The War in Yemen

Written by Saira Javaid Cheema 11:47 am Articles, International Relations, Published Content

The War in Yemen: How It Began & Who Are the Houthis?

The war in Yemen – a conflict between the Houthis and the Hadi regime, involving several international actors – has turned the state into the largest humanitarian crisis of the contemporary era. Around 80% of the Yemeni population is in need of humanitarian assistance. To understand how Yemen came to this point, the author, Saira Javaid Cheema, provides a background of the war in Yemen and explains who the Houthis are. She argues that since Saudi Arabia’s King Salman took the throne in 2015, the civil war in Yemen has worsened.
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About the Author(s)
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Ms Saira Javaid Cheema has a bachelor's degree in Social Sciences with a major in International Relations and Politics from the University of Lahore.

We often hear about one of history’s biggest humanitarian crises – the war against the Houthis in Yemen. But who are these Houthis, comprising 35% of the population in Yemen? Various renowned historians have expounded on the current situation by scrutinizing the historical facts about the Shia-originated Houthis, dwelling in the Sadaa province of Yemen. The Houthis have a history of more than 1000 years in Yemen and today, they’re facing a humanitarian crisis.

The Houthis of Yemen

The Houthis of Yemen are among the minority groups rooted in Shiite Islam. The Shiites got split into further sub-factions. The Shias living in Yemen are originally Zaydis, possessing different norms, rituals, and dogmas from Shiites elsewhere. The Zaydis believe that Zayd Ibn Ali – the grandson of the fourth Muslim caliph and beheaded in a revolt against the Umayyad dynasty in 740 – was the sole heir to the Muslim Ummah. He was brave enough to sacrifice his life on the way to glorify the old Islamic traditions. Zayd Ibn Ali is no less than the salvation against corruption and anarchy in Islamic history. 

Zaydis Under Abdullah Saleh’s Regime

The Houthis of Yemen retained the tenet of revolting against corruption from their religious-philosophical legacy. The Zaydis are different from the Shiites we know inhabiting Iran or other parts of the world. After the death of Imam Zayd Ibn Ali, the Zaydi imams took control over the majority of the Zaydis residing in Yemen. 

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In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was toppled and Turkey was declared an independent state. For the Zaydis in Yemen, the event panned out the installation of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom in the northern region. The new leader of North Yemen was an ambitious spiritual man who relinquished some of the lands in a war with Saudi Arabia in the 1930s. Meanwhile, North Yemen announced its autonomous status with Taiz as its capital. 

Eventually, the Mutawakkilite Kingdom was overthrown by a revolutionary group propagated by Egypt. The new king of Yemen was an Arab nationalist who spilled over the situation in Sanaa by provoking a war with the Zaydis. Saudi Arabia assisted the Mutawakkilite against Egypt. However, the conflict was resolved after the Arab-Israel war of 1967. In the Zaydi uprising in 1978, Ali Abdullah Saleh emerged as the most powerful ruler of Yemen. Since then, the Saleh era has been the onset of an enormous power epoch.

The Whirling Juncture

Both North and South Yemen were in unison during the regime of Abdullah Saleh. The foreign policy of Yemen towards Washington and Riyadh was substantiated unsuccessful due to the numerous blunders by Saleh’s administration. It brought both of the countries to ad-lib against Yemen for coherence with Al-Qaeda. As always, the Houthis have a doctrine of fighting against corruption and immorality. A leader from the Zaydi sect stood against the misrule of Abdullah Saleh and its regiment.

Hussein al-Houthi won over millions of hearts in Yemen, intending to eliminate corruption and restore the money stolen by Abdullah Saleh. The intervention of the US in Iraq provided many Muslims the opportunity to revolt against the US; the Houthi movement in Yemen is a living example. The Houthis adopted the slogan “God is great, death to the US, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam.”  

The American intervention in Iraq displayed a roadmap for such movements to instill in the future. The Lebanese revolutionists inspired many in the region for their active succession against Israel. Hezbollah and Iran are Shiites which created a natural bond with Houthis and supported each other based on mutual interests. The Sunni-Shia rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is well known. Therefore, the close ties Iran shares with the Houthis are mainly due to Riyadh. The Houthis of Yemen bothered Abdullah Saleh so much that he killed Hussein al Houthi in 2004.

The Uprising of Arab Spring

The upheaval of Arab Spring in Tunisia in 2011 elicited a change in the regiment. The resignation of Tunisian Zain ul Abideen paved the way for many Arab countries in the region for a revolution. Eventually, the uprising of Arab Spring shifted to Yemen. The uprisings against Saleh became too swift with the coherence of the opposition and public. Initially, the substitution of Saleh with his administration’s vice president by Saudi Arabia added fuel to the fire.

A blueprint came forth with six autonomous provinces in Yemen. The dominated Houthis in the north only got two entities which infuriated them. The newly formed government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Yemen cultivated an alliance between the Houthis and Abdullah Saleh. Hadi, a puppet of Saudi Arabia, was disliked by the people in the Yemeni community. The Yemeni military troops remained loyal to Saleh, steering a revolt against the Hadi regime. 

The Yemeni War & Conflict Escalation with Saudi Arabia

Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, was taken over by the Houthis back in 2014 with the advent of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s reign in Saudi Arabia. Soon. the Houthi forces had captured the port of Hodeidah – the second largest port in Yemen – and began marching towards Aden, the capital of the south of Yemen. The tensions escalated quickly when the Houthis and Iran started working towards their bilateral relations. Iran committed to providing Sanaa with oil relatively at a low price.

The Saudi-Yemeni relations began to exacerbate under King Salman’s reign. Saudi Arabia adopted a foreign policy to confront Yemen by taking control of its southern region. The Saudi-led coalition forces have carried out around 17,000 airstrikes in Yemen from 2015 to 2018 alone, targeting both military sites and residential areas. Though the chaos was already present during the Yemeni war, as both the Houthis and the government defied each other, Saudi Arabia felt that it was crucial to support President Hadi against the rebellious factions in Yemen. That’s how the war in Yemen started in 2014 and has persisted ever since.


The Houthi-Saleh union broke up in 2017 when Abdullah Saleh negotiated with Saudi Arabia. This act has been deemed a betrayal to Houthis and further escalated the war. The Yemeni war continues to exist even today, making it the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis.

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