Yemen’s Endless Wars (James Snell, 5 May 2021, History Today)

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. […]

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.