Yemen: Snakes and Ladders

Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh once compared governing the country to dancing on the heads of snakes. Current efforts to mediate an end to the longest and most complex war in the country’s history are more like a giant game of snakes and ladders, where the snakes outnumber the ladders by a ratio of ten to one. In early 2024 the Houthi movement that controls much of the country’s northwest entered into a direct military confrontation with the United States, derailing ongoing efforts to broker a nationwide ceasefire. The conflict’s duration, intensity and complexity are the product of a unique and shifting alignment of domestic, regional, and international politics and power arrangements that have become even more bewildering since the Houthis started targeting Red Sea shipping, in what they say is a response to Israel’s military offensive on the Gaza strip.

A new PeaceRep paper argues that Yemen’s civil war is a prime example of a new breed of twenty-first century multipolar conflict, in which fragmentary internal trends, regional agendas, and global and regional power politics and priorities, intersect to neutralise peacemaking and peacebuilding opportunities. Comparing Yemen’s present situation to past wars, the paper analyses key trends in conflict and international military and political intervention in Yemen since 2014. It argues that the current international approach of prioritising negotiations between the Houthi movement and Saudi Arabia means that the conflict is likely to remain unresolved for some years to come, even if its international and regional dimensions can be resolved in the near term.

Yemen is by no means unfamiliar with conflict. The Arab world’s poorest country has endured six major internal conflicts in as many decades. Three took place during the Cold War, organised into effectively binary competitions by the global power politics of the age. A 1994 north-south civil war, and a six-year conflict between the government and the Houthis between 2004 and 2010, were notable, meanwhile, for the relatively limited levels of external support involved.

The current war pits the group commonly known as the Houthis, who call themselves Ansar Allah or Partisans of God, against a loose coalition of rival forces including pre-war military and security forces, key tribal and political groupings, and southern secessionists. Multiple external powers support the warring parties. Most significant are three regional states with divergent agendas.

Iran’s support for the Houthis has become increasingly overt and includes the provision of the technology, components and know-how needed to launch long-range ballistic missiles, drones, and other weapons systems that have helped turn the war into a mutually hurting stalemate. Saudi Arabia intervened militarily at the beginning of the war to prevent the Houthis – and by extension Iran – from gaining a permanent foothold along its southern border. It has supported its local allies, overseen by the country’s internationally recognised government, with air power, arms, and money, but has struggled to unify the anti-Houthi war effort.

This is because Riyadh’s main ally at the beginning of the war, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) backs forces including the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) who have repeatedly clashed with Saudi aligned anti-Houthi forces. The STC seized control of the interim capital, Aden, from the internationally recognised government in 2019, with UAE support. The UAE and its local allies including the STC stand in opposition not just to the Houthis, but also a network of politicians, tribal and military forces linked to Islah, the country’s main Sunni Islamist political party, which has historical ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Other regional powers, including Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey, wield influence over different Yemeni camps. Oman has provided a base for both Houthi leaders, and members of the anti-Houthi camp who reject Saudi and Emirati influence. While seeking to facilitate an end to the conflict, Oman has simultaneously weathered accusations that it is allowing arms to be trafficked into Yemen through its territory. Western powers play a role in the conflict, too, providing intelligence and arms, although this support has become more limited as political discourse in Europe and North America has turned against the war, and against Saudi Arabia. The Houthis’ deployment of missiles, drones, and water-based explosives in cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and on Red Sea shipping, has threatened global economic security, however, leading the US in particular to reassess its stance on the conflict since October 2023.

Ideology – and opposition to ideology – plays an important role in the war. Houthi hardliners believe they are on a divine mission from God to liberate the Muslim world from Western influence, and that they are an increasingly important node in an Iran-led network of armed group that calls itself the “Axis of Resistance”. At the beginning of the conflict, Saudi Arabia saw the Houthis as an existential threat due to its ties with Tehran, although its tone has since softened, particularly since Iran and the Kingdom reestablished diplomatic ties in 2023. The UAE, meanwhile, reviles political Islamists including Islah affiliates aligned with the Saudis. The Saudis are frustrated by Emirati support for southern secessionist groups who have, with UAE support, pursued a pro-independence agenda and sought to uproot these same Islamists from the south of Yemen and have made internal alignment all but impossible. The most potent anti-Houthi armed force is led by Sunni Salafists who often frame the conflict in deeply sectarian terms.

An additional and interrelated factor in the conflict’s complexity is the shifting distribution of global power and the priorities of the West, particularly the US. While the US is still the world’s biggest economy, most powerful military, and a world leader in technology, its ability to translate these assets into power in its rawest form – getting others to do what they otherwise would not – has been in decline for at least the past decade. Perceiving the US as distracted by a Great Power competition, states that were once seen as American clients or at least dependent on American power increasingly pursue their own interests regionally and internationally, both as a measure against American decline or retrenchment, and with the aim of increasing their own power and prestige. Arguably, the most dramatic example of this phenomenon came during and after the Middle Eastern civil wars and counterrevolutions that followed 2011’s regional Arab Spring uprisings, Yemen’s among them.

The level of complexity evident in the conflict is not matched by current diplomatic efforts to end it. At the time of writing, the main negotiation track was a bilateral series of talks between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh says that the talks’ main aim is a UN-overseen ceasefire and the resumption of political negotiations between the Houthis and the government, currently represented by the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) and handpicked by the Saudis in 2022 to replace the onetime transitional President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi. But the PLC, which includes STC and other UAE-affiliated leaders, has largely been excluded from the negotiations. Many in the anti-Houthi camp see the talks as an effort on the Kingdom’s part to extricate itself from the war by trading Houthi dominance of Yemen for security guarantees in a deal that will be presented as an effective fait accompli.

The UN is the default mediator in Yemen but has a weak hand, that may be weakened further by the ongoing Red Sea confrontation. Like his predecessors, the current UN envoy, Sweden’s Hans Grundberg, has little leverage with any of the Yemeni or regional parties to the conflict. He now faces the prospect of being left to implement a bilateral agreement between the Houthis and Saudis that does not account for the multidimensional nature of Yemen’s conflict – one that may receive lukewarm support at best from the US and other Western powers if it does not include provisions on the security of maritime traffic in the Red Sea.

But Grundberg still has some opportunities to broker, if not peace, some form of interim settlement that provides a modicum of security and stability for ordinary Yemenis. If the Saudis and Houthis do agree to a ceasefire, the agreement should trigger a return to UN-led mediation. While the Houthis may not intend to engage in the process in good faith, Grundberg could – and should – initiate a more ambitious negotiation process than Riyadh or the Houthis’ de facto authorities have envisioned.

Steps the UN can take include the formation of an international working group including members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, particularly Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE; Iran; the permanent members of the UN Security Council; the United Kingdom, and the European Union. In parallel, the UN envoy should outline the rationale and structure for a more inclusive political process that goes beyond the Houthis and the PLC. The structure, sequencing and timing of a political process will need to respond to the multidimensional nature of Yemen’s conflict. Rushing towards unity government – the standard approach to ‘post-conflict’ governance – could be a mistake, as it may simply exacerbate tensions and lead to a zero-sum competition, as the previous transition did.

One potential approach is to build interim governance around governorates first, and national institutions second. The conflict has almost, but not entirely, drawn Yemen along existing governorate lines. Military and security forces, moreover, are increasingly drawn from localities, and often correspond to a particular external patron. Providing governorate-level representation in interim governance structures – for example a governing council, formed of key armed and political factions, and governors – might help assuage Yemeni and regional fears over marginalisation, and foster at least a degree of internal cooperation.

The long-term challenge, meanwhile, will be creating a system of conflict resolution, rather than conflict management. In Libya and Syria, for example, conflict has been de-escalated and partially frozen, but not resolved via political process.


This blogpost accompanies a new report in PeaceRep’s Global Transitions Series by Peter Salisbury: Snakes and Ladders: The Regional and International Dimensions of Yemen’s Civil War

Users can now track and explore peace and transition process implementation data for Yemen via the PA-X Tracker.