While the conflict(s) in Yemen is deeply complicated, international media portrays it in black and white terms. Yemen, the reader is told, is in the midst of a “proxy war,” as fighting between “Shi’it rebels” and “government loyalists” has pushed the country “to the brink” (of what, exactly, is often unclear).
These descriptions are not wholly wrong, but they obfuscate more than they elucidate. The vast majority of those who write on Yemen, including Yemenis themselves, frequently fall into using these easy, unhelpful expressions.
Proxy war narratives are beguilingly simple; treating Yemen as a nation trapped in a perpetual conflict, particularly for those unfamiliar with the country’s history, is tempting. But, in reckoning with Yemen’s ongoing crisis—to say nothing of conveying its causes and effects—it is crucial to move beyond simplistic depictions.
For these reasons, in evaluating the media’s role in Yemen, it is necessary to understand the flawed nature of the terminology frequently used to frame the country’s conflict(s).
The “Proxy War” in Yemen
Emerging out of a part of the country considered peripheral even by many Yemenis, the Houthi movement has long been deeply misunderstood.
Since its emergence in 2004, the group has been painted with a sectarian brush, described as Iran’s proxy by Yemeni officials hoping to exploit historical American anxieties about the Islamic Republic and curry favor with Yemen’s Gulf neighbors.
Contrary to these depictions, however, the Houthi movement is firmly rooted in societal developments in northern Yemen.
Following the fall of the Zaidi imamate that ruled north Yemen from the 9th century to 1962, Yemeni Zaidis—not a monolithic group—were increasingly under pressure from ideologies and groups that were largely viewed as foreign. Many Zaidis—including even some of those who were enthusiastically involved in the overthrow of the imamate—grew deeply resentful of the increasingly Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood-influenced ideologies that were gaining ground in traditionally Zaidi areas during the 1980s and 90s. This frustration birthed the Shebab al-Mumin, a Zaidi revivalist group, that eventually evolved into the Houthi movement.
While the group’s initial emergence may have been rooted in a Zaidi revival, the Houthis ultimately became more focused on more broad, non-sectarian issues during—and particularly after—Yemen’s 2011 anti-government uprising and took aim at the transitional government’s perceived corruption and incompetence.
Though the Houthis have received some support from Iran, far more than any Iranian machinations, it was these factors – along with blowback from the central government’s often heavy-handed response to the insurgency – that account for the group’s rise.
All this has largely been ignored by the international press, particularly after the launch of the Saudi-led intervention. Many Western media narratives ignored the coalition’s various motivations for initiating the operation, to say nothing of the varied factors fueling the Houthi movement and other conflict(s) in Yemen. Instead, they focused exclusively on Iran’s supposed support for the Houthis.
Prominent Yemenis on either side of the conflict have been keen to push this “proxy war” narrative, though views differ on who is a proxy of what. According to Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the Houthis are little more than tools of Iran. According to Houthi-leader, Abdulmalek al-Houthi and his backers, while the Houthis are not Iran proxy their enemies, namely the Hadi government and its supporters, are agents of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
In many regards, it is unsurprising both parties would push these narratives, as they stand to gain from depicting events in Yemen as a proxy conflict between two regional powerhouses. For the government, painting their adversaries as Iranian proxies has helped to galvanize regional support; by casting their adversaries as foreign agents, the Houthis and their allies have aimed to legitimize the ongoing conflict.
It remains incumbent on media outlets to move beyond such simplifications, however,
At face value, this term would appear to accurately describe the Houthis, despite its essentializing nature. Aren’t the Houthis, after all, Shi’a who have revolted against Yemen’s central government?
In truth, these “Shi’ite rebels” are not always Shi’a. This is underscored by the role played by Ali Abdullah Saleh, one of the war’s key actors. While a Zaidi himself, many of the former president’s key backers are Sunnis. Saleh’s loyalists, of all religious persuasions, have continued to coordinate with the Houthis in pushing back against advances by Saudi-backed fighters. Saleh’s networks have also funneled significant financial, media, and political support to the battle against Saudi Arabia and the internationally-recognized Yemeni government.
In short, referring to “Shiite rebels” is deeply misleading. In addition to over-emphasizing the conflict’s so-called sectarian aspects, it subsumes Saleh’s networks, literally erasing the existence of a key belligerent in the conflict.
According to many media accounts, standing opposite the “Shiite rebels” are “government loyalists,” fighters battling the Houthis and waging war in support of President Hadi, who is in exile in Saudi Arabia. Like the phrase “Shiite rebels,” the terminology both misleads and essentializes, treating a cacophonous and, at best, tenuously allied group of factions as a monolith.
When it comes to those fighting the Houthis, true “Hadi loyalists” are but one of many groups. The internationally-recognized Yemeni government-in-exile is a mix of strange bedfellows. In addition to proper “Hadi loyalists,” it includes the Islamist Islah party, which incorporates the bulk of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood; secular and leftist elements of the establishment opposition; separatist-leaning southern factions that have thrown their lot in with Hadi; and some mainstream Salafists. The tensions within these alliances are barely hidden, bubbling to the surface with regular frequency, particularly after new political appointments are made by the government, leading to bickering between those who feel slighted.
On the battlefield in Yemen, things are even more fractious. Terms like the “popular resistance” and the “national army” have been thrown around to describe so-called pro-Hadi fighters, but they exist as unified entities in name only. In reality, these fighters are divided along several lines, most importantly, according to geography.
In the north, the pro-government “national army” is overwhelmingly made up of military units allied with prominent military commander—and recently appointed vice president—Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a long-time ally of Saleh who split with the former president in 2011 and has since thrown in his lot with the government-in-exile. Many “Popular Resistance” factions in the north have ties with Ali Mohsen’s tribal and social networks. Some of these factions are also aligned with members of Islah; others are made up of tribal fighters who took up arms in opposition to the Houthis’ expansion.
In the south, the bulk of the fighting has been carried out by resistance figures pulled from the ranks of the secessionist Southern Movement, al-Hirak, many of whom have a tense history with those fighting for the “national army” and “popular resistance.” Resentful of decades of marginalization from the central government, many southerners cast all northern political factions—regardless of their stance on the Houthis and position during the ongoing conflict—as different sides of the same coin.
This is to say nothing of the increasing role of Salafist factions in the ‘pro-Hadi’ fighting camp. Particularly in Taiz, al-Bayda, and the south, Salafist fighters—who are also not a monolithic group—have assumed an increasing role in the fighting.
Moving Past “the Brink”
The sheer complication of Yemen – in addition to its unfortunate downward trends – has led many journalists to dismiss the country as doomed. Yemen is “on the brink,” metaphorically teetering on the edge of freefall, like a car half perched on the edge of a cliff.
There is some truth to these depictions, especially right now. Sustained political conflicts, bombing campaigns, internal wars and societal ruptures tend to push countries—particularly those as impoverished and underdeveloped as Yemen—to the point of collapse. That being said, the “on the brink” narrative risks depicting Yemen as little more than a cesspool of anarchy, rather than a country with thousands of years of history and 26 million people trying to eke out lives to the best of their ability.
This is not to say that Yemen’s varied challenges and problems should be underestimated—if anything, dismissing or minimizing the issues facing Yemen would be far worse than exaggerating them. That being said, what is key is a nuanced understanding of ongoing events in the country and a move away from simplistic narratives that ultimately have little to do with what is happening in Yemen.
Such a task is not an easy undertaking. All of the key factions in Yemen’s ongoing conflict(s)—like protagonists in most conflicts—have plenty of reason to cast the situation as black and white. That only makes the task of breaking through the rhetoric all the more important.