Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down as Yemen’s president in 2012 after 33 years in power. This was part of a transition led by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that followed popular protests during the Arab Spring. Saleh’s successor (and former vice president) Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi inherited a state that was teetering on the brink of failure. Three different security crises had left the central government with no effective control over large swathes of territory: an insurgency by the Houthi movement in northern provinces, a secessionist movement in the south, and the presence of al-Qaeda-linked armed groups across the country.
Hadi headed a transitional dialogue process that concluded in January 2014 and recommended the division of Yemen into six regions. The Houthis, who have long feared political and socioeconomic marginalisation, moved to use violence to secure their interests. They expanded southwards until they seized the capital Sana'a in September 2014 and entrenched themselves into state institutions. The power struggle escalated in January 2015, as Hadi stepped down under Houthi pressure and was placed under house arrest in Sana'a. He later fled to his home town of Aden, where he rescinded his resignation in February and announced that Sana'a was ‘occupied’.
The Houthis allied with Saleh, who still retains significant support within the army, and seized Aden in March, sparking a full-blown civil war. Saudi Arabia and eight other Arab states formed a coalition to intervene on behalf of Hadi. An aerial campaign and a blockade eventually led to the coalition deploying its own troops, as well as arming and training entire battalions of ‘pro-Hadi’ fighters known as the Popular Resistance. The Popular Resistance is an umbrella of southern, tribal and Islamist fighters. Although they are fighting on the pro-Hadi side, many southern groups continued to push for secession, framing their role as liberating ‘South Yemen’.
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other armed groups have capitalised on the chaos of the war. A US drone programme has targeted high-profile leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) such as Nasser al-Wuhayshi, but the group continues to adapt and embed itself within local structures.
The civil war has had severe humanitarian implications, killing thousands of civilians, and resulting in severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine.