Yemeni Civil War | Map, Houthi, Saudi Arabia, & Israel (2024)

Yemeni Civil War, devastating conflict in Yemen that began in 2014 when the capital, Sanaa, already destabilized by the Arab Spring uprising that began in 2011, was overtaken by Houthi rebel forces. At the war’s height, exacerbated by the intervention of forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it brought most of the country to the brink of starvation and resulted in the worst outbreak of cholera in history. By 2020 the Houthi rebels appeared to have the upper hand in the conflict, especially as foreign forces sought to withdraw. But, as the war at home died down, Houthi forces opened a new dimension to the conflict in 2023 as it made attempts to strike Israel and attacked commercial ships passing through the Red Sea following the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas War.

The unraveling of Yemen

Ali Abdullah Saleh—who, as a senior military officer, became president of North Yemen in 1978—led efforts to unify Yemen in the late 1980s after the discovery of oil and natural gas in the region around Maʾrib (Marib), which straddled the border of North Yemen and South Yemen, and after the Soviet Union abandoned its support for South Yemen. For years Saleh’s government had failed to placate the demands of an unsettled Zaydī Shiʿi population, whose opposition to the military regime laid the foundation for the Houthi movement established in the early 2000s. As president of a united Yemen from 1990, Saleh struggled also to maintain support from southern factions as well as Sunni Islamists who worried that Saleh’s government was conceding too much in the name of unification. Although he managed to remain in power for more than three decades, years of rule through suppression had resulted in deep-rooted divisions that surfaced after he was removed from power in 2012.

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The Arab Spring and the uprising against Pres. Ali Abdullah Saleh

In late January 2011—after a popular uprising in Tunisia, known as the Jasmine Revolution, forced Pres. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from power, inspiring similar protests in Egypt—thousands of protesters gathered in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and several other cities to call on Saleh to step down as president. The protesters chanted pro-democracy slogans and condemned poverty and corruption (see Arab Spring). Unlike the Egyptian and Tunisian protests, which seemed to have little centralized leadership, protests in Yemen appeared to have been organized and directed by a diverse coalition of Yemeni opposition groups. That coalition included the Houthi rebels, southern secessionists, and Sunni Islamists who would later fight for their separate interests.

Clashes between protesters and police took place despite Saleh’s attempts at economic and constitutional concessions. On March 18 Saleh loyalists in civilian clothes opened fire on protesters in Sanaa, killing at least 50 people. The episode caused dozens of Yemeni officials, including diplomats, cabinet ministers, and members of parliament, to resign in protest.

By the end of March there were reports that an agreement for Saleh’s departure was imminent, but on March 28, amid reports that negotiations had stalled, Saleh once again appeared defiant, saying that he would no longer make concessions to the opposition.

The rise of the rebels and the fall of Sanaa

Unrest continued, and security forces withdrew from outlying provinces of the country to respond to disorder in the capital. The absence of government troops in these areas allowed militant groups to gain new footholds. In the north the Houthi rebellion gained strength. Meanwhile, fighters belonging to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), an Islamist terrorist group, were able to take control of several cities in the southern province of Abyan.

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By the end of April Saleh finally seemed ready to cede power. He nearly accepted a plan proposed by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that would have removed him from power and begun the transition to a new government in exchange for a guarantee of immunity from prosecution for Saleh and his associates. But Saleh reneged weeks later, and violent confrontations between loyalist and opposition forces intensified. In the days that followed Saleh’s refusal to sign the GCC agreement on May 22, heavy fighting broke out in Sanaa.

On June 3 Saleh was injured and seven guards were killed when a bomb planted in the presidential palace exploded. Rumors of his death circulated, but he released an audio statement hours later and was transported to Saudi Arabia the next day for medical treatment.

In Saleh’s absence Vice Pres. Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi took the position of acting president. In November, about two months after returning to Yemen, Saleh agreed to a deal that would grant him immunity from prosecution if he ceded some of his power to Hadi and stepped down after a presidential election that was set for February 2012. When the election was held, Hadi was the only candidate, and he was sworn in days later.

Yet, even without Saleh, Yemen remained deeply divided. Economic conditions were dismal. A year into Hadi’s term, GDP remained well below its pre-2011 level and unemployment soared. Much of the country faced shortages of food, water, and basic goods. Houthi rebels and opposing tribal militants both capitalized on the distress to grow their respective bases of support. In southern areas, dissatisfaction led to a resurgence of secessionist sentiment. The secessionists boycotted a 2013 constitutional dialogue, which was intended to create a government that would represent all segments of Yemeni society, and efforts to promulgate a new constitution gave way after violence soared in 2014.

In July 2014 Hadi’s administration enacted deep cuts in fuel subsidies, leading to renewed protests in Sanaa. In September 2014 Yemeni security forces opened fire on the protesters, killing several and setting off an escalating series of confrontations. In late September Houthi fighters overran Sanaa, seizing key government buildings.

In late January 2015 fighting increased between government forces and the Houthi fighters occupying the capital, culminating in the rebels’ capture of the presidential palace. President Hadi submitted his resignation to the parliament on January 23, leaving the country without a president, and he was subsequently placed under house arrest. On February 6 the Houthi rebels formalized their seizure of power, dissolving parliament and announcing that a five-member presidential council would form a transitional government. On February 15 the UN Security Council issued a resolution condemning the actions of the Houthi rebels and calling on them to return to the transition process that began in 2013.

Intervention by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates

Stopping the Houthi advance on Aden

In late February 2015 Hadi escaped house arrest and reemerged in Aden, a major city in southern Yemen that was outside the Houthi rebels’ control and had served as the capital of South Yemen before unification in 1990. He retracted his resignation and asserted that he remained the legitimate president of Yemen. But his position in Aden remained precarious, leading him and his supporters to appeal abroad for military intervention against the rebels. Hadi subsequently fled the country, first to Oman and then to Saudi Arabia.

Intervention came in late March, when a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia imposed a naval blockade and launched air strikes to repel a Houthi advance toward Aden. The Houthi rebels were bolstered by Saleh, the ousted former president, who in May announced his support for their rebellion. The Saudi-led air campaign succeeded in enabling pro-Hadi forces to retake control of Aden in July. These forces were joined in August by coalition troops who helped drive the Houthi fighters out of most of southern Yemen. Hadi briefly returned to Aden in September but continued to spend most of his time in Saudi Arabia.

Houthi rebels keep their grip in the north as Yemen falls into humanitarian despair

However, dislodging the Houthi fighters from northern Yemen, including Sanaa, proved far more difficult for the coalition. Saudi-led bombing raids killed thousands of civilians and did massive damage to Yemen’s infrastructure but failed to loosen the Houthi rebels’ grip on the capital. In December 2015, as Yemen was descending into a dire humanitarian crisis—by 2016 more than three-quarters of the population of Yemen lacked access to safe drinking water and sanitation—UN-sponsored peace talks began and initiated a months-long cease-fire that, while often violated, did achieve some success in reducing air strikes and fighting. The talks were suspended without an agreement in August 2016.

The war devolved into stalemate and devastation, and, beginning in late 2016, Yemen faced the worst outbreak of cholera in history. In late 2017 Saleh broke with the Houthi rebels when he declared his readiness to hold talks with the Saudi-led coalition to end the war. The Houthi rebels pushed pro-Saleh forces out of Sanaa, and on December 4 they killed Saleh near his home in Sanaa.

Government forces faced a further setback in January 2018 when southern secessionists, who had been allied with the government, demanded that Hadi sack his government. When Hadi did not meet their deadline, they overtook Aden. After several days of fighting between the secessionists and the pro-Hadi forces, both part of the Saudi-led coalition, the coalition mediated an end to the fighting, and government assets were returned to Hadi and his government.

Hodeidah and the Saudis’ last attempt at victory

The Houthi rebellion was sustained in part by its control of the port city of Hodeidah, which provided it with access to imports and revenue through taxing cargo. In June 2018 the Saudi-led coalition advanced on the port city in the hope that the threat of its loss would leverage the Houthi rebels into negotiating a deal to end the Civil War. But Hodeidah was also a lifeline for humanitarian aid, prompting the United Nations to intervene and implement a cease-fire in the city in December. It included the withdrawal of forces from both sides, which were then replaced by local authorities, and involved the UN monitoring the city’s ports and the distribution of aid. The cease-fire remained fragile, as the different parties accused one another of breaching the terms of the agreement. Saudi-led forces obstructed the distribution of international aid while the Houthi rebels were found to mishandle it.

Houthi assertiveness

With the Saudi-backed government in Aden losing support and the cease-fire over Hodeidah, the conflict turned into a stalemate, with intermittent fighting—but no progress on either side—continuing through 2019. In June the United Arab Emirates quietly began disengaging its forces from Yemen as a victory looked increasingly unlikely; a senior official from the United Arab Emirates later claimed that the withdrawal was intended as support for the cease-fire over Hodeidah.

Fighting initially picked up in early 2020 as the Houthi fighters stepped up their missile strikes and the Saudis increased their air strikes. But, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold around the world, Saudi Arabia faced economic uncertainty due to the dramatic fall in the global price of oil, and it announced a unilateral cease-fire in April 2020.

Later that month southern secessionists declared self-rule under a body known as the Southern Transitional Council (STC). In June the STC took control of the island of Socotra, ousting local officials of the Hadi government. After months of negotiations between the STC and the Hadi government, members of the STC were incorporated into the cabinet of Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed in December 2020.

Battle for Marib as Saudi Arabia looks for a way out

Meanwhile, in 2021, the Houthi rebels began advancing on the region surrounding Maʾrib (Marib), a city in the center of Yemen where the discovery of large petroleum deposits in the 1980s had been a key factor in the country’s unification in 1990. Houthi forces failed to gain control of the oil-rich region, which was one of the remaining assets supporting Hadi’s government, but it remained the focal point of Houthi offensives in the years that followed.

In April 2022 the main belligerents in the conflict declared a two-month cease-fire. Days later Hadi, still in exile, announced his resignation and handed over power to a council composed of political and military leaders on the ground. The cease-fire was renewed twice before it formally lapsed in October, although a relative calm remained in practice. In 2023 Saudi Arabia, hoping to speed its exit from the quagmire, began negotiating more directly with the Houthi rebels without the participation of the Aden-based council that had replaced Hadi. In September officials representing the Houthi movement visited Saudi Arabia for direct discussions, with reports suggesting that the allocation of Yemen’s oil revenue remained the main sticking point.

Houthis take aim at Israel and shipping in the Red Sea

Progress was disrupted on October 7, 2023, after an event that shocked the broader Middle East region: Hamas, a militant organization based in the Gaza Strip, orchestrated the deadliest attack on Israel since that country’s independence, leading Israel to respond with a devastating assault on the Gaza Strip (see Israel-Hamas War). The Houthi rebels launched missiles and drones toward Israel and stepped up attacks on ships passing through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, hoping to effect the withdrawal of Israel from the Gaza Strip. The aggression asserted the Houthi rebels’ position as the strongest Yemeni faction to project power over regional matters and Yemen’s most important resources—thus showing both their hand and their resolve to end the conflict in Yemen on conditions that they deem favorable. But the attacks also prompted the United States to take action, launching dozens of strikes against the Houthi rebels in January 2024 in coalition with the United Kingdom and designating the Houthi movement as a terrorist organization.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia BritannicaThis article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Zeidan.

Yemeni Civil War | Map, Houthi, Saudi Arabia, & Israel (2024)
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