Project: Middle East and North Africa Programme

Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

The conflict in Yemen is primarily driven by local issues, but the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional power continues to exacerbate the situation and influence the calculations of both sides.

Houthi rebels take security measures with tanks around the parliament in Sanaa, Yemen, on February 16, 2015. Photo by Mohammed Hamoud / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images.Houthi rebels take security measures with tanks around the parliament in Sanaa, Yemen, on February 16 2015. Photo by Getty Images.
  • The competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional influence is exacerbating a number of existing disputes in the region, where the two powers are backing different sides – including Yemen.

  • This paper argues that primary drivers of tension and conflict in Yemen are local, but the perceived, and often exaggerated, roles of external players continue to affect the calculations of the Yemeni players and of different regional actors.

  • The Houthis, founded as a revivalist movement for the Zaydi form of Shia Islam that is largely unique to northern Yemen, have transformed themselves over the past decade into a formidable militia, and their military takeover in January 2015 has plunged the country into uncertainty.

  • Interviews with people who have been granted rare access to the Houthis’ inner circle of leaders suggest that the core leadership is in many cases genuinely committed to the Islamic revolutionary principles set out by Hussein Badr al-Deen al-Houthi, which in turn borrow heavily from those of Iran.

  • Saudi Arabia perceives the Houthis as an Iranian proxy. However, while the group has some support from Iran, this is not the same as taking orders from it.

  • Domestically, the Houthis are unlikely to be able to govern the country and deal with its multiple insurgencies alone. Yemen will also require the financial backing of its much wealthier neighbours, above all Saudi Arabia, to prevent its economic collapse.

  • The issue for Saudi Arabia and the United States in the short and medium term will be how to achieve a working relationship with a key power broker in a strategically important country that is unlikely to feel the need to serve their interests in the way that past regimes in Sana’a have.