Hot Issue – Yemen’s Fragmented Future

Houthi Rebels via The New York Times

Executive Summary:

The Yemeni Civil War has ground on for eight years now, with the Houthi rebels controlling a majority of the country, and the power of the Internationally Recognized Government and Southern Transitional Council’s forces seriously degraded. Many smaller armed militia groups and warlord fiefdoms compete with one another, maintaining only nominal allegiance to the major combatants. As it appears now, the internal deadlock and divergent interests of the key regional powers of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran suggest that there is little chance that Yemen will reunify in the short-, medium-, or long-term.



As Yemen enters its eighth year of war, the chances of reunification are more remote than ever. While the UN, EU, UK, and the US continue to pay lip-service to Yemen’s Internationally Recognized Government (IRG), Yemen’s neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have long since adapted their strategies in Yemen to the reality on the ground. This reality reflects the fact that those areas outside of the control of Yemen’s Houthi rebels are divided into a tapestry of “militiadoms” which are governed by warlords over which the IRG has little to no control. [1] Yemen is on a clear—and likely unalterable—trajectory toward permanent fragmentation.

Yemen has passed the point at which reunification might have still been possible. The Houthis have consolidated their control of almost all levels of formal and informal governance in those areas under their de facto administration. This, paired with their relative organizational efficiency—at least compared with their rivals—and their superior military capabilities, means that the Houthis are unlikely to concede or be forced to concede power to any future unity government. At the same time, southern Yemen is dominated by separatists who have little interest in reconstituting a unified Yemen along the lines of the Republic of Yemen (ROY). Furthermore, none of the most influential regional actors in Yemen—which is to say Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran—want a reunified Yemen. All three nations and Oman are pursuing policies designed to secure spheres of influence and their own particular and conflicting agendas in Yemen. This is not to argue that Yemenis, or at least Yemeni elites, do not possess agency. Many Yemeni elites, including a whole new cadre of elites who have emerged since the war began, are participants, beneficiaries, and enablers of the fragmentation of Yemen.

The question is what permanent fragmentation will look like. Will Yemen split roughly along historic north-south lines along former division into the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), with the north controlled by the Houthis and the south controlled by southern separatists? Will it remain as it is now, with most of what was the YAR governed by the Houthis and the remainder under the de-facto governance of localized militias, supported by external backers? Or will Yemen fully devolve into a collection of well-armed militia-centric micro-states?

Houthi predominance

The Houthis, who refer to themselves as Ansar Allah, control 14 of Yemen’s 21 governorates (to varying degrees). More than 70 percent of Yemen’s estimated population of 32 million lives in areas under the de-facto control of the Houthis (Middle East Eye, December 20, 2021). There is little question that the Houthis are Yemen’s predominant military and political power. [2] Unlike their domestic rivals, the Houthis’ chains of command, both politically and militarily, are unified and subject to little contestation by political officials or military officers. [3] Since the Houthis began fighting the Yemeni government in 2004, they have, out of necessity, produced an organization that is durable, internally resilient, and highly capable across both the military and political spectrums.

Since seizing Sana’a in September 2014, the Houthis have methodically taken over almost all facets of governance in those areas their forces control. Beginning with their takeover of Sana’a, the Houthis began setting up a shadow government. Houthi “supervisors” were tasked with monitoring and advising government administrators and employees across all levels of the former government from the ministries to individual villages. [4] This shadow government was designed to allow the Houthis to learn about how the existing state government operated and to determine which employees were most critical to the functioning of its ministries. Most critically, the shadow government allowed the Houthis to assess the loyalties of government employees, especially those who held high- and mid-level administrative positions. [5]

The Houthis also slowly and methodically took over Yemen’s two intelligence services, the Political Security Bureau (PSB) and the National Security Agency (NSA). The seizure of the files and equipment of the two agencies was a topmost priority for the Houthis following their September 2014 takeover of Sana’a. The files and records from the two agencies provided the Houthis with in-depth knowledge of the inner workings of Yemen’s formal and informal governmental structures and, most importantly, the files contained detailed information on Yemeni elites from all sectors of public and private life, some of which was undoubtedly compromising. [6]

The Houthis possessed a well-developed HUMINT-focused intelligence wing before their 2014 takeover of Sana’a. However, following their seizure of Sana’a and their absorption of Yemen’s two intelligence agencies, the Houthis’ HUMINT and SIGINT intelligence capabilities underwent rapid development. Both Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) aided the development and refinement of the Houthis’ domestic intelligence capabilities, especially within the realms of SIGINT and counter-intelligence. In August 2019, the Houthis restructured Yemen’s existing intelligence services, the Political Security Bureau (PSB) and the National Security Agency (NSA), by combining them to form a new intelligence agency, the Security and Intelligence Service (SIS). SIS is part of the Houthis’ overarching intelligence apparatus, Preventative Security. Preventative Security oversees the SIS and functions alongside an independent military intelligence wing. Another service charged with ensuring organizational security and counter-intelligence operates independently of Preventative Security. [7] The build-out of the Houthis’ intelligence capabilities undergirds their ability to maintain organizational unity and discipline, monitor and maintain their patronage networks, and continue to largely outmaneuver their domestic rivals.

The development of the Houthis’ armed drone and missile programs are also a critical part of what helps ensure Houthi predominance in Yemen. With Iranian assistance, which ranges from the provision of critical components to technical guidance, the Houthis possess armed drones and missiles that are able to hit targets across Yemen as well as targets within much of Saudi and Emirati territory (al-Jazeera, January 18, 2022). The Houthis have successfully targeted multiple sites within the UAE and Saudi Arabia despite both countries spending billions of dollars on air defense (Middle East Eye, January 17, 2022). [8] By comparison, the Houthsi’ drone and missile programs likely cost them less than a hundred million a year, a total which includes their own research and development efforts. [9] In 2022, the Houthis targeted Yemen’s domestic energy infrastructure as a way of gaining further leverage over Yemen’s Internationally Recognized Government (IRG) (Arab News, November 15, 2022). Revenue from the sale of oil is the IRG’s only significant and relatively consistent source of income. The Houthis are demanding that they, as de-facto rulers over most of the Yemeni population, are entitled to a majority share of the revenues from Yemen’s sale of oil. So far, the Houthis have only targeted tankers rather than actual components of Yemen’s oil and gas-handling infrastructure (Arab News, November 12, 2022).

The Houthis’ ability to leverage their interlinked political, military, and intelligence capabilities acts as a growing check not only on their domestic rivals’ ability to maneuver but also that of their regional rivals. Saudi Arabia is currently engaged in advanced bilateral negotiations with the Houthis. Despite continuing to outwardly verbally support the IRG, Saudi Arabia’s negotiations with the Houthis have further undermined the IRG. If these negotiations are successfully concluded, even if the result is a minimal set of security guarantees, the IRG’s already limited influence will be further eroded on both the national and international stages. Saudi Arabia, just like the UAE, knows that the chances of defeating and displacing the Houthis are now nil. Saudi Arabia wants a secure border, an end to the threat of drone and missile strikes, and a return on its immense and misguided investment in the war in Yemen.

The surest way to achieve these aims is to return to the kinds of policies that served the Kingdom well for decades in Yemen: fund patronage networks and buyoff its enemies and potential enemies. While the Houthis are certain to maintain their relationship with Iran, the relationship could be weakened in time by an in-flow of Saudi money and investment to Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen. At the same time, Saudi based companies are keen to be able to return to the Yemeni market en masse and participate in reconstruction and development efforts. The irony is, of course, inescapable: Saudi Arabia and the UAE have spent at least 300 billion dollars on their war in Yemen only to see the Houthis emerge as the most capable political and military power in Yemen. [10] And yet to recoup some of these funds, both countries are eager to ensure that companies based in their respective countries are well-positioned to capitalize on reconstruction and redevelopment efforts. In the case of Saudi Arabia, this means negotiating with the Houthis. [11]

Given the Houthis tight control of almost all aspects of governance in the areas they rule over, their growing ability to project power via armed drones and missiles, and the weakness of their rivals, their continued predominance in Yemen over the short-, medium-, and likely long-term is assured. The only real threat to the Houthis is widespread and abiding unrest. However, this threat is minimized by both the Houthis’ pervasive and often brutal intelligence and security apparatus and the fact that the Houthis have proven to be relatively good administrators and guarantors of security, at least when compared with their political and military rivals.


Those areas that fall outside of Houthi control, namely southern and eastern Yemen, are mostly governed by what are increasingly localized militias. These militias and their commanders are often only nominally loyal to the IRG or the Southern Transitional Council (STC). For example, there are at least ten military groups/militias that are affiliated with the STC. However, the STC exercises little or no effective command and control over seven of these groups. Instead, groups like the Giant’s Brigades and the Hazm Brigades generally pursue their own agendas and maintain their own direct relationships with their foreign backers, primarily the UAE in the case of the Giant’s Brigades. [12]

These militias primarily fund themselves by imposing informal taxes on business owners and citizens who operate and live in the areas under their control. In addition to informal taxes, the militias compete with one another for control of roads and chokepoints where they can set up armed checkpoints. From there, the militiamen force merchants and traders to pay often exorbitant fees and duties on goods that pass through. Many of the checkpoints located along entrances to cities like Aden also have detention centers attached to them. Those who cannot pay or refuse to pay are frequently detained until a payment is made by relatives or employers. It is not uncommon for those who are unable to pay to disappear.

The Houthis also operate detainment centers alongside the major checkpoints that they control, particularly in areas where they frequently detain those deemed to be security risks and/or political enemies. What are effectively ransom payments for the detained are an important source of revenue for many militias and the Houthis. In the case of the STC-affiliated groups, a percentage of the revenue they collect from imposing informal and, in some cases, formal taxes and customs duties is handed over to the STC. Similarly, those armed groups aligned with the IRG also give a percentage of what they collect to the IRG. However, as these are armed groups that operate with little or no top-down oversight from the STC or IRG, the percentage of taxes and duties turned over to formal governmental authorities is subject to constant negotiation.

Many armed groups, especially those who operate along Yemen’s political and geographic peripheries, keep all of the funds that they extract from those living in—and passing through—the territories that they control. There is often violent competition between even nominally allied militias for control of revenue-generating infrastructure, roads, checkpoints, and smuggling routes. The revenue that is captured from control of these assets is vital to the ability of the various armed groups to sustain themselves. The commanders of these armed groups, some of which have amassed personal fortunes, must pay their fighters’ salaries, fund their own patronage networks, and buy weapons and materiel to supply their militias. In addition to these expenses, some militias have begun funding limited public works programs in some of the areas that they control as a way of bolstering local support and strengthening territorial claims.

The presence of a growing number of well-armed militias that are not reliant on external funding is extremely problematic for the re-establishment of centralized authority, whether it be a unity government or a secessionist one. Even in the city of Aden, the de-facto capital for the IRG and the STC, neither the STC nor the IRG exercise control over those armed groups that are nominally allied with them. Insecurity in Aden continues to increase as rival militias compete with one another for control of checkpoints, port facilities, government buildings, and other revenue-generating assets. [13] High levels of insecurity and the accompanying high levels of unpredictability have stifled investment in Aden and in much of the south, while capital continues to pool in the relatively secure and stable city of Sana’a. [14] This, in turn, increases unemployment, especially among Yemen’s youth, which means that joining a militia remains the best and, in many cases, the only option for young Yemeni men to earn a living.

While there is intense competition among nominally allied militias, this is overlaid with ever present and increasing competition between those militias allied with the STC and those allied with the IRG. In the summer of 2022, STC-allied armed groups, including the Giants Brigades, launched a successful offensive against IRG and Islah-aligned forces in the resource rich governorate of Shabwa (Middle East Eye, August 10, 2022). STC- allied forces evicted Islah and IRG-aligned forces from most of the governorate of Shabwa (Al-Monitor, August 14, 2022). This offensive was largely driven by the need for the STC and its allies to secure access to Shabwa’s oil and gas production and handling infrastructure. The UAE, which is the primary supporter of the STC and the Giants Brigades, allegedly provided air support for the STC-allied forces (Middle East Monitor, August 16, 2022).

Currently, tensions are again rising in Aden between Saudi supported IRG-allied forces and STC-allied forces. The Saudi-supported Arabia Felix Brigades (aka National Shield Forces) control areas around the Presidential Palace in Aden. On January 29, command and control of the Arabia Felix Brigades was reportedly handed over to the chairman of the PLC, Rashad al-Alimi, who previously had no direct control over any armed forces (Asharq al-Awsat, January 31). The STC leadership and the leaders of many of the allied militias view this move as a first step by the IRG and Islah toward establishing more control over Aden. This runs counter to the STC’s secessionist ambitions and, more critically, is viewed as competition for control of revenue generating resources. The Arabia Felix Brigades control very little of Aden and are largely surrounded by STC-aligned militias. However, there is a growing risk in Aden that armed conflict might resume between IRG/Islah-aligned forces and the STC forces.

The STC and IRG-aligned forces fought one another in the so-called “Battle of Aden” in January 2018; fighting continued into the summer of 2019. The 2018 clash resulted in the temporary eviction of IRG forces from Aden. The signing of the November 2019 Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement granted the STC recognition by the IRG in exchange for a redeployment of STC forces away from parts of Aden. While the treaty did bring about a pause in fighting, the STC and allied militias maintained and expanded their control over much of the city and governorate of Aden.

The only real checks on internecine fighting between STC- and IRG-aligned militias, and even among nominally allied militias, is the continuing threat of Houthi-led offensives and access to Saudi and Emirati aid. However, as frontlines in Yemen—at least between the Houthis and their rivals—solidify, the threat of renewed fighting between the STC and IRG will increase. Additionally, the growing divergence between Saudi and Emirati policies and aims in Yemen will increase the risk of renewed fighting between their proxy forces. It is likely that Aden and the governorates of Abyan, Lahij, and Shabwa will be most impacted by any recurrence of fighting between rival militias.

Enclaves of stability

In contrast with southern Yemen, other parts of Yemen enjoy relatively high levels of stability. As discussed above, Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen have long benefited from relatively high levels of security and predictability. However, it must be noted that the Houthis’ provision of security comes at a heavy cost: human rights abuses abound, surveillance is pervasive, and punishments for those deemed to be enemies of the Houthi regime are punitive and often lethal (Arab News, January 22; Asharq al-Awasat, August 24, 2022). Outside of Houthi-controlled areas, much of the eastern Yemeni governorates of al-Mahra and Hadramawt remain relatively stable and have seen inflows of investment (YPA, January 2). Additionally, the parts of Yemen’s west coast under the control of General Tariq Saleh are stable and have come to attract domestic and regional investment (Al-Thawra, September 22, 2022).

Both al-Mahara and Hadramawt are thinly populated and have largely escaped the high-intensity fighting that took place in much of southern and northwestern Yemen. While both governorates are divided and controlled— to varying degrees—by an array of formal and informal armed groups, these armed groups are commanded by authorities with relatively clear chains of command. The Hadramawt is divided into two spheres of influence: In the south a broadly STC-aligned government and security forces, the Hadrawmi Elite Forces, are charged with de-facto governance. [15] In the north, the Hadramawt is governed by IRG-aligned authorities and forces based in the city of Seiyun. While periodic low-intensity fighting between rival armed groups occurs between what is effectively northern and southern Hadramawt, the governorate remains one of the most stable areas within Yemen. This stability partially owed to the influx of investment from both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Hadramawt is also divided into Saudi and Emirati zones of influence with the Emiratis exerting influence in the south and the Saudis in the north via their proxies. The port city of Mukallah, located in southern Hadramawi, has, much like Sana’a, seen real estate values soar as local and regional investors speculate on land for future development projects. [16]

Al-Mahra, Yemen’s easternmost governorate, has, throughout the war, been the most stable of Yemen’s governorates, largely due to its remoteness and small population. In al-Mahra, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and to a lesser degree, the UAE, are competing, via tribal proxies, with one another to establish and defend spheres of influence (Anadolu Agency, January 5, 2021). Al-Mahra has historically had close ties with Oman, which views the governorate as an important security buffer. Tribal territories and relationships in al-Mahra extend into Oman. Saudi Arabia now regards the governorate as a top priority for establishing an abiding foothold in Yemen. [17] Consequently, the Kingdom has built at least a dozen military and logistics bases in the governorate that range from sizeable semi-permanent bases to “pop-up” bases for small contingents of troops and advisers. [18]

On Yemen’s west coast, General Tariq Saleh controls parts of the governorates of Hodeidah and Taiz. Tariq Saleh is the nephew of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and formerly commanded the Presidential Guard. After his uncle was killed by the Houthis in 2017, Tariq Saleh fled Sana’a and eventually established the National Resistance Forces (NRF), which is now based in and around the coastal town of Mocha. Due to the fact that many officers and men who had fought with the elite Yemeni Republican Guard units joined the NRF, the NRF is one of the most capable armed forces in Yemen. The NRF is backed by the UAE and is nominally allied with the IRG. However, the NRF and its political wing administer those areas under their control with little oversight or funding from the IRG. The NRF enjoys unified chains of command and a well-trained contingent of officers and NCOs. Consequently, areas under the control of the NRF are relatively secure. This security combined with the UAE’s desire to establish a foothold along Yemen’s strategic Red Sea coast means that investment in NRF-administered areas is increasing. [19]


The reunification of Yemen over the long-term is a remote possibility. The military and political predominance of the Houthis is unlikely to be effectively challenged by their rivals. At the same time, the IRG and the members of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) are deeply divided and subject to the conflicting agendas of their backers, namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Similarly, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) suffers from a lack of unity and no consistent control of those militias allied with it. The divisions within southern Yemen’s political and military factions mirror the contentious and often bloody history of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Just as reunification is remote, the likelihood of a clean division of Yemen along historic north-south lines is also remote. Even those de-facto authorities in Hadramawt and al-Mahra who are nominally aligned with the STC are unlikely to cede power to an Aden-based government. For its part, the authority of the IRG is steadily eroding due to in-fighting within the PLC, a lack of access to consistent funding, and the weakening military and political position of the IRG’s primary martial and political supporter, Islah.

It will be hard to forestall the permanent fragmentation of Yemen into various militia-controlled territories that are, to varying degrees, subject to the agendas of their external backers. Yemen’s spectrum of armed groups and the elites who control them are deeply invested in ensuring that they maintain and expand their control of the country’s limited resources. This comes most often at the expense of the IRG and its nominal authority. At the same time, many of these militias are backed and financed by external powers who have no interest in seeing Yemen reunified. The support and influence of the UAE and Saudi Arabia for their various proxies, as well as their armed intervention, can be partly blamed for the fragmentation of Yemen. Now, however, this same support and influence acts as an important check on both Yemen’s full collapse into a disparate collection of militia-centric micro states and Houthi territorial expansion.

Over the medium term, the mostly likely outcome for Yemen is an uneasy continuance of the status quo. The Houthis will remain the country’s predominant military and political power while in-fighting among members of the PLC continues to erode the authority of the IRG. Yemen’s enclaves of stability will persist and continue to attract investment and citizens as their de-facto authorities consolidate their hold on power, again at the expense of the IRG. Over the coming two to three years, Yemen will likely see the Houthis once again attempt to seize all of the territory that once formed the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). This would include all of the oil producing governorate of Marib, which is vital to the long-term viability of the Houthi regime. In southern Yemen, especially in the governorates of Abyan, Aden, and Lahij, factionalism and insecurity will persist as STC-affiliated militias consolidate their hold on local territories and resist formal incorporation into an STC-administered chain of command.


[1] See: “Beyond Yemen’s Militiadoms: Restarting from local agency,” The European Institute for Security Studies (April 2020).

[2] See: “Could the Houthis Be the Next Hizballah?” Rand Corporation (2020)

[3] Author interviews with former members of the Yemeni government officials (December 2022).

[4] See: “The Houthi Supervisory System: The Interplay of formal state institutions and informal political structures, ACAPS: Yemen Analysis Hub (June 2020); “Changing local governance in Yemen: District and governorate institutions in the areas under Ansar Allah’s control,” Berghof Foundation (December 31, 2020).

[5] Author interviews with former Yemeni officials (November 2022).

[6] Author interview with former member of the Yemeni government (November 2022).

[7] Author interview with a Yemen-based analyst (November 2022).

[8] See: “Beyond Riyadh: Houthi Cross-Border Aerial Warfare,” ACLED (January 17, 2023).

[9] See: “The Iranian and Houthi War against Saudi Arabia,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (December 21, 2021).

[10] Saudi Arabia’s expenditures in Yemen have been far greater than those of the UAE. At the height of the Kingdom’s war in Yemen, it was estimated that Saudi Arabia was spending 200 million USD a day. It is unlikely that most of the estimates provided by various media outlets and analysts include the spiraling costs associated with air defense. See: “Saudi Arabia’s Yemeni Quagmire,” Wilson Center (December 2015).

[11] Author interview with UAE-based security analyst (November 2022).

[12] Author interview with southern Yemen-based analyst (December 2022).

[13] See: “Yemen’s Southern Military Crisis,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (September 19, 2019); “War and pieces: Political divides in southern Yemen,” European Council on Foreign Relations (January 22, 2020).

[14] Author interview with Yemen-based analyst (December 2022).

[15] See: “Yemen’s Fractured South: Shabwah and Hadramawt,” ACLED (May 2019).

[16] Author interview with Yemen-based analyst (December 2022).

[17] See: “Mahra: The Eye of a Geopolitical Storm,” The SAIS Europe Journal of Global Affairs (2020).

[18] Author interview with a former Yemeni government official (December 2022).

[19] Author interview with Mocha based government official (December 2022).