In January 2011, protests began in Yemen. During this time many countries in the Middle East were having protests calling for democracy. Protesters in Yemen called for then-President Ali Abd Allah Saleh to step down. (Saleh had been in power for over thirty years despite corruption and a poor economy.)
Many groups wanted Saleh to step down, including the Houthis. The Houthis are a group of people based out of northern Yemen. They are Zaydi, a branch of Shia Islam. The Houthis strongly oppose western ideals. They are also anti-Saudi Arabia, a Sunni nation. The Houthis felt repressed by the government, and they also felt that Saleh had too many ties with the western world. Other groups wanted Saleh to step down because his government was corrupt and he was a dictator.
Throughout February and March, protesters continued to call for Saleh to leave office. On March 18, 2011, people loyal to Saleh killed over 50 protesters. After this, many government officials resigned in protest of the incident. Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the most powerful military officer in Yemen, announced his support for the opposition and many others joined him. About one month later, Saleh announced that he would sign a plan proposed by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The plan removed Saleh from power and, in return, granted him immunity. Though he had agreed to the plan, Saleh refused to sign the proposal at the last minute. After the proposal was slightly edited, Saleh again refused to sign it. Finally, on November 23, 2011, Saleh signed an agreement to step down and give power to Vice President Hadi. (This plan had the support of the United States, other western countries, and Saudi Arabia.) Hadi was elected President in 2012 for a two-year term, and he was supposed to work on building a new, better government.
During this time, the Houthis became stronger, especially compared to the government. The new transitional government was pretty weak. The old government had been corrupt, and the military wasn’t strong. The old government had left many government organizations weak. Though the Houthis were strong, they weren’t given much representation in the new government. During 2013 and early 2014, Yemen held a meeting to work on creating a new government. The Houthis weren’t given much representation at this meeting, and the meeting ended up not accomplishing much. (The terms of the transitional government were just extended.) The Houthis were very upset about this, and they began to protest against the government. These protests escalated into fighting which spread to Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, by September 2014. The Houthis took control of the capital, and in January they took control of the presidential palace.
What’s left of the transitional government is now in the city of Aden. Recently, the Houthis have been moving in that direction, and they continue to fight against those loyal to President Hadi. Ironically, it seems that former president Saleh is now working with the Houthis. Saleh has even led some of Yemen’s military to work with the Houthis. The possibility of the Houthis pushing the transitional government out of Yemen entirely makes this situation important on a global scale.
To complicate matters even more, the Houthis aren’t the only group fighting for power in Yemen. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is based in southern Yemen. The Hadi government had worked with the United States against AQAP. Though the Houthis are not aligned with AQAP, they are more concerned with fighting the Hadi government than AQAP. Because of this situation, AQAP is able to grow and become a larger threat.
Saudi Arabia and the United States support the Hadi government. Saudi Arabia began launching airstrikes in Yemen last week, and President Hadi is currently in Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have Iran’s support. The Houthis even go to Iran for military training. Yemen shares a long border with Saudi Arabia. Having the Houthis, who work closely with Iran, gain a lot of power in Yemen is not good for Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia and Iran have often competed for power in the Middle East, and this can be seen as an extension of that conflict.
The United States supports Saudi Arabia and the Hadi government in this situation. However, the United States is working with Iran in the fight against ISIS, and the U.S. is also trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. Saudi Arabia opposes the nuclear deal, and, through this conflict with Iran, Saudi Arabia may be sending a message to the U.S. that Iran shouldn’t be trusted and that no nuclear deal should take place.
Saudi Arabia’s involvement causes oil prices to rise. Rising oil prices concern countries that import oil, such as China. The rise in oil prices will be good news for countries that produce oil, such as Iran and Russia.