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Yemen: A Complex Situation For American Policy Makers

Foreign Policy Brief #136 | By: Reilly Fitzgerald | November 23, 2021

Header photo taken from: Al Mayadeen

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Photo taken from: Middle East Institute

Policy Summary

Yemen has been in a state of political turmoil since 2011 with the ending of the reign of President Saleh and the transition of power to his associate, now President Hadi. The conflict is still an on-going situation. According to a 2016 report from the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees, the conflict in Yemen has displaced more than 3 million people –  presumably more since that report came out. 

The US Embassy estimated that approximately 55% of Yemen’s population adheres to a form of Sunni Islam, and the remaining 45% adheres to Zaidism (sect of Shia Islam), as documented in the Yemen 2019 International Religious Freedom Report.

The two major sides of the war are the Houthis and a governmental coalition to support President Hadi. The Houthis are of the Zayidi sect of Shia Islam; they are a religious minority in the country. The Houthis are backed militarily by Iran, the major Shia power in the region (and world); at one point they were politically backed by Former President Saleh until he was killed in 2017 after switching sides in the conflict. 

The government coalition is backed politically by President Hadi, who is struggling to hold any sort of power after being exiled to Saudi Arabia in 2015 after the Houthis took control of Sanaa, the capital city. The coalition forces are supported by regional Sunni countries, particularly Saudi Arabia which has launched air campaigns over Yemen. They also are receiving aid from the Americans, the French, and the British governments.

Policy Analysis

For American policymakers, the conflict in Yemen is going to be particularly challenging on many levels. The conflict intertwines regional tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran; religious tensions between Shia and Sunnis; and the mixing in of terrorist organizations with no allegiances to either side but taking advantage of the wide-scale chaos and instability. 

President Biden has made it clear that he feels the war needs to come to an end. Biden recently announced three major points that outline his policy agenda towards Yemen: ending support of offensive acts in the conflict by Saudi Arabia, promoting peace talks and initiatives, and sending US Special Envoy Tim Lenderking to the region to work towards solutions to the conflict.

The United States has been allied with Saudi Arabia for a long time and has helped Saudi Arabia prop up the government coalition of President Hadi, though he has been living and working out of Saudi Arabia rather than Yemen. Saudi Arabia is the largest power in the region, and is also a stronghold of Sunni Islam; which makes it a rival of Iran, the other predominant power in the region, which is majority Shia. President Biden did announce earlier this year that the administration will stop supporting “offensive operations” by Saudi Arabia into Yemen; however, this does not rule out continuing our support to Saudi Arabia’s defense of their own territory and borders.

Photo taken from: Lowy Institute

The United States has promoted the idea of finding a peaceful political solution through the United Nations rather than continuing to support “offensive” military actions. The United Nations has, within the last week, tried to re-engage peace efforts in response to coalition airstrikes on Hodeidah after coalition forces left the city. 

Yemen has experienced the failure of the public institutions throughout the conflict. These institutions will need to be put back in place before life can return to ‘normal’. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Yemen’s already fragile health care network. According to a Human Rights Watch report from June 1st, 2021, the Houthi rebels have actively been spreading misinformation regarding the health implications of COVID-19; according to Reuters, Yemen only has about 1% of their population fully vaccinated. On top of the pandemic, Yemen has historically struggled with poverty, which has only been exacerbated by the conflict  All of these issues, along with the violence from the war, have led to a massive humanitarian and human displacement crisis.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on image to visit resource website.

US Embassy in Yemen (https://ye.usembassy.gov/) 

Human Rights Watch, Yemen (https://www.hrw.org/middle-east/n-africa/yemen#) 

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