Yemen, understands this . The STC, which the United Arab Emirates supports, is preventing forces allied with the Hadi government from transiting territory that it controls. On April 9, the STC stopped troops allied with Hadi from reinforcing the frontlines in the governorate of al-Baydah where there has been intense fighting between the Houthis and Saudi-supported forces (Middle East Monitor, April 9). The STC has also stopped Saudi military aircraft from using the airport at Aden. The STC has warned that it will go to war with the Hadi government if it infringes on what it now regards as its territory in southern Yemen (al-Araby, April 18).

The reasons for these actions by the STC are threefold. First, the STC is not opposed to the Houthis consolidating their control of northern Yemen as this will weaken, if not eliminate, the STC’s primary rival, the Hadi-led government. Many among the leadership of the STC have longstanding relationships with the Houthis that date back to the time when the government of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh persecuted both the Houthis and southern dissidents. Second, the STC is happy to frustrate Saudi efforts in Yemen in exchange for continued support from the UAE. While the UAE and Saudi Arabia were ostensibly partners in the intervention in Yemen, the two countries and their rulers are now battling one another for influence and access in the country. [4]

Détente between a Houthi-led coalition in the north and an STC-controlled southern Yemen is not out of the question. The Houthis and the STC maintain channels of communication and elites on both sides benefit from the movement of supplies and goods that transit the south. The STC and Houthi leadership understand that a divided Yemen will not work given the uneven distribution of the population and resources. For its part, the STC wants a seat at the negotiating table and a considerable degree of autonomy for the south. It is probable that the Houthis and their allies have already agreed to these demands via backchannel negotiations with the STC.


There will be an uptick in fighting over the short-term as the Houthis and their allies push forward with their offensive against Hadi government forces in Marib. In the south, the STC will also engage Hadi government forces as it attempts to consolidate its control over the southern governorates. In the coming months, those forces aligned with Hadi and Yemen’s government in exile may withdraw to parts of the eastern Yemeni governorate of the Hadramawt. The Houthis will build alliances and dole out government positions to new allies before launching new offensives.

In the medium-term, Yemen will remain divided along historical lines between north and south. The Houthis and their allies will control most of the northwest, and the STC will control what was historically South Yemen. Barring negotiations, the Tihama, the region that abuts Yemen’s Red Sea coast, is at high risk for intense conflict. This area is loosely controlled by forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s nephew, Brigadier Tariq Saleh. Tariq Saleh’s forces are capable, cohesive, and backed by the UAE. These forces alone are a match for the Houthis and their allies. However, with the increasing irrelevancy of the Hadi government, Tariq Saleh may be cut off and forced to choose a side—either join the STC or make a deal with the Houthis.

Over the long-term, Yemen faces years of low-intensity fighting as old alliances crumble and new ones form. However, the beginning of the end of Yemen’s interlocking wars may be in sight. The drawdown of overt Saudi and Emirati support for competing factions will allow Yemen’s formal and informal political processes to begin to function just as they did following the withdrawal of Egyptian troops from northern Yemen in 1967.


[1] See: Clive Jones, Britain and the Yemen Civil War, 1962-1965: Minister, Mercenaries and Mandarins: Foreign Policy and the Limits of Covert Action (Sussex Academic Press, 2004).

[2] See: Gabriele vom Bruck, Islam, Memory, and Morality in Yemen: Ruling Families in Transition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); Shelagh Weir, A Tribal Order: Politics and Law in the Mountains of Yemen (University of Texas, 2007).

[3] Author interview with multiple former Yemeni government officials, April 2020.

[4] Author interview with Yemen based analyst, March 2020.