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Calling Yemen a Proxy War is an Oversimplification

The operation formerly known as “Decisive Storm,” later re-branded “Renewal of Hope,” has been described as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. By extension, the conflict is interpreted as manifesting latent Sunni/Shiite sectarian tensions. The Houthis are Zaydi Shiite, and the assumption follows that Iran has furthered its bid for regional hegemony through its Shiite proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and now Yemen. Whereas Saudi Arabia, with the help of its Sunni allies, wishes to undermine Iranian and Shiite influence by removing the Houthis from power.

This depiction is inaccurate.

The Houthis emerged as a military force as a result of six wars with the Yemeni army under President Saleh’s command between 2004 and 2010.

Instead, the conflict in Yemen is the result of domestic politics, specifically former President Saleh’s efforts to retain power, and Saudi Arabian posturing.

Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh contributed more directly to the rise of the Houthis than Iran. The Houthis emerged as a military force as a result of six wars with the Yemeni army under President Saleh’s command between 2004 and 2010. Yet, last week, President Saleh declared an alliance with the Houthis, his erstwhile foes.[1]

In an interview in 2010 in Sana with political analyst Abdul Ghani al-Iryani, I asked him to describe a post-Saleh Yemen. Dr. al-Iryani responded by comparing President Saleh to a spider: his web of patronage constituted a highly personalistic system that required his presence at the center to prevent everything from falling apart. Since his removal from power in 2012, Saleh has demonstrated that he still has strings to pull in Yemen, most recently through the unlikely alliance with the Houthis.

In contrast, a concrete link between the Houthis and Iran has yet to be demonstrated. As president, Saleh frequently attempted to stoke Western fears about the presence of both Al Qaeda and Iran in Yemen, portraying himself as the sole bulwark against extremism. Instead he gave AQAP free rein and failed to produce convincing evidence of Iranian military support for the Houthis.

The current narrative that Al Qaeda is taking over large swaths of territory is also inaccurate: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is simply one of many rival bands in this war-torn country. Al Qaeda’s presence may be alarming for Westerners, but it is hardly a dominant force on the ground.

Resistance to the Houthis is the result of their occupation rather than based on sectarian tensions. The Houthis come from Sa’ada province on the border with Saudi Arabia, and many Yemenis view them as invaders. Former South Yemen is particularly resentful: after North and South unified in 1990, Southern Yemen attempted to secede in 1994 but President Saleh maintained the unity of the country by force. The primary motivation for the Houthi takeover is not Sunni/Shiite tension nor a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran: it is Yemeni domestic politics.

Saudi Arabia’s initiation of military action against the Houthis is best understood as the Kingdom reasserting its dominance in what it considers its backyard.

In the Saudi view, Yemen maintains its sovereignty at the pleasure of the Saudi king. Therefore, Saudi Arabia’s initiation of military action against the Houthis is best understood as the Kingdom reasserting its dominance in what it considers its backyard. King Salman wishes to justify this intervention as a “legitimate” war by seeking to reinstate ousted President Hadi, but is also flexing his muscles as the new king of a regional powerhouse.[2] The Saudi religious establishment’s longtime support for Islah, Yemen’s main Islamist party, also incentivizes the Saudi regime’s intervention. Islah lost much of its power along with President Hadi when the Houthis took over Sana in January 2015.

Portraying the intervention in Yemen as the result of a Saudi/Iranian and Sunni/Shiite proxy war demonstrates the tendency by interested parties to characterize conflicts according to dominant cleavages. Both antagonists and commentators have a vested interest in portraying the struggle as part of a broader conflict, because doing so attracts more attention and support. The rest of the world does not care about Yemeni internal politics, but it does care about a regional war fought along sectarian lines.

Informed commentary should consult research on civil war and ethnic riots that analyzes why acts of violence in these contexts often fail to comply with the broad narratives used to frame them. Stathis N. Kalyvas’ The Logic of Violence in Civil War catalogues how local factors offer the most accurate explanation for killings. Under the cover of civil war, a quotidian dispute with a neighbor can suddenly turn deadly.[3] Paul Brass’ findings on ethnic riots in India reveal the strategic instigation of violence at moments of political opportunity, such as prior to an election.[4]

A calculated cessation of violence appeared in the Yemeni case when a five-day ceasefire went into effect just in time for the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) summit with President Barack Obama at Camp David. Eye-witnesses denied the ceasefire, citing ongoing fighting in much of the country.[5]

The summit was intended to assuage Gulf’s fears about the potential US-Iran nuclear deal, and appears to have successfully done so.[6] Yet given that the specter of a rising Iran strikes fear into the hearts of the GCC countries and Israel, we can expect more allegations of sectarian tensions in the future as these states make every effort to prevent the normalization of relations with Iran.

The trouble is that claiming sectarian tensions exist can contribute to their salience, reifying a cleavage that was previously insignificant. With the further destabilization of an already bankrupt and starving Yemen, we can be sure that sectarian tensions will be more likely to cause violence in the future than they were in the past.


[1] “Yemen’s Saleh declares alliance with Houthis,” Al Jazeera English, 11 May 2015,

[2] Lara Aryani, “Saudi victory, Yemeni loss” Jaddaliyya, 2 May 2015,

[3] Stathis Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[4] Paul Brass, Theft of an Idol (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997). 

[5] Ahmed Al Haj, “Yemen’s Humanitarian Truce Barely Holds as Violence Resumes,” Washington Post, 13 May 2015,

[6] “U.S. - Gulf Cooperation Council Camp David Joint Statement,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 14 May 2015,



Annelle Sheline
Annelle Sheline

Annelle Sheline is a Doctoral Student in the Department of Political Science at George Washington University, Washington D.C., US.

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