The Yemen war at 5 years | American Enterprise Institute
Five years ago, Saudi Arabia intervened militarily in Yemen
at the legitimate Yemeni government’s request. Few imagined that the ensuing
conflict — which has been devastating for Yemenis who also face cholera,
diphtheria, and famine — would remain effectively frozen years later. This
anniversary provides a moment to take stock of the Yemen conflict today and ask
how the US should secure its own national security interests.
The Saudi-led intervention transformed the Yemeni conflict
by entangling it in regional conflicts. A post-Arab Spring political crisis
over the transition of power became another theater for the Saudi-Iranian proxy
conflict. The Gulf rift with Qatar over Qatari relations with Iran and support
for groups like the Muslim Brotherhood is now playing out in Yemen, with the
United Arab Emirates (UAE) having maneuvered to limit the role of political
Islamists within the Yemeni government. Finally, new Saudi and Emirati
influence in Yemen’s easternmost governorate has challenged historical Omani
influence. Untangling the mess—complicated by underlying local conflicts—to
stabilize Yemen is increasingly difficult.
The UAE’s regional role also shifted with the intervention. The
UAE now has an expeditionary military base in Eritrea, which it used for military
operations in Yemen, including training tens of thousands of Yemenis. The UAE
Presidential Guard force proved itself operationally capable as a deployed
force, following a by-with-and-through plan to support counter-al Houthi and
counterterrorism efforts. The UAE also expanded investments in northern
Somalia, where it had trained a counterpiracy force in 2010. And, as Karen
Young has noted, UAE development finance efforts increased in East Africa for
food security and to profit from a projected boom through China’s Belt and Road
Initiative. The Emiratis have helped advanced US interests—their
counterterrorism operations contributed to a severely degraded al Qaeda in
Yemen—but have also destabilized parts of the region.
The al Houthi movement also transformed to become the governing body for the majority of Yemenis. The al Houthis outplayed Yemen’s late president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who helped bring them to power. After eliminating their primary political rival in 2017, the al Houthis cracked down further on dissent with intimidation, detention, torture, disappearances, and assassinations. They have followed Saleh’s lead by carving out patronage networks within the government ministries and agencies under their control, enriching themselves. Most blatantly, the aid-coordinating body in Sana’a has filtered international assistance resources intended for desperate Yemenis. They’ve also grown closer to Iran, which recognized an al Houthi ambassador last summer and keeps IRGC advisers in the capital. The al Houthis’ threat to maritime security and the sovereignty of Gulf partners is unacceptable for the US, as is the Iranian presence, yet they now hold the upper hand in the conflict.
The internationally recognized Yemeni government remains
weak and riven by factional competition. Yemen’s president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour
Hadi, has now spent the majority of his presidency, originally a two-year
transitional role, ruling from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, rather than from his own
country. Few Yemenis find him inspiring. The political elite is still competing
to determine the future distribution of power within the Yemeni government
after the 2011 Arab Spring, which adds to the government’s paralysis. Some
Yemeni factions even reject the government’s legitimacy, including the
UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council, which briefly took up arms against
the government in the fall. The core issues at the heart of the Arab Spring
uprising in Yemen and the al Houthis’ coup — the distribution of power and
resources — remain unaddressed and will continue to generate political
instability until resolved.
The US approach to Yemen has wrongly prioritized short-term counterterrorism
results over sound long-term strategy. The US mostly subcontracted managing the
war with the al Houthis and local conflicts and addressing the underlying
systemic issues in the country to Gulf partners and the UN. That approach may
have worsened the situation. Counterterrorism partnerships to disrupt and
degrade al Qaeda’s operations and US targeting of key leaders have
significantly reduced the threat from Yemen. Now is the time to deal with the
rest of Yemen.
Given the current reality in Yemen, what should the US do? USAID’s partial suspension of programming to al Houthi-controlled areas and the State Department’s pressure on the UN and other INGOs to follow suit is a positive step. The US should also use diplomatic and political pressure to shape Saudi Arabia’s and the Yemeni government’s approach to stop them from driving the al Houthis closer to Iran. The US should lead efforts to negotiate subnational settlements to reduce conflict, especially where al Qaeda and the Islamic State are present since these groups strengthen in those conflicts. Most importantly, the US must stop being a bystander and recognize that the best way to secure its own national security interests is to help resolve the issue underlying the key conflicts in Yemen: the future division of power and resources in the country.