I have written more or less nothing on this site, since its launch in December 2013, about Yemen, and my previous site (some content of which is now available in the archives of this site) featured a fair amount on al Qaeda in Yemen but ended coverage in February 2011 as the Arab Spring was beginning ( — we shut down right around then by unlucky coincidence).
The reason I’ve said so little about Yemen, in contrast to say Syria (which actually has a smaller population despite its higher intensity conflict) — even as the capital has fallen, a coup has occurred, and the country has begun to fracture back into its constituent statelets — is because Yemen is extraordinarily complex, news there develops sluggishly from initial spark to result, and media coverage is often sketchy or unreliable (even wildly inaccurate). I like to talk about and learn about many issues and countries in the news, but Yemen so thoroughly stumps me so frequently I have generally opted to stay in my many other lanes and leave it for other, more knowledgeable people to analyze.
It’s also very hard to break down for casual readers. In the incisive words of someone I know, “Yemen has a coup every day. At some point you can’t tell who’s couping who.”
So, when I ran across Adam Baron’s new “Who is in charge of Yemen?” article for Al Jazeera America — an article which offers the single clearest and most concise guide I’ve yet seen on how we got here from there — I had to mention it.
Two paragraphs in particular stand out for their effective summary of the background events that led, in typically Yemeni slow-moving fashion, toward the present emergency. I’m quoting it here with only a few minor bracketed insertions for clarity of points elided or mentioned elsewhere:
The roots of the current crisis date back more than a decade before last week’s events. In June 2004 then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh dispatched government forces to arrest Hussein al-Houthi, a charismatic [Zaidi-Shia] cleric and former member of parliament. Saleh felt increasingly threatened by Houthi’s soaring popularity, due in large part to his sharp critiques of the Yemeni government’s alliance with the United States [nominally against al Qaeda], the marginalization of the his native province of Saada and the capital’s rampant corruption. He was killed along with more than a dozen followers in the rugged mountains of Marran, according to a statement the government released on Sept. 10, 2004. But his Ansar Allah movement — better known as the Houthis — soldiered on under the leadership of his younger brother, Abdul Malek al-Houthi, as Saleh’s regime waged a series of brutal wars that devastated much of northern Yemen over the past decade. The military campaign further intensified the feelings of marginalization and resentment that laid the seeds for the Houthi rebellion.
During Yemen’s Arab Spring–inspired uprising in 2011, the Houthis took advantage of the power vacuum and expanded their control over Saada. Emboldened by the lack of resistance, they soon began to face off against the Islamist Islah party, their former allies against Saleh. Islah is an opposition faction that incorporates the bulk of the Yemeni branch of the [Sunni] Muslim Brotherhood — in tribal areas between Saada and the capital. After fallout with the Houthis and as the country’s internationally mediated transition sputtered on, Islah eventually forged a new alliance with Saleh and his backers [who left the government due to the Arab Spring]. The Houthis’ success on the battlefield and astute political messaging eventually paid off big last September, when they took control of Sanaa and forced their Islah-allied adversaries to flee.
For the descent from the capital’s fall, several months later, into a botched coup d’état and this month’s political chaos, keep reading the full “Who is in charge of Yemen?” article.