Hot Issue: War in Yemen: Sectarian Strife or Family Feuds?

Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi, Yemen's internationally recognized president who has fled to Saudi Arabia, and Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's former president who has allied with the Houthis in their takeover of much of western Yemen (Source: Glenn Fawcett, DoD, and The Kremlin).

Executive Summary

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on March 24 began launching airstrikes against Yemen’s Zaydi Shi’a Houthi movement (who refer to themselves as Ansar Allah—the supporters of God) and its allies, who are led by the nominally Zaydi former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The GCC said that the airstrikes were being conducted at the request of the country’s internationally recognized beleaguered Sunni president, Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi, who was forced to flee the country only days earlier. However, while the GCC’s motivations for intervening may be partly motivated by sectarian concerns, the ongoing Yemeni internal conflict is better understood as a struggle for power between two diverse coalitions, both of which incorporate a wide range of both Sunni and Shi’a elements. Self-interest, and not sectarian affiliations, are therefore the driving force behind much of the ongoing violence.


The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), since March 24, has launched a series of airstrikes against Yemen’s Zaydi Shi’a Houthi movement (who refer to themselves as Ansar Allah—the supporters of God) and its allies, who are led by the nominally Zaydi former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, signaling the rapid internationalization of Yemen’s various long-running internal conflicts (al-Arabiya, March 25). The airstrikes, called Operation Decisive Storm, were led by Saudi Arabia, but also involved the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain and six other countries. These strikes mainly targeted pro-Saleh military facilities, including rocket bases, the capital Sana’a’s international airport and Houthi buildings in Sana’a and in the group’s stronghold Sa’ada (Yemen Times, March 29). The GCC said the airstrikes were carried out at request of Yemen’s internationally recognized president, Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi, who fled the country’s southern port city of Aden to Saudi Arabia on March 25, as forces loyal to the Houthis and Saleh approached (Yemen Times, March 25). The Houthis had previously seized Sana’a from Hadi in February, and subsequently captured most of the country’s western highlands (Yemen Times, February 25).

Saleh-Houthis vs. the GCC, Not Sunni vs. Shi’a

While these developments have been widely portrayed as a Shi’a versus Sunni conflict, the ongoing unrest is arguably better understood as merely the latest instance of relatively weaker Yemeni factions forming temporary alliances of convenience against stronger ruling parties and seeking external support. For example, the current Houthi-Saleh grouping is an unlikely alliance between the long-term disenfranchised al-Houthi family, putative descendants of Zaydi imams who ruled north Yemen until 1962, and some recently disenfranchised members of the post-1962 elite who lost power and wealth in the 2011 Yemeni revolution. Both are seeking to regain what they see as their rightful places at the head of the nation. In doing so, however, they have displaced the erstwhile victors of that revolution; these have now sought help from the GCC, partly by appealing to the GCC’s Sunni chauvinism. Many are Saleh’s former allies, including Hadi himself (a southern Yemeni Sunni who was formerly Saleh’s vice-president), the nominally Zaydi al-Ahmar family (who formerly managed Saleh’s tribal alliances) and Saleh’s former military supremo Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a Salafist Sunni. The Saleh-Houthi group meanwhile also includes the rump of Saleh’s former ruling party, the General People’s Congress, and large portions of the national army, many of whom are Sunni.

Although the immediate trigger for the GCC airstrikes was Hadi’s abrupt flight from Aden, the intervention has been brewing for some time, as various marginalized groups sought to counter the growing strength of the Houthi-Saleh alliance. A key initiator was probably Hamid al-Ahmar, the al-Ahmar family’s current leader who has been in exile in Saudi Arabia after being driven from Sana’a by the Houthi advance. Following the recent airstrikes, he publicly thanked the GCC, and specifically Saudi Arabia, “for their support of the Yemeni people” (Saudi Press Agency, March 26). In addition, Ali Mohsen, who has strong links with Saudi Arabia, has reportedly been agitating for months against the Houthis, his archenemies who defeated him politically and militarily in north Yemen prior to the 2011 revolution. In January, for instance, Mohsen was credibly reported by pro-Houthi Lebanese media as:

Rallying his supporters from across the country, distributing money, setting up training camps and providing them with weapons… [and] recruiting takfiri elements… and doing all of this with the approval of Saudi Arabia (al-Akhbar, January 12).

Other Players in Yemen

Also tacitly backing the airstrikes is Islah, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Yemeni branch, an on/off former ally of Saleh as well as a political proxy for the al-Ahmar family. Islah—which is generally less ideologically driven that other branches of the Brotherhood—has kept relatively quiet since the airstrikes began, no doubt fearful of disturbing the delicate alliance between the pro-Brotherhood Qatar and the anti-Brotherhood UAE. However, behind the scenes, the group—which has long-standing grudges with the Houthis—has been mobilizing foreign Sunni powers behind the anti-Houthi intervention. For instance, it recently dispatched Tawakkol Karman, a media-friendly Nobel Prize-winning female Islah activist, to Turkey where she met the Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavu?o?lu, to whom she described the GCC’s war on the Houthis as “of national interest to Turkey and something that belongs to the values of Turkey” (Anadolu Agency, March 26).

Other important potential players include Sunni tribes of desert and semi-desert regions, such as Mareb, Shabwah and Abyan, who, although geographically remote, are the GCC’s natural allies. Many of these, particularly in Mareb, are long-time recipients of Saudi funding, and are also often heavily influenced by Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism, often managed via Ali Mohsen; some, therefore, regard the Shi’a Houthis as ideological enemies. In addition, many of these tribes have been angered by the Houthis’ aggressive pursuit of alleged al-Qaeda fighters into their territories, as recently as March 19 in Mareb, and may be eager for revenge (Yemen Times, March 25). Saudi Arabia may also seek to mobilize hardline Salafist networks, such as those associated with the Dammaj madrassa in north Yemen, who also have longstanding grudges against the Houthis who repeatedly attacked Dammaj in 2013, before overrunning it in early 2014 (Yemen Times, January 16, 2014). These networks are alleged to have assisted Ali Mohsen’s previous military assaults on the Houthis. A final, important, but so far largely uncommitted, group are country’s divided and poorly-led largely Sunni southern separatist movement. These southerners have opposed Houthi moves on Aden, but are reluctant to unequivocally endorse Hadi (who, as Saleh’s defense minister, led the army’s bloody assault on Aden separatists during the 1994 civil war) (Gulf News, March 26; Yemen Times, March 30). These separatists, having periodically courted the Houthis as a counterweight to pro-union Hadi and Islah, now find themselves as spectators to a conflict that is primarily being fought between various northern factions, notwithstanding the fighting’s recent spillover into Aden. In the longer-term, further chaos in north Yemen is likely to strengthen southern separatist feeling. In the short-term, however, the Hadi-GCC alliance, lacking significant forces on the ground in Yemen, are likely to aggressively court Sunni desert tribes, Salafists and the southerners—as well as other relatively uncommitted factions, such as the tribes of Taiz, Ibb and Dhamar in the south-central highlands—in an effort to counter Saleh and the Houthis. While Saudi Arabia has long-established channels to these groups, and would likely be willing to fund them to fight the Houthis, a complicating factor is that various hardline Salafists and desert tribes have historically been sympathetic to al-Qaeda and militant Islamism in general, particularly in al-Jawf, Mareb, Abyan and Shabwah. Any GCC (and specifically, Saudi or Qatari) decision to empower and potentially arm these groups is therefore not without risk, not least because the GCC’s strategy entails simultaneously weakening the most consistently committed ideological and military opponents of al-Qaeda in Yemen, namely the Houthis themselves.

Yemen and Regional Dynamics

The recent airstrikes reflect these complex dynamics. In particular, despite the GCC presenting its attacks as mainly targeting the Houthis, most airstrikes thus far have hit army units associated with Saleh, although also targeting Houthis supply lines and units advancing on Aden where possible (Saudi Gazette, April 1). This partly reflects the difficulties of targeting the Houthis’ low-tech and highly dispersed military apparatus (the group’s lightly-armed fighters wear civilian clothes and largely use civilian off-road vehicles). At the same time, these strikes impose significant costs on pro-Saleh military units, which may be intended to put pressure on the Houthi-Saleh alliance and to degrade their fighting ability, potentially a far easier task than defeating the battle-hardened, unconventional and ideologically committed Houthi fighters. The GCC has also used psychological tactics for the same ends. For instance, the Saudi-funded al-Arabiya channel on March 28 alleged (credibly) that two days before the start of the GCC airstrikes, Saleh’s son went to Riyadh and offered to betray the Houthis in return for immunity for Saleh (al-Arabiya, March 28). For the moment, however, the Saleh and Houthi alliance appears reasonably robust, although the Houthis have characteristically responded to the airstrikes by escalating their rhetoric and threatening to conduct “martyrdom operations” inside Saudi Arabia (Fars News, March 26). This is likely to have sat badly with Saleh, a far subtler political operator, who has himself suggested that both sides should declare a ceasefire, and that the UN should host multi-party talks in the UAE to resolve the issue. This is a solution that would play to his political strengths and potentially allow him to split UAE and Qatar, which would likely resist UAE-hosted talks (al-Motamar, March 27). In the absence of real familial or ideological ties, however, the weakness of the Saleh-Houthi axis will remain each group’s mutual fear of their partner cutting a deal with Hadi and the GCC and abandoning their former ally to their fate. Houthi concerns will be heightened given Saleh’s complex family links to their enemies; Ali Mohsen is reportedly Saleh’s half-brother, and in the last 30 years, the Saleh extended family has also intermarried extensively with the al-Ahmars. Meanwhile, the current Sunni-led alliance against the Houthis will potentially encourage them to turn to Iran, the sole significant foreign power that has an ideological and strategic interest in their survival, a situation that the more pragmatic and religiously-indifferent Saleh would probably seek to avoid.

Meanwhile, the actual level of Iranian support for the Houthis remains much debated. In recent days, Saudi government and media outlets have ramped up their long-standing claims of Iranian involvement. Al-Arabiya, for instance, reported that Iran unloaded 180 tons of weapons at a Houthi-controlled port in western Yemen on March 17 (al-Arabiya, March 20). Given Iran’s track record of arming Middle Eastern insurgencies, this is entirely possible. However, other countries have questioned whether such Iranian support amounts to the Houthis being run by Iran and in Iran’s interests. For example, the UK foreign minister, Philip Hammond, said on March 27: “The Iranians clearly have backed the Houthi [sic], but the Houthi are clearly not Iranian proxies in the way that Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy” (AFP, March 27). Such distinctions aside, the GCC’s military response has clearly aimed at preventing Iran from supplying the Houthis, cutting airlinks to and from Yemen and blockading its ports (PressTV [Tehran], March 30). Saudi Arabia’s defense ministry also notably claimed on March 30 that the airstrikes had cut off Iranian airlifts to Yemen (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 30). In practice, however, the light weapons favored by the Houthis are readily available in Yemen (although ammunition is often scarce) and cutting off arms shipments to them is therefore unlikely to make a critical difference. Indeed, Iranian money is likely to be more useful, through allowing local arms and ammunition purchases—as well as the political loyalty of tribes—in addition to being far harder to cut off. From Iran itself, reactions to the airstrikes have been muted, and have been largely confined to the usual rhetorical attacks on Saudi Arabia. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s influential former president, for instance, mocked the GCC’s “aimless bombardments” and criticized its alliance with the United States and alleged indifference to the Palestinian cause (Fars News, March 30).


This mosaic of recent alliances and long-standing feuds underlines that the root cause of Yemen’s current political problems are not sectarian rivalries. Rather, several well-armed and ambitious groups—the Houthis, the al-Ahmar tribe, the Saleh family and to a lesser extent Islah—all fervently believe themselves to be Yemen’s rightful leaders and are prepared to fight to gain or hold power. The current struggle is therefore likely to continue until one combination of factions comes out on top; even then, however, the remaining groups are likely to seek to form a counter-weight in order to preserve and defend their own interests, potentially through fresh foreign alliances. In other words, the current factions—and their courtship of foreign powers—rather than being durable religious groupings are instead mere temporary alignments borne of expediency; ultimately, these alliances are likely to dissolve and then reform in new patterns, in doing so creating fresh cycles of violence and further perpetuating Yemen’s enduring instability. In the meantime, however, the key short-term question is whether the Houthi and Saleh alliance can survive the growing military, political and psychological pressures resulting from the GCC intervention, and conversely if the disparate GCC-Hadi-Islah alliance can remain united long enough to build a viable military and political counterweight to the Houthis and Saleh on the ground.

James Brandon is a political and security risk analyst.