The various conflicts in the mid-east are both troubling and complex.  Recently, the country of Yemen has emerged as another stage upon which sectarian warfare is being played out.  At its roots is the animosity between Sunni and Shia Muslims which, in turn, brings the involvement of other regional powers, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt (Sunni) as well as Iran (Shia). Join Active Minds as we seek to understand Yemen’s current situation and the broader implications for the region.

Key Lecture Points

  • Yemen’s history has been affected by its strategic geographic location at the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, making it a major land and sea route for trade from India to the Arabian Peninsula and on to Europe.  In ancient times, trade flourished in spices and other products that included frankincense, myrrh and, later, coffee.
  • Islam came early to the region that is today Yemen, beginning in the early 600s, when Mohammed was still alive.  Additionally, the Sunni Shia schism also manifested in the area, with the Zaidis, a Shia sect establishing itself in Northern Yemen in the 800s.  That sect is at the root of the present-day ascension of the Houthis in Northern Yemen.
  • Foreign intervention has been a part of Yemeni history from the Romans and the Persians to the Ottoman Turks and the British.  In the early 1900s, the British and the Turks forged treaties that established Turkish control over Northern Yemen and British control over Southern Yemen, setting the stage for division that still affects Yemeni politics today.
  • South Yemen and the Yemen Arab Republic were not unified until 1990, spurred by the discovery of oil and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Since unification Yemeni politics has been plagued by rebellions by both northern tribesmen and southern secessionists.
  • One of the poorest countries in the world, Yemen was already weakened by years of poor governance when the Houthis, of the Zaidi sect of Shia Islam, seized control of the capital city of Sana’a in September 2014.  This uprising has become a proxy war in the broader Muslim sectarian conflict in the Middle East.  To combat what they see as an extension of Iranian control into Yemen, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Sunni nations launched an air campaign against the Shia Houthis in March 2015.  Meanwhile Sunni Islamist Terrorist organizations Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State have exploited the turmoil to build strength in Yemen.

Exploration Questions

  • What are the major themes in Yemeni history and how do they relate to the current crisis?
  • What led up to the current political crisis and civil war?  Who are the key players?  What are the political and economic implications?

Reflective Questions

  • How do you think the current situation in Yemen will be resolved?  Can it be resolved?
  • What should be America’s role in Yemen?  Why?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Mackintosh-Smith, Tim, Martin Yeoman.  Yemen: The Unknown Arabia. Overlook Press, 2014.  This is a history of Yemen and how it is unique from other parts of the Arab world.
    Click here to order
  • Johnson, Gregory D.  The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia.  W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.  The author describes the rise, fall and resurrection of al-Qaeda in Yemen over the last 30 years.
    Click here to order
  • Kasinof, Laura. Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets: An Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen.  Arcade Publishing, 2014.  This is a personal memoir of a young woman who went to Yemen as a freelance journalist in 2009 and covered the Arab Spring in Yemen for the New York Times.
    Click here to order