The Yemeni Civil War: A Geopolitical Playground
By Maya Makhoul | Fall 2023
Since 1962, Yemen has been plagued by a series of internal conflicts that attracted interventions from its power-hungry neighbors. These external actors have used Yemen as a political battleground for power politics against their adversaries. As a result, the internal conflict in Yemen—both present and past—have far-reaching geopolitical consequences, even garnering attention from large powers such as the United States. Foreign involvement in Yemen’s civil wars is not a new phenomenon, and it has shaped the country in profound ways while always producing one loser: Yemeni civilians.
The roots of the current Yemeni Civil War lie in the power struggle between the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi- and UAE-backed anti-Houthi factions, with the rebels seeking to topple the government and seize control of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. The Houthis took over Sanaa in 2014 before kickstarting their quest for control over the entire country. This power shift sparked a Saudi-led coalition intervention in 2015, including the UAE, which aimed to restore the internationally recognized government of President Hadi.
The dynamics of this conflict are complicated, as it is both a religious conflict and a geopolitical one. It is at once about maintaining the regional balance of power, ensuring peace and stability in the Arab states, and preventing the spread of one branch of Islam over the other. Specifically, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are indirectly curbing Iran’s military presence in the Middle East by opposing the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. In addition to security challenges, the Houthi rebels—an offshoot of Shia Islam—represent an ideological opposition to the Sunni Yemeni government, which means that the Yemeni Civil War has become a battleground for the broader religious rivalry between majority-Sunni Saudi Arabia and majority-Shia Iran.
Foreign policy objectives aside, the monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also fighting for their own survival by propping up a foreign regime. A revolutionary overthrow of the Yemeni government in their own backyard could inspire similar uprisings domestically. Not surprisingly, both Saudi Arabia and UAE are eager to nip any revolutionary movement in the bud.
This threat of destabilization, however, is not new. In 1963, Saudi Arabia also played a pivotal role in supporting the royalist regime in the North Yemen Civil War as part of a proxy war against Nasser’s Egypt for fear of revolutionary contagions. In particular, Nasser’s support for the republican government as part of his Pan-Arabist vision, at odds with the royalist regime, threatened to undermine Saudi Arabia’s monarchy: if the monarchy in Yemen could be overthrown, then why couldn’t the same happen in Saudi Arabia? By supporting royalist forces, Saudi Arabia aimed to safeguard its own political system and the legitimacy of the monarchy. Its goal remains the same today; only it is now joined by the UAE, which has a similar political system it seeks to protect.
However, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE are united in their reasoning for intervention in Yemen, their divergence on the method of intervention has soured their relationship, especially as Riyadh asserts itself as the region’s financial hub. Although both countries have been fighting against the Houthis since 2015, they backed different anti-Houthi factions. On the one hand, the UAE backs the Southern Transitional Council, which wants greater autonomy and potentially the restoration of an independent state, for Southern Yemen. Saudi Arabia on the other hand supports the internationally recognized Yemen government. This has further complicated the political alliances, with rifts between the Gulf states on top of their divisions with the Iranians.
The ongoing conflict has had a devastating impact on Yemeni society and infrastructure, resulting in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with 21.6 million people requiring some form of humanitarian assistance as 80 percent of the country struggles to put food on the table and access basic services. The humanitarian crisis has significantly expanded the international dimension of the conflict, with organizations such as the United Nations providing humanitarian assistance to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people and pressing the warring factions to cease hostilities and engage in peace talks.
Today, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are looking to scale back their involvement in Yemen for a number of reasons, not least due to pressure from the international community. However, retrenchment has only created more conflicts between the two Gulf states. Although the UAE withdrew troops from Yemen in 2019, it has continued to support their allies in Yemen, as it believes that regardless of any deal struck with the Houthis, the conflict is going to return. This is in contrast with the Saudis who are now more eager to get out of Yemen, as they feel they can negotiate the relationship they want with the Houthis. Moreover, by disengaging from Yemen the Saudis hope to sweet-talk skeptical members of US Congress (who objected to Saudi bombing in Yemen) into ratifying a defense treaty between the US and Saudi Arabia.
Today, the future for Yemen remains unclear. Saudi Arabia’s incentive to please US congress by withdrawing from Yemen may no longer remain, as plans to normalize relations with Israel—together with the prospect of a defense pact with the US—are off the table following the October 7 Hamas attacks and ensuing Israeli retaliation. Still, the economic costs of the war may still encourage a slow withdrawal from Yemen. The Yemeni Civil War stands as a striking example of how a complex web of geopolitical and regional dynamics can turn a nation’s internal strife into a battleground for international powers. The conflict has not only created devastating humanitarian consequences, but it has also strained relations among regional actors once united by common goals. As Saudi Arabia and the UAE reassess their involvement in the Yemeni conflict amid international pressure and their own shifting priorities, the path forward remains uncertain; the only thing certain is that the Yemeni civilians have paid a heavy price for the power politics in the region.