Cutting across tribal, political and religious lines Yemen’s conflict is as protracted that it has been structurally fluid in its ever-evolving alliances – which alliances, whether local or regional have at time, ran counterintuitive to parties’ interests.
Yemen is a complicated socio-political beast; to reduce the war to a single upset would be to ignore the plethora of agendas currently being played out within its borders. While Yemen’s future remains murky … and one might add, tentative at best, it will also determine much of the region’s future through the formation of a new geopolitical order.
Following is an exhaustive list of all main local and regional actors.
THE HOUTHIS –
Born initially as a knee-jerk reaction to what was perceived (1990s) as an encroachment against North Yemen religious independence by the Muslim Brotherhood (a member of Al Islah and Yemen’s strongest opposition block to the ruling party: Al Motamar/General People’s Congress), the Houthis, organised under the leadership of first Hussein Badreddin Al Houthi, and then his son: Abdel Malek Al Houthi fought several war against Sana’a central government starting 2004.
Once a small opposition movement, the Houthi movement has become a major player, both nationally and regionally by the weight of the alliances it managed to broker to support its ideology – a mixture of Islamic revivalism, nationalism and republicanism
The Houthis linked to Shia Islam has often been exploited to assert group members’ ‘natural’ ideological disposition towards Iran’s Islamic Republic. While the group has maintained strong links with Tehran at a time when it has been shunned by the international community, it serves to note that if in fact the movement falls under the ‘Shia’ label, Zaidism is profoundly unlike Shia Twelver Islam.
In matters of law or fiqh, the Zaidis are said to be actually closest to the Sunni Shafie school.
The Houthis emerged as a potent political force on the back of 2011 uprising. In the wake of President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s election (2012), its militiamen took up arms against the Muslim Brotherhood in North Yemen, slowly advancing towards the capital, Sana’a.
In 2014 following Hadi’s televised resignation and subsequent self-imposed exile to Aden, and then Saudi Arabia, the group assumed de facto control of the state institutions. Within months, the group joined into a loose coalition of tribes and political factions to oppose Saudi Arabia’s military aggression.
LOYALISTS TO LATE PRESIDENT ALI ABDULLAH SALEH
Yemen’s strongman rose to power in 1978 at a particularly turbulent time in Yemen’s political life. An adept politician and grand strategist, Saleh stayed on as Yemen’s president for three decades – the leader of the General People’s Congress aka Al Motamar.
His resignation did little by way of diluting his ambitions or that of his party’s members – at least those members within the GPC who remained loyal to his leadership as opposed to that of his successor and long-serving former Vice-President: Abdo Rabbo Mansour.
An institution onto himself the Saleh’s name still commands great authority in Yemen across the board: tribes, military and political circles. Several of his family members now in exile, most notably Gen. Yehia Mohammed Saleh (nephew) and Gen. Ahmed Ali Saleh (eldest son and former Commander in Chief of the Republican Guards) have been considered natural heirs to the GPC’s political legacy.
In May 2015, Saleh and his loyalists openly allied with the Houthis against Saudi Arabia’s aggression. To this day much of the war efforts against the Kingdom has been overviewed by GPC Saleh loyalists – a reality often dismissed by both the media and state officials.
PRESIDENT ABDUL RABBO MANSOUR HADI
Hailing from South Yemen, Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi rose to prominence in 1994 after he sided with President Saleh’s war efforts against the Southern Secessionist Movement.
Yemen’s longest serving VP, Hadi was elected in a one-man election in 2012 for two-year term. His mandate provisioned for the ratification of a new constitution and Yemen’s transition into a fully fledged democratic state.
Following an extension of his term in 2014 and fears that Hadi sought to consolidate his grip on power over his people’s calls for democratisation, the Houthis began their long march towards the capital.
Hadi resigned from power in 2014, to seek exile in Saudi Arabia where he now resides. Hadi is still recognised by the United Nations and the Saudi war coalition as Yemen’s legitimate authority, despite his term having technically ended.
A member of the GPC and former Saleh’s loyalist, Hadi broke rank in 2012 to form his own sub-faction.
In a bid to secure a base in Yemen proper, Hadi chose to align himself to the Southern Separatist Movement in Aden in 2015 in view of fighting off the Houthi-led Resistance movement.
A recent breakdown in relation with separatists and antagonistic political views left Hadi without any real political authority or legitimacy.
AL ISLAH PARTY, THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD AND AL AHMAR CLAN
Also called the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, Al Islah was President Saleh’s only ever tangible political opposition. Backed in large by Saudi Arabia, Al Islah remains as eclectic in its make-up as it is in the formulation of its political thought. An umbrella for several religious and tribal factions, Al Islah has often been compared to the palatable face of Yemen’s own brand of pan-Islamism. Al Islah accounts within its ranks members of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as well-known radical Islamic with ties to Al Qaeda: Sheikh Abdel Majid Al Zindani for example.
The main face of Al Islah, Al Ahmar brothers are Yemen’s biggest contenders to power. The family is the head of the Hashid tribal confederation, the most powerful of Yemen’s two tribal confederations. The other being the Bakil.
Made strong by Saudi Arabia’s financial support over the decades Al Ahmar brothers have acted a buffer to Saleh’s otherwise uncontested hold over Yemen. If this tentative political ‘balance’ served Riyadh for great many years, the clan’s propensity to lean on Islamists for socio-political relevance proved in fact counter-productive. To some extent, if to put mildly, Al Islah has offered a convenient cover for members of both the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda in Yemen so that it could better offset President Saleh’s ability to rule over a united nation.
Today Al Islah is one of the strongest opponents of the Houthis, and some of Hadi’s most staunchest allies.
SOUTHERN SEPARATISTS/SECESSIONISTS and THE SOUTHERN TRANSITIONAL COUNCIL
Formed in 2007 the Southern Secessionist Movement, also known as Al Harak, is a political movement and paramilitary organization which has actively and systematically called for the formation of a state independent from Sana’a. Held as political pariahs under Saleh’s rule, Yemen’s secessionists have looked onto Yemen’s Arab Spring as an invaluable political opportunity.
At present, its political branch, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) is led by Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, is the de facto leadership in all provinces of the south.
Formed in 2017, the Southern Transitional Council is a secessionist movement focused on gaining independence for South Yemen. Comprising of 26 members, the STC includes five governors from Southern Yemen and two former government ministers. The STC emerged after Hadi fired Aden governor Aidarus al-Zoubaidi for alleged disloyalty in April 2017.
It is important to note that both the southern-eastern provinces of Hadramawt and Al Mahra have rejected calls to join the STC as they themselves ambition to stand independently from both Sana’a and Aden.
AL-QAEDA IN THE ARABIAN PENINSULA – AQAP
The militant Islamist group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was formed in January 2009 through a union of the Saudi and Yemeni branches of Al Qaeda. Jihadist antecedents in the region date to the early 1990s, when thousands of mujahadeen returned to Yemen after fighting the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. Analysts rate the Yemen-based group as the most lethal Al Qaeda franchise, carrying out a domestic insurgency while maintaining its sights on Western targets. The group’s threats have disrupted operations in dozens of U.S. diplomatic facilities in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, and it has inspired or directed attacks in the United States and Europe.
In the late 1980s, the Saleh regime fostered jihad in what was then North Yemen by repatriating thousands of Yemeni nationals who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. Saleh dispatched these mujahadeen to fight the Soviet-backed Marxist government of South Yemen in a successful bid for unification, and subsequently, to crush southern secessionists.
The returning Yemenis were joined by other Arab veterans of the Afghan war, foremost among them Osama bin Laden, who advocated a central role for Yemen in global jihad. A corps of jihadists who had trained under bin Laden in Afghanistan formed the militant group Islamic Jihad in Yemen (1990–94), one of several AQAP predecessors. Other such groups include the Army of Aden Abyan (1994–98) and Al Qaeda in Yemen, or AQY (1998–2003).
SAUDI ARABIA’S WAR COALITION
The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, also called the Arab coalition was launched in late March 2015 in response to calls from President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi for military support against the Houthis. Composed of 9 countries from the Middle East and Africa, the coalition has been accused of war crimes for its targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructures.
Saudi Arabia has long argued Iran’s influence in Yemen and the UN Resolution 2216 to frame its military campaign as both politically legitimate and legally sound.
Arguably Saudi Arabia’s frontal campaign against what it perceives as a threat to both its national interests and its regional rationale has served to feed the fires of dissent within the region – de facto accelerating the formation of a pan-Arab ‘Resistance Block’.
NOTE – Yemen has become increasingly fractured since President Hadi was ousted from the capital and went into exile. The country is torn between ascendant Houthis, remnants of the former government, AQAP, and a secession movement in the south, and none are capable of controlling the entire country. A transition plan backed by the Gulf Cooperation Council and the United States has faltered. Foreign embassies have been closed in the capital. Internal divisions, splintering national agendas and foreign intervention have created further instability for AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia to exploit.