Yemen: Failing State and Proxy Battleground

Yemen is receiving the wrong kind of attention. Its political and economic insecurity has made it the latest battleground for Saudi-Iranian rivalry as both states vie to exert influence over the Gulf via local proxies. Foreign agendas are pursued at the expense of the Yemeni people, who are caught up in one of the world’s most serious humanitarian crises.

For years, the world has turned a blind eye to Yemen while internal conflicts fester and drive the Gulf state to the brink of failure. An ongoing rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and a resurgent Al-Qa’ida presence all threaten to further corrode the authority of central government and contribute to regional instability. Aggravating these internal challenges is a list of economic woes, a heavily armed population and porous borders. Yemen faces a bleak future.

Complicating these challenges is the involvement of external actors, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia, who view Yemen’s geostrategic position as vital to their interests. While perceptions of foreign meddling in Yemen are commonplace, direct military involvement remains difficult to substantiate. As a result, commentators remain preoccupied with comprehending the exact nature of the support being provided to internal actors by external forces. Yet just as important as understanding these external links is recognising that foreign meddling is undermining domestic counter-terrorism efforts and contributing to the growth of Al-Qa’ida on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Rebellion in the North

The Al-Houthi rebellion in Yemen’s northern province of Saada has received increased coverage after the government launched its sixth offensive, subtly named Operation Scorched Earth, on 11 August 2009. The rebellion, which takes its name from the late Hussein Badr Al-Din Al-Houthi, has roots in the 1962 revolution that toppled the Zaydi Shia Imamate and established the modern republic.

Tensions between the central government and the Zaydi Shia reached boiling point in June 2004 when cleric Hussein Badreddin Al-Houthi instigated an uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s administration. The response of Sana’a, the capital, was to seek to galvanise international support by framing the conflict as the next chapter in the global struggle against terrorism, pointing to similarities between the fundamentalist ideology of the Al-Houthi rebels and Al-Qa’ida. The government continues to accuse a host of international actors of providing support to the rebels, particularly Iran, Hizbullah and Shia groups within Bahrain and Iraq.

Predictably the rebels tell a different tale, arguing that the government is motivated by little more than ideological and historical prejudice towards Zaydi Yemenis. They feel that President Saleh’s republic is antithetical to Yemen’s political traditions and seek to revive the imamate that was swept away in the 1963 civil war. The rebels also criticise the government for drawing external forces into the conflict, particularly Saudi Arabia, the United States and, more recently, AQAP militants

Iranian Involvement

Given Iran’s historical use of regional proxies to indirectly subvert its regional and international rivals, it is not surprising that it would be directly involved in the Al-Houthi Shia insurgency. Tehran sees great potential geostrategic value in a foothold in Yemen, both in terms of exerting influence over the sea lanes leading from the Gulf to the Middle East and Europe, and as a convenient base from which to pressure its key rival in the Gulf – Saudi Arabia. Yet beyond Yemeni and Saudi accusations there is still no incontrovertible evidence to indicate direct military involvement from Tehran or its subsidiaries.

Some maintain it is unlikely that Iran supports the Al-Houthi rebels due to significant ideological differences between them; namely, that the Zaydi Shia Islam practiced by the rebels is far removed from Iran’s Twelver theology. Zaydism emphasises local leadership, rather than the form of centralised authority found in Iran.Furthermore, with Tehran involved in delicate negotiations with the US over its nuclear programme, it would not be prudent, the argument goes, for Iran to perpetuate a humanitarian crisis in such close proximity to Saudi Arabia, America’s chief Arab ally in the Gulf.

There may be truth in this analysis, though evidence suggests more direct Iranian involvement in the northern rebellion than was once suspected. The recent seizure off Hajjah province of a boatload of five Iranian military instructors and anti-tank ammunition may be the smoking gun analysts have been searching for to link Iran with the rebels. Earlier this year detained Al-Houthi rebels admitted to receiving $100,000 from sources within Iran. Soon after, Yemeni soldiers claimed to have found rebel storehouses containing Iranian-made machine guns, short-range rockets and ammunition. While ascertaining the truth of these reports is difficult – propaganda is vital to the conflict – the evidence is beginning to stack up against Tehran.

It is unlikely, too, that ideological differences would prevent Tehran from exerting influence over Yemen or the rebels accepting foreign assistance. Complete ideological synchronisation is hardly a prerequisite for pragmatic, temporary alliances: Iran has co-operated with Alawi Shias in Syria for example. In this case, the power of Tehran’s rivalry with Riyadh should not be underestimated.

Indirectly, Tehran also appears to be channelling support to the rebels through its Lebanese proxy, Hizbullah. In October Zaydi rebels claimed that Hizbullah militants operating in northern Yemen shot down two jets, a MiG-21 and a Sukhoi Su-22, using Iranian-manufactured surface-to-air missiles. On the propaganda front, Hizbullah provides the Al-Houthi insurgents with a forum for its propaganda via its ‘Bint Jbeil’ website, giving the rebels a means through which it can communicate its ideology and achievements to the world. Whether directly or indirectly, evidence points to Tehran having an interest in gaining a foothold in Yemen; however, whether they opt to pursue the route of direct military involvement remains to be seen.

Saudi Involvement

Although Yemen’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has been temperamental, escalating violence in recent times has led to increased support from Riyadh for the Yemeni central government. As the primary financier behind Sana’a’s counter-insurgency effort, Saudi Arabia is eager to thwart Shia expansionism, stop violent spillover into its southern provinces and prevent Iran from gaining a foothold in the area.

Recent cross-border security threats originating in Yemen appear to legitimate these fears. The recent assassination attempt on the Saudi interior minister Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef was planned and executed by a Yemen-based AQAP suicide bomber. In October, two AQAP militants disguised as women and equipped with suicide vests, explosives and automatic weapons were killed as they attempted to cross the border into the southern Saudi province of Jizan. The vacuum of lawlessness created by the turmoil in Saada has allowed jihadi militants to operate freely and cross the porous Saudi-Yemen border with relative ease. It is little surprise, then, that Riyadh has an interest in the conflict.

Yet while it admits to providing financial and consultative support to Sana’a, Riyadh continues to deny direct military involvement despite claims by the rebels that it is itself arming government forces. In September, Al-Houthi forces issued a video that showed captured Saudi mortars used to attack Saada from across the border. Earlier this year, rebels also claimed to have been bombed by Saudi jets. Whether these claims are accurate or not, if Iran steps up its role in the region then Saudi escalation is likely.

Support for the central government does not appear to be limited to Saudi Arabia either. Egypt continues to press for sustained military airstrikes on Saada and a number of former Ba’athist Iraqi army officers are reportedly serving in Yemen as government advisors. Of greater concern for regional security, however, are allegations that Sana’a has begun recruiting local AQAP operatives in its fight against the Al-Houthi rebels.

A Faustian Bargain

According to recent reports by Al-Houthi rebels, the governor of Yemen’s northern province, Hassan Mana’a, has contacted senior AQAP leaders to negotiate a deal under which Sana’a would provide jihadi militants with arms, financial support and military training to assist the Yemeni army in the conflict against the rebels. Such a deal would have severe implications for counter-terrorism efforts in the region and bequeath a degree of legitimacy to AQAP militia that Yemen cannot afford.

While these reports should clearly be treated with scepticism, it would not be the first time President Saleh has negotiated with militant jihadi forces. During the 1980s he approved the construction of a jihadi training camp in Abu Jebara. Earlier in the year Saleh struck a deal with Ayman Al-Zawahiri to continue a ‘long standing pattern’ of negotiations between Al-Qa’ida and the Yemeni central government.1 The deal struck with one of Al-Qa’ida’s lieutenants secured the release of ninety-five known jihadis from Yemeni prisons. While the release was conducted under the auspices of Yemen’s extremist rehabilitation programme, upon their release the jihadis were armed and encouraged by officials to fight Yemen’s southern secessionist movement on behalf of government forces.

Utilising AQAP in this fashion advances the government’s agenda at the expense of local and regional security. Not only does fielding AQAP operatives grant them a level of legitimacy, it also provides them with training, financial support, arms and the capacity to indoctrinate additional followers in the cauldron of conflict. Historically, Al-Qa’ida’s recruitment and propaganda efforts have been most effective both during conflicts and in conflict zones. As conditions in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Afghanistan become more difficult, jihadis increasingly view Yemen as a safe haven for their activities. Given the myriad problems already plaguing the country, Sana’a simply cannot afford to legitimise local terrorist organisations.

Support for these actors also has the negative effect of fuelling Yemen’s opaque war economy. Tribal leaders and corrupt high-ranking officials continue to amass stockpiles of military hardware imported illegally or stolen from government weapon depots. Yemen remains the primary smuggling hub in the region, allowing individuals to import cheap weapons from East Asia and arm regional jihadi groups. In October a shipload of Chinese weapons seized in Hodeidah Port is thought to have been destined for AQAP militia or, more alarmingly, the Al-Houthi rebels themselves. The rebels use funding from external supporters to buy their weapons directly from corrupt government officials. A lack of government transparency and regulation is perpetuating the war economy, one of the great paradoxes of the Al-Houthi conflict.


Ranking eighteenth on Foreign Policy’s Failed State Index and with an estimated 150,000 displaced citizens in need of urgent aid, Yemen is in dire need of concerted international effort. As natural resources dwindle, Yemen’s window of opportunity to recover from years of turmoil is narrowing. Worsening the situation, the country has become a battleground for regional heavyweights intent on exerting influence over the geostrategically valuable region. Tensions between Riyadh and Tehran threaten to tear Yemen apart as the two add fuel to the fire in Saada by supporting local proxies.

Alarming as the humanitarian crisis is for international governments, the proxy battle being fought in Yemen also has ramifications for local, regional and international counter-terrorism efforts. The vacuum of lawlessness left in Saada is giving AQAP breathing space and allowing them to operate with relative freedom. Government funds have been diverted from counter-terrorism efforts to its conflict with Al-Houthi rebels and a southern secessionist movement. Recent reports appear to indicate a degree of co-operation between President Saleh’s government and local AQAP militia.

A focused, multilateral intervention in Yemen is long overdue. Tehran and Riyadh need to be persuaded that fuelling the Al-Houthi conflict is detrimental to regional security. If the Yemeni state collapses, it is likely that Al-Qa’ida and its subsidiaries will capitalise on this and increase their presence in the region. While Sana’a has survived similar problems in the past, the scope and severity of the security challenges currently facing the country may prove too much. The world simply cannot afford to ignore Yemen any longer.

Charlie Burnard

[1] Jane Novak, ‘Yemen Strikes Multifaceted Deals With Al-Qaeda,’ The Long War Journal Online, 11 February 2009.

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