Yemen (for Dummies)

One of the roles of a geopolitical writer is to simplify complex political issues so that stakeholders can make good decisions about business and political strategies. The Civil War in Yemen is today's most complex war and serves as the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time.


The Republic of Yemen sits at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. It borders Saudi Arabia and Oman. Yemen's north-western side borders the Red Sea and is home to the capital city of Sana'a. The Gulf of Aden borders southern Yemen. Where the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden meet, Yemen's landmass protrudes towards Africa's Djibouti, Eritrea, and Somalia. The three African states are less than 1.5 hrs away by plane.



Yemen is mostly mountainous and arid and historically considered a strategic location due to its proximity to water and trade routes. The country is Arabic and predominantly Muslim, with several dialects spoken among its 29 million people. Due to the civil war, 80% of the population require humanitarian aid.


In ancient times, Yemen controlled the trade of commodities such as frankincense, myrrh, spices, and other aromatics such as coffee. During Britain's colonial raid of the world, the southern part of Yemen (near Aden) was colonized, but not the north. Britain left Yemen in shambles economically and socially. Conflict between the northern and southern Yemen regions began from the time southern Yemen received independence in 1967.


By 1969, a communist coup reoriented Yemen towards the Soviets. Three years later, a ceasefire was brokered by the Arab League. However, when the new president (Ali Abdallah Saleh) was installed in the northern capital (Sana'a), fighting resumed. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Soviet Block implodes as well in Yemen. The 20-year bi-cameral legislative system with communist subsidies collapsed, and US President George Bush Sr. pushed for the unification of north and south Yemen under President Saleh. Within four years, southern Yemen declared secession (1994).


In 2000 Al-Qaeda forces emerged in the south seeking to gain control of the Aden Port. Yemen maintained control and expelled over 100 foreign nationals tied to the Al-Qaida regime (Sunni Extremist). By 2002 the Al -Qaeda regime successfully take the port, cutting off much-needed revenue to the Yemen government. Other insurgencies add to the complexity as a northern, minority Houthi regime of Zaidi Shiites attempt to take power in 2004. A Houthi rebel cleric was killed, and the fight lasted another three years. In 2008, Al-Qaeda (Sunni) shifted from the south to the capital (Sana'a) to gain more territory. They attack the US Embassy in Sana'a, killing 12 Americans, and incur expanded factions to fight, Houthis and government separatists. Al-Qaeda fails to take Sana'a.


In 2010 the Arab Spring uprising in Tunisia and Egypt began. Anti-government protestors in Yemen were continually killed and displaced. By 2011, President Saleh steps down to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Hadi. A new government of unity begins under Hadi until Al-Qaeda attacks Yemen's capital again, successfully. In 2014, Hadi drafts accommodations to the disgruntled north and south factions, as the Houthis simultaneously regained control of the capital from Al-Qaeda. The Houthis rejected any compromise from Hadi and had him removed from office.


By now, weapons had become more sophisticated, making Yemen's off-and-on upheavals more dangerous. In 2015, the Islamic State (Al-Qaeda/ISIS) attempted to gain total control of Yemen through suicide attacks on Shia mosques in Sana'a. These Sunni Extremist attacks led to outright civil war. The Islamic State is funded and backed by a Saudi-led coalition whose powerful airstrikes on Houthi targets and force naval blockades in Aden were devastating. The UAE also funds the Sunni Yemenis (less extreme version), who ultimately gains Aden and its port. The UAE support is known as the Southern Transition Council (STC).


During the early air raids on Houthi targets, the Saudi's thought the war would end within weeks. However, the Houthis (backed by Iran - Shia) remained a stronghold in the north as they do today.


Eventually, the Houthis lost the south-western tip of Yemen, including Aden and its port, to the UAE-backed Sunni forces. The Saudi-backed forces (Sunni Extremists) now dominate the Yemen landmass closest to Oman and Saudia Arabia.


Houthi's (Shia) continue to control Yemen's northern area, inland from the Red Sea, extending across Sana'a. As previously noted, 80% of the Yemeni people require humanitarian aid that is being blocked by the various factions. How can Yemen's issues be resolved? Separation of the factions into independent states; Houthis (Shia) take the north, Hadi government (Sunni) take the south with UAE-backed STC depressing the Al-Qaeda/ISIS presence.

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