The Yemeni government has been mired in an unwinnable and sporadic civil conflict in the northern governorate of Saada since 2004. This war has weakened the central government, accelerated the economic crisis, and threatened global stability by emboldening al-Qaeda, concludes a paper by Christopher Boucek.

Key conclusions about the conflict in Saada:

  • Fighting likely to continue. The current cease-fire agreed to in February 2010 is likely to fail as the central government shows little interest in addressing the core grievances of the rebelling Houthis.
  • Priorities are misguided. The Southern secessionist movement is Yemen’s more serious security threat, but the regime is more involved in Saada for two key reasons: the government believes the war is winnable, and uses the military operations in the North to send a message to agitators in the South.
  • Costs are escalating. In the six years the war evolved from a local insurrection into a national challenge, devastating the economy and consuming crucial resources.
  • Burdens disproportionately felt by noncombatants. The six rounds of fighting came with high humanitarian costs. Hostilities displaced over 250,000 people, killed hundreds or thousands (the exact number of casualties is unknown), and destroyed significant civilian infrastructure.
  • Conflict expands beyond borders. When Saudi Arabia’s military entered the conflict in November 2009 following Houthi incursions, conditions went from bad to worse. But there is no evidence that the conflict in Saada is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran as commonly asserted.

“The government’s uncompromising position in Saada has exacerbated local grievances and rapidly accelerated Yemen’s economic crisis,” writes Boucek. “Without a serious international effort at mediation, further fighting is inevitable—and poses a serious threat to Yemeni stability.”