Mountainous and dry, with a tendency to anarchy in the ample spaces between its cities, Yemen has long been hospitable to insurgency. Yet in ancient times it was home to the Sabaeans and had claims to be the biblical land of the Queen of Sheba. Its fertility and beauty were such that the Romans called it Arabia Felix, ‘happy Arabia’. The people there are mostly Arabs and like much of the rest of Arabia, became subject to the distant domain of the Ottoman sultan. The fate of the peninsula was influenced significantly by Britain, which in 1937 took the port city of Aden as the centre of its colony (on independence in 1967, it became South Yemen). Britain exercised significant influence over who ruled Muscat and Oman; assisted succession to the monarchy and imamate of North Yemen; and together with the US confirmed the al Saud family as hereditary rulers of what became Saudi Arabia. Now combined, the former North and South Yemen are together Sunni by bare majority, but the Zaidi Shia remain a large, mainly northern minority.
Since Yemen was unified in 1990, successive governments have claimed that the country can be governed as one, a right that a number of rivals currently contest. Yet the number of guerrilla wars fought in the country’s north in the last hundred years show that the old cliches about Yemen are at least partly true. Wars of insurgency take root there and, each time, the same players and similar countries are involved.
Ansar Allah, commonly known as the Houthi movement after its leaders Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi (1959-2004) and Abdul-Malik al-Houthi (b.1979), is the latest organisation to conduct an insurgency in the territory of the former state of North Yemen. The Houthis’ antecedents fought enemies, both internal and external, including Egyptian troops sent by Gamal Nasser, the president of the then United Arab Republic (UAR), in the 1960s.
The secret of these insurgents lies in their support, which goes beyond the local. They, like the Houthis today, owed a great deal of their military success to the aid of outside powers willing to supply the materiel and expertise required to make fighting effective and sustainable. In the Houthis’ case, their external supporter and backer is Iran. For the rebels fighting in the 1962-70 North Yemen civil war, their backers were, among others, Saudi Arabia and Britain.
That war began with an attempted coup. In 1962 the newly crowned king and imam of North Yemen, Muhammad al-Badr, was overthrown by a military which desired to establish an Arab republic in an age when two Arab states, Egypt and Syria, had already united as the UAR. The officers behind the coup were trained by Egypt and their efforts to usurp power were supported by Nasser.
Muhammad al-Badr was a Zaidi Shia, who drew his support from this religious group. Within weeks of the coup he began marshalling resistance among the country’s tribes. By October 1962, his supporters could mount hit-and-run attacks from their mountainous strongholds on the forces of the new government and, eventually, the new regime’s Egyptian backers. With support from Saudi Arabia, the imam’s forces grew in number and confidence. He maintained his government-in-exile within Saudi territory from 1964. From there flowed weapons, money and Saudi forces sent to train the rebels.
Over the course of the conflict, Egypt was drawn into inhospitable depths. Support that had begun with special forces and advisers had grown by 1965 to include 60,000 Egyptian troops. They used their overwhelming strength in the air to target the Saudi-Yemen border, including towns serving as bases for the imam’s forces. On the ground and among the Yemeni towns, the Egyptian forces fought a bloody war of counter-insurgency, punishing perceived transgressions harshly and offering only limited compromise with local traditions and leaders.
It became common to refer to the brutal and ineffective campaigns that followed as ‘Egypt’s Vietnam’, even within military circles in the UAR. Nasser used the description himself in 1967 in conversation with the US ambassador. Later, he explained: ‘I sent a company to Yemen and ended up reinforcing it with 70,000 troops.’ North Yemen proved a swamp from which Egypt could not extricate itself, at a price of 10,000 soldiers’ lives.
Nasser retained the aura of dictatorship, which had prompted Britain to fight Egypt over the Suez canal in 1956, when Nasser was backed by the Soviet Union. Britain’s leaders feared a Nasserite Arab republic bordering Britain’s colony in Aden and its ally in Saudi Arabia. But they did not want to be overtly involved.
Under the radar
British involvement in North Yemen’s war was orchestrated by a coterie of special forces veterans, including the founder of the Special Air Service (SAS), David Stirling, and Conservative ministers such as Julian Amery. Things proceeded largely under the radar. The operation was organised on wartime lines, using tactics seen in both the Second World War and T.E. Lawrence’s participation in the Arab Revolt of 1916-18.
The money was Saudi and some of the forces were mercenaries from Belgium and France, but to hear the British tell it, the tactics were their own. In an interview with the BBC at the end of the last century, Johnny Cooper, an SAS lieutenant colonel, confirmed that professional soldiers went on operations against Egyptian forces in a freelance capacity. Cooper called it an international operation:
supplying the Arab forces, training them, upsetting the Egyptians by mining their roads, ambushing – general nuisance … parts of it were out and out war: mortaring and the shooting up of their convoys … we kept the Egyptians really tied down.
Bernard Mills, an SAS major interviewed at the same time, described the conflict as an ‘exciting’ attraction for veterans and said that when the Yemenis were ‘properly led, which was always difficult’, they were capable of considerable success against Egypt’s conscript armies. The cause of Egypt’s high casualty rate included a series of ambushes in which Yemeni irregulars inflicted great damage on Egypt’s weak conventional forces in the country’s mountains. After a time, Egypt sent more troops but quartered them away in the country’s cities.
British involvement ceased in 1966 and Egyptian intervention wound down after 1967, when the Six Day War with Israel proved a greater priority. Low-level war in North Yemen ground on for a further three years, after which a compromise government was formed, including both supporters of the imam, who had largely won the conflict, and the republican officers.
When North and South Yemen united in 1990, they did so under Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had participated in the 1962 coup and had fought as a young man against the imam’s rule. Since 2004, the Houthi movement, which draws some of its tribal support from the same Zaidi Shia who had fought with the imam, has opposed the new Yemeni government. The Houthis’ low-level insurgency against the new state has since become a full-scale civil war.
Saleh departed in 2012 amid protests and violence. His successor, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, now leads a government in exile in Saudi Arabia.
From the beginning of this new rebellion, the Yemeni government has accused Iran of assisting the insurgents, initially providing training and material and increasingly orchestrating the Houthis’ broader campaigns. This is in line with an Iranian regional strategy that stage-manages belligerent proxies across the Middle East.
Before his death in January 2020, these conflicts were masterminded by the Iranian major general Qassem Soleimani, who led the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps – Quds [or Jerusalem] Force. The Quds Force organises a number of proxy armies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen – its officers sometimes pose in front of these various countries’ flags.
Iranian support has allowed the Houthis to move beyond their long-standing insurgency into large-scale attacks on Yemen’s major settlements. In 2014 the Houthis intensified efforts to overthrow Hadi. This culminated in a 2015 coup, establishing a Revolutionary Committee and Supreme Political Council that form a Houthi candidate government not recognised internationally. They took the former capital Sana’a and afterwards received the support of Hadi’s predecessor, Saleh. When Saleh withdrew his backing in 2017, the Houthis had him killed.
Meanwhile, the Saudi intervention to back Hadi and defeat the Houthis features the same aerial superiority that failed to win Egypt its war in the 1960s. The present conflict also includes the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain and a shifting line-up of Arab and Muslim states dependent on their diplomatic position vis-a-vis the Saudis. Britain and the US play an overt but limited supporting role.
Brutal and depraved
Yemen’s long and bitter war is a humanitarian disaster and has precipitated this century’s worst examples of both famine and preventable disease. As the war continues, Houthi tactics have become more brutal and depraved.
The involvement of Iran provides the greatest difference from previous wars. The Houthis are now equipped and trained to mount major offensives on Yemen’s largest cities; they were able to fight the Saudi-led coalition to a standstill in the port city of Hodeida; and they are now strong enough to prepare an advance on the Marib Governate, the sole province left under the nominally exclusive control of Hadi’s government.
The Houthis may not possess the majority of the country, but they seem the only force in Yemen currently able to advance. Egged on by Iran, they launch ballistic missile and drone attacks on cities controlled by the government and on Saudi ports and oil processing plants. Periodically, these Iranian-built missiles attempt to strike Riyadh, the Saudi capital, though they are often intercepted by sophisticated aerial defence systems. A Houthi missile attack at the end of 2020 attempted to kill the entire Hadi cabinet as they arrived in Aden by aircraft.
In Yemen, the insurgents may have the advantage of geography, but the identity of the overall victor of these wars appears to rest on which internal faction can court and sustain the most international assistance. Whether the Hadi government or its Houthi opponents prevail will rest upon which country is more willing to continue to support proxy warfare in Yemen: Saudi Arabia or Iran.
This essay was originally published in the May 2021 issue of History Today.