Yemen has always occupied a special place, geographically and strategically. Aptly called “Arabia felix” by the Romans, it stands at the crossroads of major trade routes between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. In modern times, the country was split between northern and southern parts and only unified in 1990. It has since witnessed a wave of revolts and civil conflicts all involving regional actors. In 2011, Yemen was swept by the wave of the Arab Spring revolts, which led to the eventual ousting of its long-time despot, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Most recently, the country experienced a revolt and eventually a power grab by a group of Shia rebels, the Houthis. It’s not the first time the latter have clashed with the government; the period between 2004 and 2010 witnessed intermittent clashes between the two, forcing Saudi Arabia to intervene in 2009. They took over the north (where Shias are a majority) and ran over the capital Sana’a, forcing President Hadi (Saleh’s successor) to flee to Saudi Arabia. The coup prompted a swift reaction by Saudi Arabia, which formed a coalition aimed at pushing back the Houthis and reinstating President Hadi. Interestingly enough, Saudi Arabia has always cited Iranian support for the Houthis, reflective of its alleged regional hegemonic ambitions, as a major reason for its intervention. The extent of this support has yet to be fathomed, although Iran’s hosting of Houthi religious students in the 90’s and vocal support for them after President’s Saleh resignation in 2012 can hardly be questioned.
A regional and international war par excellence
That no country is an island is a truer statement for the Middle East than any other region. Yemen has always been Saudi Arabia’s backyard and developments there are perennially of major interest to the former. Given its stupendous position, Yemen is also of paramount interest to the rest of the oil-exporting Gulf States and the West. When protests broke out in the context of the Arab Spring in early 2011 and following President Saleh’s brutal crackdown on protestors, few eyebrows were raised. The revolt had a distinctly civil character, involving inter alia students and judges from throughout the country. It was also non-sectarian, as protests focused on widespread poverty, corruption and lack of basic services. Sectarian grudges, certainly existent in Yemen, were soon brought into the fray, albeit overlapping with political and tribal tensions.
What then followed is not very different to Syria. A non-sectarian political uprising, in a country with prolonged simmering sectarian tensions, which then strays into a more overtly sectarian war seized upon by outside players. The Houthis, a Shiite people living mostly in the northwest of the country, on and off at war with the state for two decades, gave vent to their frustrations while the state imploded. At the same time, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), probably the most dangerous branch of Al Qaeda anywhere in terms of technical expertise and global reach , stepped up its warfare in the south.
In accordance with the wider Arab Spring paradigm, Yemen was dealt with on an ad hoc basis too. Stability was given precedence over thoughts of regime change, democratization or active involvement in its affairs. Preceding the revolt, US-Yemen relations had been growing stronger, despite American ambiguity towards what were deemed Yemen’s insufficient counterterrorism efforts and harbouring of Al Qaeda members. Following the revolt, U.S. concerns about AQAP’s enhanced capabilities and a fear of the latter solidifying its position in the country, led to the ramping up of bilateral relations.
A new sectarian cold war?
A lot of ink has also been spilt on whether events in Yemen reflect a new sectarian cold war between the Sunni Gulf States and Iran. The answer could very well be affirmative, although with the caveat that sell-fulfilling prophecies are often also in play. Cold and proxy wars have been waged in the region for some time now. In Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, strife has been portrayed as the antagonism of Sunni powers and Iran, all engaged in power projection and brinkmanship. What differentiates the Yemen crisis is that, prior to the upheaval, Iran was not known to have had any substantial involvement. Apart from hosting Houthi religious students in the 90s, it does not seem to have armed, trained or supported any militia, clandestine or armed groups. There have been allegations/claims that Iran provided financial and military aid to the Houthis as early as 2004. Still, most analyses hold that only recently did it start supplying missiles to Houthi-led forces. What is ultimately more important, however, is not the true nature of the Iran-Houthi affiliation but how it is perceived, misconstrued and used by its opponents to escalate the war. Thus, the Saudis are now sponsoring Iranian opposition groups, while the Saudi Grand Mufti recently excommunicated the entire Iranian nation as non-Muslims.
In addition, the Yemeni conflict adds another layer to the Gulf-Iran enmity: it mirrors the accumulated Saudi frustration with Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and Western connivance towards the latter, which in Saudi eyes reached its climax with the signing of the Iran nuclear deal of July 2015 (JCPOA). The latter epitomized Saudi concerns about a US regional withdrawal and a political vacuum that could be filled by Iran’s growing assertiveness. The Saudis today perceive a decisive shift in the region’s balance of power. At the same time, the Iranians perceive that a wedge can be driven between the US and the Saudis, in a way espousing the same “political vacuum” theory that the latter do. This, already highly unlikely, can only be achieved if the Saudis expose the US further by taking their disregard for civilian losses too far. Also, the Houthi launch of missiles against US ships-and the subsequent US bombing of Houthi positions- is unlikely to change either US policy or the balance of power. For the foreseeable future, the US, busy on all domestic and foreign fronts, is likely to lie low or, at worst, lead from behind. As recently put forth by an independent Middle East analyst, the US was so fervent in its Iran nuclear initiative, that Yemen has been sacrificed for Saudi support for the deal.
The West and the extremist paradox
That Yemen was viewed differently than other cases of regional upheaval could be inferred from how the U.S. chose to deal with extremists: while in early 2012 the emboldening of AQAP was seen by the U.S. as a crucial threat to the West, as well as to local stability, a U.S. DIA report in August 2012 warning that an extreme Salafist element had come to dominate the war in Syria was completely ignored. Thus, a major contradiction in US regional policy became apparent: Al Qaeda, Salafist and extremist Islam came to be seen as a threat in some cases, while religious extremist were granted Western acquiescence, even encouragement, in others.
The corollaries for regional stability could not have been clearer: selective support/clampdown on extremism has led to the creation of a security peculiarity, where extremists are treated with on an ad hoc basis. Western allies of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan abhor a scenario whereby ISIS, or even the Muslim Brotherhood could present a threat to the country’s state, extremists are (covertly supported in Syria and Libya and conveniently ignored in Lebanon where inimical Hezbollah is perceived as the stronger political grouping. This selectiveness has led to the waning of US credibility in the region, as well as to the demise of what was once hoped to be Europe’s normative aspirations. Thus, it is very likely that in future conflicts Western mediation will be seen as less credible or even necessary, as the case of the Russian intervention in Syria has shown. This seems particularly plausible in the case of the EU, which is currently undergoing significant changes in all domains. This makes it less likely to get involved in regional conflicts unless individual members discern opportunities for their own benefit.
The conflict in Yemen is a violent conflagration owing to a number of factors, all of which have been cited above; securing the unimpeded flow of oil shipments through the Bab al-Mandab Strait, suppressing Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and preventing it from spilling over into neighbouring countries, placating Saudi Arabia for its begrudged acceptance of the Iran nuclear deal, while sending a strong message to Iran that its projected ambitions will not be contemplated. As stated, the conflict has often been portrayed in simplistically sectarian terms when it shouldn’t. Rarely do analysts, for example, remind readers that the National Dialogue Conference, a process aimed at bringing about national reconciliation between 2013-2014 involved former President Saleh, President Hadi, the Houthis, the southern separatists of al-Hirak, the Sunni Islamists of al-Islah and members of civil society. Fascinatingly enough, former President Saleh is now in cahoots with the Houthis. Nor is it often iterated that the conflict has been seen as an opportunity by new regional autocrats, such as President al-Sissi of Egypt or King Salman of Saudi Arabia, to legitimize their own rule. Or that, according to a US-Canada Embassy cable in late 2009, the Houthis have mostly procured their weapons from the arms black market or the Yemeni military itself, and not the Iranians.
All links accessed on 18/10/2016
 Vatanka, Alex, “Iran’s Yemen Play”, Foreign Affairs (04/03/2015) https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/iran/2015-03-04/irans-yemen-play
 Tisdall, Simon, “Why Yemen conflict has become another Syria”, The Guardian, (10/10/2016), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/10/why-yemen-conflict-has-become-another-syria
 Baron, Adam, Al-Muslimi, Farea, “The politics driving Yemen’s rising sectarianism”, Sanaa Center, (30/05/2016), http://sanaacenter.org/publications/item/40-the-politics-driving-yemen.html
 Al Jazeera English, “Yemenis protest amid crackdown”, (16/02/2011), http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2011/02/201121611012256401.html
 BBC, “Yemen crisis: Who is fighting whom?”, (14/10/2016), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29319423
 Al Jazeera English, op.cit.
 Coker, Margaret, Hakim Almasmari, Julian E. Barnes, “U.S., Yemen Restart Training”, The Wall Street Journal, (06/03/2012), http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970204276304577265321207513952
 Abedin, Mahan, “Iran and Saudi: Edging towards outright conflict”, Middle East Eye, (24/09/2016), http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/iran-and-saudi-edge-closer-direct-military-confrontation-1577726221
 Horton, Michael, “Why is the US Aiding and Enabling Saudi Arabia’s Genocidal War in Yemen?”, Counterpunch, (08/10/2015) http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/10/08/why-is-the-us-aiding-and-enabling-saudi-arabias-genocidal-war-in-yemen/
 Parry, Robert, “Holes in the Neocon’s Syrian Story”, Consortium News, (31/05/2015) https://consortiumnews.com/2015/05/31/holes-in-the-neocons-syrian-story/
 Consortium Against Terror Finance, “Government Clampdown on Muslim Brotherhood Raises Fear Over Growing Extremism in Jordan”, (20/05/2016) http://stopterrorfinance.org/stories/510736285-government-clampdown-on-muslim-brotherhood-raises-fear-over-growing-extremism-in-jordan
 Tsitsopoulos, Charalampos, “The EU’s Post-Normative Turn and the Eastern Mediterranean”, ERPIC (10/04/2014) http://erpic.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/the-eus-post-normative-turn-and-the-eastern-mediterranean.pdf
 Ahmed, Bilal Zenab, “A Revolutionary Yemen”, Jacobin Mag, (16/04/2015) https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/04/yemen-revolution-arab-spring-saudi-arabia/
 Sissi’s rule has been quite shaky since overthrowing Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013. His regime has so far dealt inadequately with armed groups (some of whom identify with ISIS) in the Sinai and has been deemed as too aligned with Israel on the Palestinian issue.