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Yemen is embroiled in multiple civil wars, triggered by a long-term decline in oil production, the failure of state-building, strong sub-national identities and internal competition between rival elite networks that comprised the regime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Regional actors are intervening in Yemen’s local wars to support their preferred allies, resulting in a complex conflict environment.

Written by Ginny Hill and Baraa Shiban, the paper sets Yemen’s multiple conflicts in the context of the ‘remote control’ approach to warfare – focusing on the use of special forces, mercenaries and armed drones. It highlights the moral and political risks for Western governments training and arming regional protagonists, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Authors’ note

Research for this paper was conducted during June, July and August 2016.

Updates and amendments

Since the Saudi-led Coalition bombed a funeral hall in Sana’a on October 8 2016, killing at least 140 people, diplomatic positions have modified slightly. There is mounting pressure within Yemen for a long-term ceasefire, binding on the Saudi-led Coalition as well as all Yemeni armed groups, and some tentative steps towards greater internal accountability inside both President Abdurabbo Hadi’s forces and the Saudi Arabian military. While Riyadh has admitted responsibility for several air strikes leading to civilian casualties and agreed to pay compensation to the bereaved, this has not apparently resulted in a systemic review of targeting policy.

In the UK, two parliamentary select committees produced a joint report during September, calling for the suspension of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia pending an independent inquiry into alleged breaches of international law (p.5). To date, the British government has stopped short of backing an independent UN-led inquiry, preferring instead to support ongoing investigations by Riyadh, and by President Hadi.

In recent months, Emirati networks have been gaining strength, especially in Taiz (p.8-11). President Hadi’s government has established growing control over Aden (p.12).

Following the funeral bombing in October, a UN-negotiated ceasefire held for 72 hours; however, as with previous ceasefires (p.19), Saleh-Houthi forces did not appear to regard the ceasefire as binding in relation to their clashes with internal opponents inside Yemen.