Yemen: A Brief Background

The world’s worst humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Yemen. Even before the current war, this desert nation on the edge of the Arabian peninsula, home to 28 million people, was already the poorest country in the Arab world. It wasn’t always that way, but Yemen’s complex history can help us understand the current conflict. Here’s a brief timeline showing how events and pressures have combined to devastating effect.

Early History

Yemen has played a small by significant role in world history. The Queen of Sheba in the Hebrew Bible and the Three Wise Men of the New Testament are traditionally linked to Yemen.  While coffee perhaps originated in Ethiopia, Yemen for centuries was the primary producer, exported through the legendary (and now flavorful) port of Mocha. For a while Yemen was doing so well that the Romans called the area “Arabia Felix,” flourishing (or happy) Arabia.

19th Century: The Formation of Today’s Yemen

This is when the political contours of today’s Yemen really started to emerge, with distinct northern and southern regions, whose tribal, religious, and geographic divisions still complicate Yemeni politics today.

1839: As part of their Empire, the British set up a protectorate around the port city of Aden and rule southeastern Yemen.

1918: Shia imams declare a kingdom in North Yemen and gain independence from the Ottoman Empire.

1960s: A military rebellion and six-year civil war in the 1960s, in which Saudi Arabia and Egypt backed opposite sides, overthrows the kingdom and establishes the Yemen Arab Republic.

1967: The British leave southern Yemen, and the People’s Republic of Southern Yemen is created.

1970: The People’s Republic becomes the Marxist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, known as South Yemen, a client state of Moscow. Leaders in both north and south Yemen face periodic civil uprisings and restive tribes.

1990: The end of the Cold War a year earlier brings profound change in Yemen. Communist subsidies to south Yemen evaporate, and the two Yemens merge into one. Soon after unification, President Ali Abdullah Saleh provokes a crisis with Yemen’s Gulf neighbors and the United States by refusing to condemn Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

1994: Simmering north-south tensions once more erupte, with President Saleh sending armed forces to crush a southern independence civil war. (The Southern Transitional Council, which in June 2018 seized control in parts of the south, grew out of this southern independence tradition).

The Threat of Terrorism

2000: 17 U.S. personnel are killed in the October bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, focusing international attention on a rapidly expanding terrorist threat inside ungoverned areas in Yemen in the form of an offshoot of Al Qaida known as Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

2004: As the United States and others push President Saleh to concentrate on fighting AQAP, Saleh launches a series of brutal battles, backed by Saudi Arabia, against northern Yemeni Zayidi Shia fighters known as Houthis, whom he accuses of separatism and of trying to impose their religious orthodoxy on the state. The Houthis, in turn, complain of discrimination and disenfranchisement under Saleh’s autocratic rule. (Yemen’s population is 40-45% Zayidi Shia, with Sunni Muslims making up most of the remainder. Zayidi Shi’ism is distinct from Iran’s Shi’ism.)

2008: Eighteen Yemenis are killed in a September 2008 terrorist attack against the U.S. Embassy in the capital Sana’a. Concerns grow about AQAP and the United States trains Yemeni counter-terrorism forces and uses armed drones to target suspected terrorist leaders.

2011: One such drone strike kills AQAP leader (and U.S. citizen) Anwar al-Awlaki. The policy of drone strikes draws criticism for resulting in civilian deaths. With Yemen’s civil war creating security vacuums in many parts of the country, AQAP remains a threat today and is the justification given by the United Arab Emirates and others for their troop presence in southern Yemen.

Fragmentation and Catastrophe

2011: In Yemen’s version of the Arab uprisings, protests in Sana’a initially concentrate on corruption and economic hardships. Demands for widespread government changes grow, fueled in part by casualties from the heavy-handed government response. Yemeni journalist and activist Tawakkul Karman becomes the face of the protests for her role in organizing demands for respect for human rights and is later jointly awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. Concerned about instability in their backyards, Yemen’s Gulf neighbors draw on U.S. support and their own financial muscle to persuade President Saleh to resign in favor of his Vice President, Abderabbu Mansour al-Hadi, in a transitional arrangement known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative.

2012: As part of the GCC initiative, Saleh receives immunity from local prosecution and Hadi runs unopposed for a two-year term as transitional president. Today Hadi, of course, remains president of Yemen’s officially recognized, but exiled, government.

2013: Backed by the Security Council and as called for in the GCC initiative, UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar facilitates a Yemeni National Dialogue Conference (NDC), with participation from Yemen’s diverse political groups (including representatives from the restive south and the Houthi political party named Ansar Allah) and civil society.

2014: The NDC outcome is released and praised inside and outside Yemen as a model of compromise and of inclusive representation. Among other things, the NDC document extends Hadi’s term for a year to oversee conclusion of the transition and multi-party elections, gives 50-50 representation between north and south in a legislative body, and guarantees freedom of religion and a non-sectarian state.

2014: Houthi-Sunni clashes in the summer complicate implementation of the NDC outcome.  Popular protests sparked by a reduction in fuel subsidies erupt against the Hadi government in September, and the Houthis seize the opportunity to move militarily – thus breaking the NDC in which they had (reluctantly) participated. Allied with former President Saleh, their former nemesis, the Houthis quickly prevail.

February 2015: Hadi and his cabinet, after briefly being held hostage by the Houthis, flee to Saudi Arabia, leaving the Houthis in practical, if not legal, control of the institutions of the state.

March 2015: The Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen begins with the stated goals of reversing the Houthi military conquest of Yemen, restoring the Hadi government to Sana’a, securing Saudi Arabia’s southern border from Houthi raids and air-strikes, and preventing outside (e.g., Iranian) interference on the Arabian Peninsula.

April 2015: While not endorsing military action itself, the UN Security Council adopts Resolution 2216, endorsing the political goals of Houthi military surrender and return to UN-facilitated political talks.

Today: More than two and a half years later, Yemen’s war consists of several distinct but overlapping parts – Houthis vs. the Saudi-led coalition, Houthis against Yemeni Sunnis in places such as Ta’izz, a southern independence insurgency against both Houthi-controlled Sana’s and the Hadi government, an anti-terrorism campaign, and a Saudi-Iranian proxy war. With victory in any of these wars elusive, the losers are the Yemeni people enduring the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Respite will come when global and regional powers implement and enforce an end to hostilities, deliver protected, uninterrupted, and large-scale humanitarian assistance, and reach a political settlement that puts the needs of the Yemeni people first and foremost.


The world’s worst humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Yemen. Even before the current war, this desert nation on the edge of the Arabian peninsula, home to 28 million people, was already the poorest country in the Arab world. It wasn’t always that way, but Yemen’s complex history can help us understand the current conflict. Here’s a brief timeline showing how events and pressures have combined to devastating effect.

Early History

Yemen has played a small by significant role in world history. The Queen of Sheba in the Hebrew Bible and the Three Wise Men of the New Testament are traditionally linked to Yemen.  While coffee perhaps originated in Ethiopia, Yemen for centuries was the primary producer, exported through the legendary (and now flavorful) port of Mocha. For a while Yemen was doing so well that the Romans called the area “Arabia Felix,” flourishing (or happy) Arabia.

19th Century: The Formation of Today’s Yemen

This is when the political contours of today’s Yemen really started to emerge, with distinct northern and southern regions, whose tribal, religious, and geographic divisions still complicate Yemeni politics today.

1839: As part of their Empire, the British set up a protectorate around the port city of Aden and rule southeastern Yemen.

1918: Shia imams declare a kingdom in North Yemen and gain independence from the Ottoman Empire.

1960s: A military rebellion and six-year civil war in the 1960s, in which Saudi Arabia and Egypt backed opposite sides, overthrows the kingdom and establishes the Yemen Arab Republic.

1967: The British leave southern Yemen, and the People’s Republic of Southern Yemen is created.

1970: The People’s Republic becomes the Marxist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, known as South Yemen, a client state of Moscow. Leaders in both north and south Yemen face periodic civil uprisings and restive tribes.

1990: The end of the Cold War a year earlier brings profound change in Yemen. Communist subsidies to south Yemen evaporate, and the two Yemens merge into one. Soon after unification, President Ali Abdullah Saleh provokes a crisis with Yemen’s Gulf neighbors and the United States by refusing to condemn Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

1994: Simmering north-south tensions once more erupte, with President Saleh sending armed forces to crush a southern independence civil war. (The Southern Transitional Council, which in June 2018 seized control in parts of the south, grew out of this southern independence tradition).

The Threat of Terrorism

2000: 17 U.S. personnel are killed in the October bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, focusing international attention on a rapidly expanding terrorist threat inside ungoverned areas in Yemen in the form of an offshoot of Al Qaida known as Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

2004: As the United States and others push President Saleh to concentrate on fighting AQAP, Saleh launches a series of brutal battles, backed by Saudi Arabia, against northern Yemeni Zayidi Shia fighters known as Houthis, whom he accuses of separatism and of trying to impose their religious orthodoxy on the state. The Houthis, in turn, complain of discrimination and disenfranchisement under Saleh’s autocratic rule. (Yemen’s population is 40-45% Zayidi Shia, with Sunni Muslims making up most of the remainder. Zayidi Shi’ism is distinct from Iran’s Shi’ism.)

2008: Eighteen Yemenis are killed in a September 2008 terrorist attack against the U.S. Embassy in the capital Sana’a. Concerns grow about AQAP and the United States trains Yemeni counter-terrorism forces and uses armed drones to target suspected terrorist leaders.

2011: One such drone strike kills AQAP leader (and U.S. citizen) Anwar al-Awlaki. The policy of drone strikes draws criticism for resulting in civilian deaths. With Yemen’s civil war creating security vacuums in many parts of the country, AQAP remains a threat today and is the justification given by the United Arab Emirates and others for their troop presence in southern Yemen.

Fragmentation and Catastrophe

2011: In Yemen’s version of the Arab uprisings, protests in Sana’a initially concentrate on corruption and economic hardships. Demands for widespread government changes grow, fueled in part by casualties from the heavy-handed government response. Yemeni journalist and activist Tawakkul Karman becomes the face of the protests for her role in organizing demands for respect for human rights and is later jointly awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. Concerned about instability in their backyards, Yemen’s Gulf neighbors draw on U.S. support and their own financial muscle to persuade President Saleh to resign in favor of his Vice President, Abderabbu Mansour al-Hadi, in a transitional arrangement known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative.

2012: As part of the GCC initiative, Saleh receives immunity from local prosecution and Hadi runs unopposed for a two-year term as transitional president. Today Hadi, of course, remains president of Yemen’s officially recognized, but exiled, government.

2013: Backed by the Security Council and as called for in the GCC initiative, UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar facilitates a Yemeni National Dialogue Conference (NDC), with participation from Yemen’s diverse political groups (including representatives from the restive south and the Houthi political party named Ansar Allah) and civil society.

2014: The NDC outcome is released and praised inside and outside Yemen as a model of compromise and of inclusive representation. Among other things, the NDC document extends Hadi’s term for a year to oversee conclusion of the transition and multi-party elections, gives 50-50 representation between north and south in a legislative body, and guarantees freedom of religion and a non-sectarian state.

2014: Houthi-Sunni clashes in the summer complicate implementation of the NDC outcome.  Popular protests sparked by a reduction in fuel subsidies erupt against the Hadi government in September, and the Houthis seize the opportunity to move militarily – thus breaking the NDC in which they had (reluctantly) participated. Allied with former President Saleh, their former nemesis, the Houthis quickly prevail.

February 2015: Hadi and his cabinet, after briefly being held hostage by the Houthis, flee to Saudi Arabia, leaving the Houthis in practical, if not legal, control of the institutions of the state.

March 2015: The Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen begins with the stated goals of reversing the Houthi military conquest of Yemen, restoring the Hadi government to Sana’a, securing Saudi Arabia’s southern border from Houthi raids and air-strikes, and preventing outside (e.g., Iranian) interference on the Arabian Peninsula.

April 2015: While not endorsing military action itself, the UN Security Council adopts Resolution 2216, endorsing the political goals of Houthi military surrender and return to UN-facilitated political talks.

Today: More than two and a half years later, Yemen’s war consists of several distinct but overlapping parts – Houthis vs. the Saudi-led coalition, Houthis against Yemeni Sunnis in places such as Ta’izz, a southern independence insurgency against both Houthi-controlled Sana’s and the Hadi government, an anti-terrorism campaign, and a Saudi-Iranian proxy war. With victory in any of these wars elusive, the losers are the Yemeni people enduring the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Respite will come when global and regional powers implement and enforce an end to hostilities, deliver protected, uninterrupted, and large-scale humanitarian assistance, and reach a political settlement that puts the needs of the Yemeni people first and foremost.