Conflict in Yemen Fueled by Tribalism, Religious Conflicts

For Release

May 3, 2010

Armed conflict between the government of Yemen and an opposition movement in the nation's north has spilled across its borders into Saudi Arabia, posing a potential threat to U.S. interests, according to a study issued today by the RAND Corporation.

For nearly six years, the government of Yemen has conducted military operations north of the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, against groups of its citizens known as Huthis. The Huthi movement is based on the family of the same name, native to the Sa'da governorate in the north.

The Yemeni government has been unable to subdue the Huthi movement, even though the conflict pits a conventional military force against small groups of Huthi fighters. In the fall of 2009, Saudi Arabia intervened as numbers of Huthis came across its porous border with Yemen, bringing a major U.S. ally into a regionalized conflict. This surge in violence coincided with growing al-Qaida visibility in Yemen, particularly after the Yemeni-dominated al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula sponsored the attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day 2009.

"The Huthi conflict has distracted the Yemeni government from partnering with the United States in countering real threats to America and its allies," said Barak A. Salmoni, lead author of the study and a political scientist with RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "Only by resolving this conflict will Yemen improve its capacity to combat al-Qaida and salvage a crumbling economy. Continuing the conflict makes Yemen a U.S. policy liability."

Involvement by Saudi Arabia may distract that nation from more important matters, such as regional and global terror, Salmoni said. Despite accusations of Saudi Arabia meddling in its neighbor's affairs, the threats posed by both Huthis and al-Qaida members may prompt Saudi Arabia to intervene again in the future.

Likewise, Yemeni and Saudi claims of Iranian support for the Huthis raise regional tensions, complicating U.S. policy on Iran. The challenge now, Salmoni said, is to prevent further internationalization of the Huthi conflict, while getting regional countries to support strategies to curb the conflict.

The RAND study presents an in-depth look at the history of the military conflict between the government of Yemen and the Huthis, including the sociocultural, political and military aspects up through the most recent February 2010 truce.

The Huthi family is part of the Zaydi branch of Islam, which is theologically between Sunnism and Shi'ism. Influenced by Arab Sunnism, the government of Yemen has accused the Huthis of having ties to Shi'ite backers like Iran, while the Huthis charge that the Yemeni government follows policies dictated by extreme anti-Zaydi Sunnis inspired by Saudi Arabia.

The Huthis are opposed to the Yemeni government's political, economic and religious policies, but a critical factor in the conflict stems from the government of Yemen never having been able to fully rule all of its territory. Divided into northern and southern republics, the unified Republic of Yemen didn't even exist until 1990.

The absence of any real governmental control, combined with the rural and isolated conditions of northern Yemen, has given rise to an alternate system where tribalism and Zaydism regulate society and political conflicts.

Despite anti-Israel and anti-U.S. rhetoric, the Huthis have not targeted Americans or U.S. facilities and equipment, and share with the United States some of the same enemies in the region, including intolerant, expansionist Wahhabism and authoritarian state systems. However, as the conflict continues to drag on, the conflict between the Yemeni government and rebels increases the chances that other regional actors will be drawn in, distracting them from issues of core concern to U.S. interests, according to the RAND study.

The study, "Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen: The Huthi Phenomenon," can be found at Other authors of the study are Bryce Loidolt and Madeleine Wells.

Research for the study was conducted within the Intelligence Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies and the defense Intelligence Community.

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