Key players in ongoing political and military conflict in Yemen

26 Mar 2015

Key players in ongoing political and military conf...

The political and security environment in Yemen has deteriorated rapidly in the wake of a Houthi offensive against the government since 2014. The situation has escalated since late January 2015 when Houthis ousted President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the aftermath of which has left Yemen politically and increasingly geographically divided. The advance of Houthi fighters towards the southern city of Aden, Saudi airstrikes on Houthi military positions in Sana’a and the current unknown whereabouts of President Hadi all illustrate the fast-developing volatility of the situation.


This paper assesses the profile and interests of key actors in the conflict. The contest for influence among these groups will continue to shape developments in Yemen over 2015.


Houthi Rebels


The Shi’a Houthi rebel movement, known as Ansar Allah, will continue to exploit the political and security vacuum in post-revolution Yemen. Since 2014, the group has advanced from its northern strongholds around Sa’dah to seize control of the capital Sana’a and other strategic territory and in the west and centre of the country since then. Houthis have long-complained of marginalisation and discrimination, but their advances since mid-2014 have been motivated by the perceived weakness of the state and strong opposition to proposed constitutional reforms that would create a new federal structure in Yemen. Houthi military successes over 2014 and 2015 are thought to have been enabled by an alliance with Yemen’s ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his remaining loyalists in the security forces, who have been accused of undermining the country’s legitimate institutions, including the military, in an attempt to regain influence.


While Houthi rebels have established physical control over wide swathes of Yemen, they are politically very divisive and lack the political legitimacy necessary to consolidate their rule and facilitate a smooth transition of power. The rebels have established an alliance with several leading figures from the long dominant General People’s Congress (GPC), Saleh’s former party, who have attended Houthi conferences and backed their political agenda. The Houthi rebels have exploited the country’s regional, tribal and factional divisions in their territorial advance. Factions within the military have backed Saleh in his alliance with the Houthi rebels and this has enabled Houthi forces to seize control of provinces such as al-Bayda with limited resistance from local security forces. However, most of Yemen’s other key political actors have refused to accept the group’s legitimacy. Tribal and geographic divisions are also apparent. Tribesmen have mobilised to defend the eastern province of Marib and local pro-Hadi militia units have clashes with pro-Saleh fighters in Aden.




Houthi rebels have focused on expanding their political influence by mobilising their supporters for mass demonstrations and armed attacks on the government. Under pressure, President Hadi previously agreed to a series of deals that increased the representation of Houthis in government and called for the integration of rebels into the security forces. Houthi leaders will continue to seek formal recognition of their strength and mechanisms to legitimatise their influence in Yemen.


Houthi rebels will continue to use their political and physical power to prevent rival groups from undermining their efforts to consolidate control over recently captured territory. The ultimate goals of the Houthi movement remain poorly articulated, but the group has continued to exploit developments in order to pursue its own political and territorial interests. Even when Houthi leaders have agreed to compromise, such as in recent ceasefires with the government, they have failed to follow through on pledges to withdraw their forces from sensitive areas of the capital, for example.




Although the rebels have participated in talks with their political rivals, they have ignored growing domestic and international pressure to withdraw from the capital. Based on their opposition to the proposed constitutional framework and their recent attempts to dissolve parliament, Houthi leaders will likely continue to resist any measures that would significantly reverse their recent political gains. While they have established firm control over key institutions in Sana’a, they lack access to revenues from oil-rich areas in Marib that lie outside their physical control.


The longer the Houthis remain in power, the more important it will become for them to ensure the stable flow of revenues to government institutions under their control. Any disruption in the flow of revenues to government institutions under Houthi influence in Sana’a could prompt attacks by the Shi’a rebels, but such an operation would encounter heavy resistance from the tribes in Marib who have mobilised to resist threatened attacks.


The Houthis have been blamed for air strikes on Hadi’s residence in Aden and rebel leader Abdel-Malik al-Houthi called for his supporters to mobilise and stage attacks against the president’s supporters in the south. The current Houthi drive toward Aden has seen rebels seize control of Taiz and other key territory. Fears that Houthi rebels would capture Aden as part of their latest offensive prompted a Saudi-led coalition to launch air strikes against Houthi forces in Yemen on 26 March. There also were reports that Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan and Sudan were prepared to participate in ground operations against Houthi forces.


These actions mark a further escalation of the crisis and risk descending the country into civil war. The prospects of a diplomatic resolution remain poor in the short-term and it is uncertain whether external intervention will see the conflict spill across Yemen’s borders or worsen sectarian tensions in the country. A continued Houthi advance into the south and east will encounter intense resistance from armed groups in the area, though the recent loss of the strategic al-Anad air base to Houthi rebels and the temporary fall of Aden’s airport to pro-Saleh forces are indicative of the limited military capabilities of pro-Hadi forces. A protracted fight between pro-Hadi forces backed by Saudi airpower for territory in the south risks overstretching Houthi forces and thus threatening their control over other contested areas. The recent attacks on Aden and Sunni tribes in Marib and elsewhere risk radicalising those opposed to the Houthi rebels, increasing support for militant groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).


In an effort to offset the impact of their international isolation, Houthi leaders are likely to pursue greater engagement with Iran, at the risk of deepening regional and sectarian divisions both within Yemen and the Middle East. The rebels’ failure to secure popular support among Yemen’s diverse political actors will leave them isolated and possibly subject to further sanctions and intermittent attacks. However, their control over territory already in their possession is unlikely to be seriously threatened while they have the support of Saleh allies in the security forces or serious external intervention.


Ali Abdullah Saleh


In November 2014, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was sanctioned by the UN Security Council for working with Houthi rebels to destabilise the country. The travel ban and asset freeze imposed on Saleh reflect a growing consensus that the former president is using his networks of influence in the long-dominant GPC, military and northern tribes, including his own Sanhan clan, to facilitate the Houthi rebel advance. Saleh has attempted to use the rebels as proxies to eliminate his adversaries among Yemen’s political opposition and inside the Hadi government. The former president is attempting to create conditions he can exploit to return either himself or one of his loyalists to power.


The sustainability of the alliance between Saleh and the Houthi movement is uncertain. During his time in office, Saleh led a series of military offensives against the group between 2004 and 2009 and recent Houthi attacks have been motivated in part by grievances stemming from the former president’s decades in power. Saleh’s alliance with the Shi’a Houthi movement, will also have damaged his support among Sunni Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia that have long been Yemen’s greatest benefactors and believe the Houthi uprising is part of Iran’s attempts to gain influence in the region. Opposition to Saleh in Yemen and abroad will limit the opportunities for the former president to emerge as a prominent public player in the political transition but his continued influence, exercised through loyalists in the armed forces and GPC, will make him difficult to ignore considering the ongoing instability. It will be difficult to reduce Saleh’s influence through further rounds of sanctions or other punitive measures and such measures could in fact encourage further attacks against the former president’s perceived political opponents.


President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi


A former vice president under Saleh, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi emerged as Yemen’s president after unrest forced his long-time predecessor aside in 2011. Hadi’s inability to confront the Houthi advance left him politically weakened but since escaping rebel house arrest and fleeing to Aden in February, he has rescinded his earlier resignation. His efforts to resume his presidential duties in defiance of Houthi demands have attracted some popular support among Yemeni students, eastern and southern tribes, as well as opposition parties. The president’s standing abroad has also been bolstered with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) moving their embassies to Aden in a show of support and launching air strikes against Houthi forces when it appeared that the fall of Hadi’s stronghold in Aden was imminent.


Hadi’s own support in the military remains limited following past reforms to the armed forces to purge them of Saleh loyalists, but his emergence as a symbol of resistance to the Houthi movement has enabled him to consolidate support among fellow southerners as well as authorities in area such as Jawf, Marib, al-Bayda and Taiz. Hadi has called on UN-led negotiations to be moved from Houthi-controlled Sana’a to Saudi Arabia, a measure that has attracted support from other opposition parties. Hadi’s perceived weakness in the face of Houthi aggression could threaten his long-term political influence, with many in the country critical of the government’s weak response to the rebels and past concessions to the Houthis under the Peace and National Partnership agreement that granted them approval over cabinet appointments. Though the president has benefitted from recent displays of support, his limited patronage and support networks, and failure to tackle corruption and economic problems during his time in office could again emerge sources of opposition as the crisis unfolds.


Notwithstanding possible challenges to his leadership, Hadi will retain significant influence in his role as the country’s legitimate authority. Continued attacks on the president will only serve to bolster his credibility as an alternative to Houthi authority, and reports of a growing number of forces mobilising in Aden under Hadi’s command suggests clashes with pro-Saleh or Houthi forces will continue in the south and are likely to spread to other areas of the country. Hadi is anticipated to remain a unifying figure among the country’s various opposition groups in the short-term including those who challenged him over government policy, but he has not demonstrated he has the capacity or influence to coordinate unified action among anti-Houthi forces outside of his base in Aden. As evidenced by fears that Aden would fall to rebel control prior to the Saudi-led intervention, the military strength and capabilities of armed fighters answering to Hadi remains inferior to that of the Houthis and their allies in the military. Reports that Hadi had fled Aden for an unknown location, possibly Oman, remain unconfirmed. However the president’s absence from Yemen could undermine his symbolic appeal if he is seen to have abandoned his supporters. Though Hadi will benefit from the intervention of the GCC-led coalition, it is unclear how much influence he will have over military operations led by his much stronger neighbours.


Other Political Parties


Despite evidence the increasingly strong links between the Houthis and prominent members of the GPC, which has a majority in both houses of parliament, most other leading political parties have rejected Houthi advances and have been subject to rebel attacks. The southern based Yemeni Socialist Party, the Nasserist Party and the local Muslim Brotherhood branch known as al-Islah or Reform, which is the country’s largest opposition group and has strongholds in the Amran province, have declared their opposition to Houthi control. The three parties are among the most prominent opposition groups in Yemen.


Their refusal to accept Houthi attempts to unilaterally consolidate their power will prevent the rebels from establishing legitimate political mechanisms that would allow them to exercise control. Houthi rebel attacks on their political opponents risk further radicalising those who oppose Houthi rule as well as intensifying southern secessionist demands for independence. Resistance to Houthi advances is also likely to increasingly unify groups such as liberals, Sunni Islamists and southerners that had once clashed over Yemen’s future but are increasingly united in opposition to what they characterise as a coup. The formation of the political coalition known as the National Salvation Bloc in March 2015 underscores the degree to which opposition to Houthi advances has unified disparate groups. The bloc includes pro-Hadi southern members of the GPC and Sunni groups such as al-Rashad and al-Islah. If the groups can maintain their unity, the bloc will strengthen the opposition’s leverage in their political struggle with the Houthis. Although these political leaders lack access to armed forces that could physically challenge Houthi control, opposition parties will continue to undermine the legitimacy of rebel action through increasingly coordinated political resistance and civil unrest.


The Southern Movement


Over 2014, the pro-independence southern-based Al-Hirak al-Janoubi movement, also known as the Southern Movement, intensified its campaign of civil disobedience in response to the weakness displayed by the central government in its conflict with Houthi rebels. Activists mobilised their supporters in mass demonstrations, strikes and other displays of defiance to the president and other representatives of a unified Yemen. Southern Movement leaders adopted an increasingly aggressive approach, including calling for the government to withdraw its troops and bureaucrats from the south in November 2014. This demand went unrealised but it was indicative of the worsening threat to the country’s political and territorial integrity from the pro-independence movement in Aden, Abyan, Lahij, and Daleh.


The Southern Movement comprises both moderate and radical elements, and should the influence of more hardline factions grow, it could result in higher levels of violence and unrest in the south. The moderate wing of the movement has, in some instances, moderated its approach to the crisis in Yemen. In March 2015, activists announced they would suspend some of their weekly strikes and protests in Aden citing the need to avoid violence in the city and prevent damaging their reputation among the large number of Arab diplomats who fled Sana’a for the city. Representatives of the movement said they were hopeful that Hadi and the international community would eventually come to support their campaign for independence. However, the potential for worsening violence and growing uncertainty across Yemen are factors that will shape the approach of some factions of the movement. Reports of clashes between pro-government forces and armed separatists in Aden are evidence not only of internal divisions but of the potential for radicalisation within the secessionist movement.


Any pause in Southern Movement activities is likely to be only temporary, as activists from the group will continue to advance their agenda, which has long sought independence for the south. Although the outcome of Yemen’s current crisis remains uncertain, the country’s political leaders will likely be forced to address the demands of the southern independence movement. The extent to which authorities will be willing to or capable of comprising with the Southern Movement will be determined by the group’s ability to attract and sustain support, particularly among political leaders and tribes in the south, and by the ability of anti-Houthi forces in the south to resist current territorial advances by the Houthis.


Regional Powers


Yemen has increasingly emerged as a proxy battlefield in the regional contest for influence between Iran and Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia. Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have relocated their embassies to Aden in a show of support for President Hadi and in defiance of the Houthis who have refused to withdraw from Sana’a. Led by Saudi Arabia, a number of Gulf powers as well as Sudan, Egypt and other countries agreed to join a ten-member multinational coalition targeting Houthi rebels with air strikes in March. Riyadh, the main provider of external support, had already suspended aid to Yemen after Houthis seized Sana’a in September 2014 and issued repeated warnings about the threat stemming from the rebels’ continued territorial advance.


Iran has also taken an increasingly active role in Yemen, reinforcing concerns about coordination between the Houthis and Tehran in the context of regional anxiety of Tehran’s expanding regional influence. The resumption of direct flights between Sana’a and Tehran for the first time in 25 years in March is representative of growing economic and political cooperation between the Shi’a Houthi rebels and Iran. There are also unconfirmed reports that Tehran is supplying Houthi fighters with arms via rebel-controlled ports.


Notwithstanding that the level of Iranian influence over the Houthi movement is disputed, the perceptions of an alliance between the two will fuel greater anxiety and hostility among Yemen’s neighbours, especially within the GCC. Past cross-border clashes between Houthi fighters and Saudi forces have already heightened concerns about the intent and growing capabilities of rebels.

In response to fears of advancing Iranian influence and the negative consequences that could follow the Houthi’s capture of Aden, Gulf powers have mobilised air and ground forces to resist further Houthi attacks. The GCC, led by Saudi Arabia, has not confirmed whether it will mount a ground offensive following recent air strikes, but an operation to retake the significant amount of territory held by Houthi forces could require a long-term commitment. Houthi rebels already control territory near the Saudi border and have warned that outside intervention would spark a wider conflict, raising fears of a potential spill-over of violence. Iran has condemned the attacks on Houthi forces, but has not demonstrated a willingness to provide a similar level of commitment to its proxies in the conflict.


Greater foreign involvement threatens to only increase suspicion of outside powers and create the conditions for a cycle of escalation in the crisis. Providing arms to any party to the conflict could shift the balance of power on the ground and facilitate more aggressive military action. The real or perceived actions of foreign parties in the conflict will remain important dynamics. Both Iran and the GCC will come under pressure to provide greater economic, political and military assistance to their allies as it appears their rivals are doing the same.


Armed Forces


Yemen’s armed forces are essential but divided actors in the conflict. Divisions within the military have enabled the Houthis to seize territory with limited resistance. The army largely comprises members of Sanhan tribe and other northern groups loyal to former president Saleh, who has used his remaining influence to facilitate an alliance with the rebels. A number of officers who have opposed Houthi control have been attacked or forced from office. Internal divisions within the armed forces have limited resistance to Houthi attacks to individual units, preventing the military from organising a cohesive response.


Saleh had long relied on the military to maintain power and with his ouster the armed forces reluctantly accepted diminished political influence. During his time in office, Hadi further alienated the security forces by firing commanders and reorganising units in order to purge Saleh loyalists. However, as demonstrated by clashes heavy clashes in March between pro-Saleh and pro-Hadi forces in Aden, these reforms failed to remove Saleh’s influence within the security forces. The fighting in the southern city demonstrated troops themselves will remain loyal to their local commanders, granting senior officers considerable influence in responding to political developments in Yemen. Though Hadi has benefitted from support among some members of the armed forces, particularly in the air force, he has failed to establish a network of support within the military that rivals his predecessor.


The military will remain a critical but divided actor under current conditions. Fragmented loyalties will prevent the armed forces from acting autonomously on a significant enough scale to orient the trajectory of the conflict. Individual commanders will remain under pressure to align themselves with competing parties in the conflict. Saleh, through his network of loyalists, will likely remain a vital actor in the military, yet his political unpopularity and divisiveness will persist. His ability to influence the security forces will be closely linked to an assessment of his overall political strength and influence in the conflict, which will evolve in response to developments on the ground. Growing isolation of the former president both domestically and within the region could threaten his credibility among the security forces.


Marib Sunni tribes


Tribes and political leaders are influential actors given their physical presence in and around they key oil and gas fields as well power stations and other critical infrastructure in Marib province. Most leaders in the area have expressed support for Hadi and stated their opposition to the Houthi rebels. Large amounts of military equipment as well as thousands of fighters from the Murad, Obadia and other tribes have been mobilised as part of the so-called Matarih force assembled to defend the region from an expected Houthi offensive. Clashes between rebels and Houthi rebels along the border of al-Bayda and Marib suggest any Houthi advance into the area will encounter significant resistance.


Although not central to current political negotiations, Marib tribes will remain important for Yemen’s longer term prospects of political stability. Past disputes with central authorities have had major economic implications for Yemen and their continued influence over the critical national resources and infrastructure as well as ability to resist potential Houthi advances will be key dynamics for the country.


Yemen’s Constitutional Reforms


Constitutional reforms backed by Hadi seek to divide the country into six separate regions but have attracted fierce opposition from both the Houthis and Southern Movement. The proposed changes have deepened mistrust between the Houthis and the secessionists and proved a key motivator of unrest prior to the Houthis capture of Sana’a. Although the constitutional reform process has been derailed by the recent conflict, the debate surrounding political structures and reforms will remain contentious. The division of power in post-revolution Yemen is likely to remain a flashpoint for unrest and violence given the conflicting interests of multiple groups involved, including long-standing historical grievances and the unequal distribution of revenues from the country’s resources. Attempts to resume the stalled dialogue process or advance the constitutional draft toward a referendum are likely to generate similar resistance and the constitution will remain a key issue to monitor.


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