Policy Analysis 03 November, 2014

Yemen After the Fall of Sanaa

Mohamed Jamih

​A Yemeni author and researcher based in the UK, Jamih is also a journalist at the London-based Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper. He holds a PhD in Translation from the University of Wales.  


Armed Houthi fighters under the name Ansar Allah seized Yemen’s capital Sanaa on September 21, marking a critical juncture in Yemen’s political path since the beginning of 2011. This paper explores the factors that led Sanaa to fall to the Houthis, by examining the nature of the divisions within Yemen; the roles played by the army, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and al-Qaeda; the struggle between the Houthis and the Islah Party; the disagreement between President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and Prime Minister Mohammed Salim Basindawa; the role of the Gulf states and Iran, and finally the true ambitions of the Houthis. It also attempts to predict possible outcomes on Yemen’s future given continued Houthi efforts to exert control over much of the country.

Background to Yemeni Divisions  

Yemen’s revolution on February 11, 2011 drew a dividing line between two groups of political, tribal, military, and financial power in Yemen. The first represented the forces that coalesced under the umbrella of the ruling power, led by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the second represented those forces outside the framework of power in its traditional sense in Yemen, although drawing a sharp divide between those in authority and those outside of it in Yemen is sometimes difficult.

A conflict between two forms of legitimacy thus emerged: the legitimacy of the ballot box, embodied and exploited by the ruling power, and that of a popular, revolutionary legitimacy that aspired for alternative rule, taking advantage of the winds of change blowing through the region sparked by the self-immolation of Tunisian Mohammed Buazizi. Contrary to popular narratives, the divide was neither then, nor now, sectarian. Ultimately, the divide in Yemen was, and remains, a highly political conflict for power.

This political division was also symbolically aligned across geographical lines. The opposition strongholds were located around Sanaa University, in Siteen Street in what became known as “Change Square”, whilst the ruling camp mobilized in Sabeen Square, right near the president’s office, and close to the monument to the September [1962] revolution. Symbolically, the inherent message was that those in Sabeen Square were following the aims of the 1962 revolution while those in Siteen Street—according to the reading of the authorities—had distanced themselves from those aims.

Events subsequently led to the Gulf initiative, which was signed on November 23, 2011 and ushered in a transitional period of national dialogue; but this constituted a temporary lid on the divisions that had by then encompassed many, even the military. By the time the national dialogue meetings came to an end, and an agreement was set on the framework that was to found a political and constitutional settlement, divisions were at boiling point. The situation erupted in Dammaj, and then Amran, which fell to the Houthis at the beginning of July 2014, and culminated in the fall of Sanaa at the end of September 2014.[1]

While the Houthis are the most prominent name associated with the wave of opposition coming out of the extreme north to take control of Sanaa, there are many parties to the divides, or prospective divides in Yemen. There are the partisans of ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the tribal opponents of the al-Ahmar tribe who for decades made up the tribal leadership of the Hashid federation, the opponents of the Yemeni Islah Party, not to mention the geographical element to divisions in Yemen which should not be overlooked given recent events. This is clearly evident, for instance, in the nature of the alignments exposed by the unified position of the Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in the rejection of Dr. Ahmed Awwad Bin Mubarak as prime minister, because of his southern affiliations.[2] Yemen’s youth revolution tried to eradicate the division between Yemen’s highlands and lowlands, or to challenge its excesses, but despite their efforts, divisions between the north and south prevail. 

Splits within the Military Establishment   

Following Yemeni unification on May 22, 1990 several attempts were made to integrate the northern and southern Yemeni armies. However, the lack of trust between military and political leaders, along with the differences in the makeup and combat styles of the two armies, prevented integration, prompting a war breaking out in the summer of 1994. Yemen’s 1994 civil war led to the defeat of Southern Yemen which wanted to “break away” from the unified state and the incorporation of its combat units and brigades into the national army, which subsequently – after the exclusion of military commanders from the south – became the regime’s army.[3] Additionally, there was a clear split between the dissolved presidential guard, headed by the son of the ex-president, Major-General Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh and the rest of the military sectors, foremost among them the dissolved 1st Armored Division and its commander Brigadier-General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar who was the mastermind behind the Yemeni state’s war against the Houthi rebels. General Muhsin and the 1st Armored Division were in fact the Houthis’ first target upon them entering Sanaa, virtually unopposed by the army.

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This paper was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing team. To read the original Arabic version, which appeared online on October 22, please click here.


[1] “Chronology of events in Yemen since the start of the revolution,” Al-Jazeera Net, October 2, 2014, http://goo.gl/fKJOvm.

[2] “The Houthis reject the appointment of bin Mabarak as prime minster,” Al-Jazeera Net, October 8, 2014, http://goo.gl/D0s8dw.

[3] Yaseen Qaid al-Shurjabi, “The regime was able to incorporate the military, and then to control it and transform it into a tribal and family enterprise with a vested interest in the continuation of the regime.” Al-Gomhoriah (Yemen), July 4, 2012, http://www.algomhoriah.net/articles.php?lng=arabic&aid=32093.