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Peeling back the layers of Yemen's civil war

By Anne-Marie Bissada

For nearly four years now, the civil war in Yemen has raged with no end in sight. Civilians have fallen victim to the fighting with some 15,000 killed or injured, while a humanitarian crisis spreads and threatens to claim more lives.

Yemen, is located on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula. It has often sat in the shadow of its eccentric and rich neighbour Saudi Arabia.

Unlike its other regional neighbours, Yemen does not have a monarchy , says Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and International Security Programme fellow at the journal New America.

“Yemen stands out on the Arabian Peninsula for a lot of reasons. [It’s the] only country that's not a member of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council). [It’s the] only one widely underdeveloped. [It’s the] only one that is a republic rather than some form of a monarchy.”

He adds that southern Yemen was once the “only Marxist country in the entire Arabian peninsula” which highlights the different route Yemen took from its neighbours. But does that difference help explain the fighting in today’s Yemen?

Shi’a Vs.Sunni Muslims?

Many refer to today’s conflict as sectarian fighting between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. That simple division, however,  does not cut across all the different layers that are at play, says Nadwa Al-Dawsari, the Yemen country director with the Center for Civilians and Conflict.

“The yemen conflict has two aspects: the first aspect is the power-struggle among the traditional northern political elites and their patronage” says al-Dawsari.

“The other layer of the conflict-- which is deeper-- is the historic grievances that Yemenis hold against these political elite. Unfortunately most of the analysis focus only on the power-struggle aspect among the political elite that's the conflict between Hadi's government and the Houthis, or Salah and the Houthis, or Salah and his former allies...and so this conflict is very, very complex.”

She adds that one must not forget the “southern dimension” to this conflict which has been “ignored in almost all the interventions that the international community make to try and resolve the conflict, not just now but since the 2011.”

In addition to the north/south divide, the sectarian division and the power struggle amongst the political elite, the other element that needs to be considered is its neighbor, Saudi Arabia.

Baron points out that Riyadh “has always wielded outsize[d] influence over Yemen, Saudi Arabia has always done what it can to make sure that it [Yemen] has a government in Yemen that is not combattive towards the Saudis whether that's through financial carrots or sticks, political influence and etc.”

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