The Crisis in Yemen – An Overview and Timeline

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Key Facts

  • The war in Yemen has been ongoing for more than 4 years.
  • 7 Million people are on the brink of starvation and the United Nations has noted the nation as on the brink of famine.
  • Two-thirds of the population rely on humanitarian aid to survive.
  • Most of the basic systems and infrastructure that define a modern state have collapsed: agriculture, healthcare, basic social cohesion.
  • 90% Of Yemen’s food is imported. 70% Once arrived through a port that Saudi Arabia is now blockading.
  • Today the death toll is nearing 100,000. Children make up 1/3 of the civilian death count.
  • More than 3 million people have been displaced due to the fighting.
  • In June 2017 a cholera outbreak was reported with a suspected 70,000 cases, and 3,500 new cases every day.
  • Human rights organizations report that Saudi Arabia’s airstrikes beginning in 2015 indiscriminately target civilians. At the same time Saudi Arabia has pledged $150 million for humanitarian aid to Yemen.
  • The United Nations has described the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen as severe as that in Iraq, Syria and South Sudan.



Yemen is located on the Saudi Arabian border. Its strategic importance is linked to its location on a narrow waterway that links the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden. Much of the world’s oil shipments pass here.

yemen civil war

Yemen is historically divided between Sunni (65%) and Shia (35%) Muslims. The Shia occupy the lands of the northeast, the Sunni are largely located in the lands of the south east. The total population of about 25 million is distributed across a land mass roughly the size of California.


Historically it is one of the poorest nations in the region.


The modern state of Yemen was formed in 1990. Prior to this the nation had existed as two separate entities, a reflection of Cold War. The United States and Saudi Arabia had backed the Yemen Arab Republic. The Soviet Union had backed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.


war in yemen

Ali Abdullah Saleh who had ruled North Yemen Arab Republic since 1978 assumed leadership of the new country. His rule was marked by authoritarianism until the Arab Spring in 2011.

war in yemen


Al-Qaeda has been active in Yemen since the early 1990s.

In 2007 Al-Qaeda in Yemen and Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia united to form Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

war in yemen

In 2011 the Arab Spring helped produce rising pressure against Ali Abdullah Saleh by the Houthis. He stepped down from power as part of a deal that guaranteed he would not be prosecuted. His deputy Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi assumed office as interim president. This deal was brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council and was supported by United States.

war in yemen


Like many other nations experienced, the issues that produced the Arab Spring were not resolved by a change in leadership. By 2014 many in Yemen were disillusioned with the gains made from the agreements of 2011.


Many Yemenis, including Sunnis, supported the resurgence of the Houthis resistance.


Be the end of 2014 the Houthis had entered the Yemen capital of Sanaa and surrounded the capital. President al-Hadi and his cabinet were placed under effective house arrest. President al-Hadi soon escaped to the port city of Aden.


Large elements of the Yemen military joined the uprising that pushed for the ouster of al-Hadi and a return of former leader Saleh.


Locally this created the environment of a civil war but the involvement of outside parties would soon cause this fight to escalate in levels of violence and atrocities currently being displayed.


The Players

war in yemen

war in yemen

The Houthis soon set their eyes on Aden and began advancing toward the port city.


In March 2015 President al-Hadi fled Yemen as Saudi Arabia began air strikes on Sanaa.


November 2015 President al-Hadi returned to Aden but he does not appear to exercise any real authority from here as events have moved beyond his control.


The US initially supplied special training forces to the Yemeni government to train local troops and fight al-Qaeda. Once the Saudi air strikes began and the flight of President al-Hadi was completed these American special forces were withdrawn in 2015.


The US continues to support the war with military aid to Saudi Arabia and drone strikes on AQAP.


In the first 100 days of the Trump presidency more US led air strikes were carried out in Yemen than in 2015 and 2016 combined. These were carried out by jets and drones.


US special forces operations against al-Qaeda positions are reportedly increasing again as of mid 2017 with raids and intelligence gathering on alleged al-Qaeda camps and positions.

war in yemen

President Trump recently signed a new arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth $110 billion. This will work to counter Iranian influence in the region and the continued Saudi war efforts in the proxy struggle in Yemen.


The line between al-Qaeda, anti-Houthi, and pro al-Hadi positions is being blurred. In some areas where al-Hadi loyalty is returning it is reported that al-Qaeda is inconspicuously running the administration of cities.


The Yemini state itself is seen as collapsing. President al-Hadi has the power of the Saudi military on his side but the devastating effect of this power upon the people of Yemen for the last two years has destroyed his credibility as a leader.


Russia is currently seeking to position itself as a mediator in the conflict.


Siege like atmospheres persist in many of the major cities.


In those cities near the Saudi border Houthi forces are reported to be firing missiles into Saudi Arabia.


Reports of extensive torture being used for the interrogation of prisoners by soldiers from the United Arab Emirates was recently published in a report from Human Rights Watch and the Associated Press.


Additional Reading

Yemen Crisis Situation Report

A Child Dies in Yemen Every 10 Minutes

Unprecedented Number of US Drone Strikes in Yemen

10,000 Killed in Conflict

Beatings, Shocks and “the Grill”: Reports Allege Torture