Skip to main content
Yemen War Background | The Saudi Blockade | The Houthis and Iran | Congressional Action

Yemen War Background

How did the Yemen war start?

Yemen’s political instability began after a 2011 Arab Spring uprising that ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been in power since 1990. Then-Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi became Yemen’s interim president for what was supposed to be a two-year term, during the transition to a more representative form of government with regular elections. 

Yemen’s political instability began after a 2011 Arab Spring uprising that ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In 2014, Yemeni frustration with rampant corruption, unemployment, and rising fuel prices led to unrest across Yemen, including calls for an independent Southern Yemen. Taking advantage of the situation, the Houthis – a political and armed movement that originated from the Houthi tribe — entered Sana’a in September with the assistance of ex-president Saleh and put Hadi under house arrest.

In 2015, with the stated goal of restoring Hadi to power, Saudi Arabia joined forces with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and formed a coalition of nine Arab countries. The coalition was backed by the United States, United Kingdom (UK), France, and Canada. Saudi Arabia framed the conflict in sectarian terms, insisting that Iran was supporting the Houthis. In March 2015, the Saudi-led coalition began conducting airstrikes and imposing a naval blockade against Yemen, indiscriminately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure.

What was Saudi Arabia’s motivation to wage war in Yemen?

Saudi leaders backed Hadi for many reasons. They were alarmed by the rise of the Houthis at Saudi Arabia’s southern border, who they said were backed by Saudi Arabia’s main regional competitor, Iran. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait off the coast of Yemen is a critical oil shipping lane that links the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and the Saudis wanted to ensure they were in control of it. This sea route facilitates the movement of millions of barrels of oil per day for Saudi Arabia and is critical to the world’s oil supply. 

The Yemen war served the political ambitions of then Saudi Defense Minister, and now crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, who used the conflict to gain national recognition and consolidate power. Lastly, control over Yemen would allow Saudi Arabia to construct an oil pipeline from its southern border through Yemen’s eastern province, Al Mahra, into the Indian Ocean. The pipeline would ease Saudi Arabia’s dependence on shipping oil through the Strait of Hormuz, which borders Iran.

What is the U.S. role in this conflict?

The Saudi-led coalition’s war on Yemen has received almost unwavering military support and weapons sales from the United States, UK, France, and other Western countries. In 2015, the Obama administration accommodated Saudi Arabia’s request for military backing of the coalition’s war on Yemen.  Such backing included targeting assistance and logistical support for coalition airstrikes, midair refueling for Saudi warplanes, spare parts transfers, and billions of dollars in weapons sales.

On Feb. 4, 2021, President Biden announced that the United States would end support for the coalition’s offensive operations in Yemen. Unfortunately, the administration has not clearly defined what constitutes “offensive operations”, and important aspects of U.S. complicity remain.

The administration verified that ongoing support includes maintenance and intelligence sharing for warplanes conducting airstrikes and enforcing an air and sea blockade of Yemen. It remains unclear what, if any, other forms of military support the United States continues to provide to the coalition, as the administration has so far refused to answer a set of detailed questions posed by 41 members of Congress in a February 2021 letter seeking clarity on U.S. involvement in the war.

Why has the United States historically supported the Saudis?

In 1945, President Roosevelt met King Abdul Aziz on a naval destroyer in the Suez Canal and unofficially began the U.S.-Saudi partnership with a handshake. Under the agreement, Saudi Arabia would receive U.S. security assistance in exchange for granting the United States access to Saudi oil, tied to the U.S. dollar. Every U.S. president since has agreed to continue this security cooperation, which was strengthened after the Islamic Revolution in Iran and again during the first Gulf war. But the relationship is losing strategic importance as the United States imports less than 7% of its petroleum from Saudi Arabia.

Following the gruesome assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the humanitarian crisis caused by the Saudi-led war and blockade in Yemen, Americans began to grow more skeptical of Saudi Arabia. A December 2021 poll showed that a strong majority of Democratic and Republican voters opposed President Biden’s recent $650 million weapons sale to Saudi Arabia, even when presented with the administration’s argument that these were for defensive purposes.

Bipartisan, bicameral majorities in Congress successfully voted several times during the Trump administration to terminate U.S. involvement in the war. During a nationally televised presidential debate, candidate Joe Biden promised to make the Saudi Crown Prince a “pariah.”

Is there more than one war in Yemen?

Yes, the United States is also involved in counterterrorism operations in Yemen against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP emerged in 2009, after the Yemeni and Saudi branches of Al Qaeda merged into one organization. The United States began airstrikes against AQAP soon after its formation, as part of the “Global War on Terror.”

The United States has conducted 376 drone strikes in Yemen, which have killed between 125 and 151 civilians.

According to data from the think tank New America, the United States has conducted 376 drone strikes in Yemen, which have killed between 125 and 151 civilians, and have killed between 1,390 and 1,779 people overall. The United States’ drone strikes against AQAP is viewed by lawmakers as a separate from the Saudi-led coalition war against the Houthis. Though still a contested legal matter, the Executive Branch has claimed these operations against AQAP are authorized under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF).

About the Saudi Blockade

How does Saudi Arabia’s blockade of Yemen contribute to the humanitarian crisis there?

For nearly seven years, Saudi Arabia has imposed an air and sea blockade on Yemen that has restricted the flow of vital commercial and humanitarian goods into the country. The United Nations estimated that by the end of 2021, the war in Yemen led to the deaths of at least 377,000 Yemenis and pushed over 16 million Yemenis to the edge of famine. Over 60% of the deaths were due to disruptions in access to food, water, and medicine. Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel has described the ongoing Saudi blockade as “an offensive military operation that kills civilians.”

Saudi Arabia’s restrictions on the entry of commercial and humanitarian goods have been a leading driver of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where 400,000 children are at risk of dying of malnutrition this year, and the country is being pushed towards “the biggest famine in modern history.” Since January 2021, Saudi Arabia has severely restricted fuel imports, greatly hindering food shipments and hospitals’ ability to function.

What has been the humanitarian impact of Saudi Arabia’s air blockade of Yemen’s Sana’a airport?

Commercial flights in and out of Sana’a Airport, Yemen’s main international airport, have been halted by Saudi Arabia since 2016. These flight restrictions have blocked medical evacuations of tens of thousands of critically ill Yemeni civilians and prevented vital medicines and medical supplies from entering the country.

Tragically, many Yemenis with chronic health issues, such as cancer, have needlessly suffered and died waiting for potentially life-saving medical evacuations and medicine. According to the humanitarian organization CARE, the nearly complete halt to medical supplies and equipment entering through Sana’a airport, combined with restrictions on fuel through Yemen’s Red Sea ports, has caused  a doubling of prices of some medicine, putting it out of reach for most of the population.

What is the impact of the Saudi blockade on fuel imports?

The Saudi-led coalition’s restrictions on fuel imports are a key driver of the economic crisis, making basic needs unaffordable. The naval blockade enables the Saudis to control the entry of ships carrying fuel into Yemeni ports. Statistics from the UN show that Saudi Arabia is severely restricting the entry of fuel to amounts far below Yemen’s needs. In November 2021, Saudi Arabia allowed only 3% of the fuel Yemen needs each month into the country, and in December only 5%.

Without fuel, food and medicine can’t be transported throughout the country, jeopardizing the health of millions of Yemenis. Fuel shortages also prevent hospitals from operating at full capacity. World Food Program Director David Beasley pleaded to the UN Security Council last year that the “blockade must be lifted, as a humanitarian act. Otherwise, millions more will spiral into crisis.”

Is the Saudi blockade of Yemen’s ports needed to prevent Iranian weapons from reaching the Houthis?

No. In 2015, the United Nations established an inspection and verification mechanism that ensures that ships docking at Yemen’s ports are not carrying weapons. All commercial vessels are inspected and approved by the UN in Djibouti before being allowed to berth in Yemen’s Red Sea ports.

In April 2021, U.S. Special Envoy Tim Lenderking acknowledged that the mechanism “works quite well.” The import restrictions on UN-approved vessels imposed by Saudi Arabia and the Hadi government are a tactic of economic warfare that seeks to gain leverage over the Houthis through starvation and deprivation of civilian populations.

What has the Biden administration said about the blockade?

In its first several months, the Biden administration said nothing publicly about the blockade, even as the UN sounded the alarm over the impact of Saudi Arabia’s tightening restrictions on fuel imports. When pressed by reporters, a State Department spokesman claimed that “food and commodities are getting through, so it is not a blockade.” 

UN World Food Program director David Beasley has repeatedly spoken about the urgent need to lift the blockade.

However, in response to mounting pressure from Congress, the media, humanitarian groups, and civil society, U.S. Special Envoy to Yemen, Tim Lenderking, said that commodities and humanitarian assistance must be allowed to enter into Yemen unimpeded and that “Saudi Arabia must not stand in the way.”

When asked by Rep. Ted Lieu (CA-33) what if any leverage the administration is prepared to use to compel Saudi Arabia to lift its restrictions, Lenderking could not say. And though Lenderking testified that restrictions on commodities into Yemen’s ports should be taken “off the table” as a bargaining chip and “should not be a factor in political discussions,” the administration endorsed a Saudi ceasefire offer in March 2021 that explicitly sought to use the blockade as leverage to elicit Houthi concessions.

Who has spoken out about the blockade?

UN World Food Program director David Beasley has repeatedly spoken about the urgent need to lift the blockade. In April 2021, Beasley flew to Washington and reportedly “impressed upon lawmakers the urgency of lifting the blockade ‘immediately.’”

Following the April briefing, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (NY-05) and a bipartisan group of members of the Middle East subcommittee sent a letter urging the administration to pressure Saudi Arabia to lift the blockade. 76 members of the House, led by Rep. Debbie Dingell (MI-12), and 16 Senators, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA), sent similar letters, as did a coalition of over 70 national advocacy organizations and more than a dozen celebrities.

Senators Bob Menendez (NJ), Jack Reed (RI), and Chuck Schumer (NY) wrote a letter in July 2021 calling for an end to restrictions on Yemen’s ports, and in December 2021, Senators Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Rand Paul (KY) and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) and Nancy Mace (SC-01) sent a letter calling on Saudi Arabia to open Sana’a airport.

About the Houthis and Iran

Who are the Houthis?

The Houthi movement, otherwise known as Ansar Allah (which translates to Supporters of God), primarily belongs to the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam. The Houthi political movement emerged in the early 1990s as the “Believing Youth” in Saada and was led by Hussein Al-Houthi. The main objective of the movement was to revive Zaydi Islam in the face of the perceived spread of Saudi-exported Wahabi ideology in Yemen.

In early 2004, the Houthis, who opposed the U.S. war in Iraq in 2003 and condemned Saleh’s alliance with the United States, became an armed movement and proceeded to fight six wars against the Saudi-backed Saleh government in Yemen. Surprisingly, in 2014, the Houthis formed an alliance with former president Saleh after he was removed from office. Together, they seized the capital Sana’a and put President Hadi under house arrest in January 2015.

Houthi forces have committed horrific human rights abuses throughout the course of the war, including firing artillery indiscriminately into cities such as Taizz, killing and wounding civilians, and launching indiscriminate ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia. There is not a lot of reliable data or polling about the popularity the Houthis have among the Yemeni population it governs.

However, over the course of the war, more and more Yemenis have left the south and moved to Houthi-held territory in search of safety and greater economic stability. 

The U.S. media and lawmakers often refer to the Ansar Allah-led government in Sana’a as the “Iran-backed Houthis rebels.” The official narrative in the United States about the Houthis is often oversimplified, as the government in Sana’a reflects a coalition. The Supreme Political Council includes Ansar-Allah and former President Saleh’s political party, the General People’s Council. The government in Sana’a is also supported by many local tribes in Yemen.

Haven’t the Houthis also committed human rights violations?

Houthi forces in Yemen have also carried out grave violations of human rights, as well as possible war crimes in attacks against civilians. Actions by Houthi de facto authorities have also exacerbated the deteriorating humanitarian crisis in the country by interfering with and impeding the delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians in need.

U.S. government criticism and response to Houthi violations in Yemen rightly have been pronounced and consistent. The same cannot be said for the U.S. response to abuses by Saudi forces, which has been muted in comparison and has not led to a cut-off of military aid. Violations by Houthi forces do not serve as a justification for continuing U.S. support to the Saudi-led coalition and do not change U.S. obligations under international law.

What is Iran’s involvement in the Yemen war?

While it is true that Iran has provided weapons and training to the Houthis each year, Iran’s support is often exaggerated. Iran spends far less than the hundreds of billions of dollars Saudi Arabia spends annually backing Hadi forces. A significant portion of Houthi weaponry has been generated locally by defeating Saudi-backed forces, looting army stockpiles, taking weapons from militia tribes, and purchasing on the black market.

Saudi Arabia’s policy has no prospect of achieving its stated objectives and is creating a humanitarian catastrophe.

Seven years of indiscriminate airstrikes and an air and sea blockade on Yemen, as well as Saudi Arabia’s attempts to isolate the Houthis and avoid good-faith diplomacy, have only emboldened the Houthis and increased their domestic popularity. The Houthis now govern territory with over 80% of the country’s population and are closer to Iran now than before the war. Saudi Arabia’s policy has no prospect of achieving its stated objectives and is creating a humanitarian catastrophe through its collective punishment of Yemen.

Do Houthi cross-border attacks on targets on Saudi Arabia constitute a legitimate reason for continued U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition?

Over the course of the Yemen war, the Houthis have conducted drone and missile attacks against Saudi Arabia, which have been condemned by the United States and the international community. These cross-border attacks are often cited as a reason the United States must continue to send military support to Saudi Arabia.

However, if the Saudis were to end their bombardment and blockade of Yemen, the Houthis would have no incentive to risk provoking their powerful neighbor into further attacks. If the Saudis ended their military aggression towards Yemen, the Houthis would be unlikely to conduct additional cross-border attacks.

The best way to protect the Saudis from Houthi missiles is to end Saudi involvement in Yemen.

The best way to protect the Saudis from Houthi missiles is to end Saudi involvement in Yemen. The rate and intensity of Houthi attacks have only increased over time as the Houthis have gained strength and the Saudis have tightened the blockade, demonstrating the failure of the Saudi approach.

Continued U.S. support for Saudi aggression will neither weaken the Houthis nor bring the war to a quicker end. Instead, the United States and Saudi Arabia must demonstrate their commitment to diplomacy, international law, and human rights by lifting the blockade and ending the aerial bombardment of Yemen.

Would labeling the Houthis a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) affect humanitarian access and the peace process in Yemen?

Yes. While the Houthis share much blame, alongside the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, for horrific human rights violations in Yemen, an FTO designation would do nothing to address these concerns. It would, however, prevent the delivery of critical humanitarian assistance to millions of innocent people, greatly hurt the prospects for a negotiated settlement to the conflict, and further undermine U.S. national security interests in the region. 

Rather than being a catalyst for peace, FTO designations are a recipe for more conflict and famine, while unnecessarily further undermining U.S. diplomatic credibility. It is more likely that these designations will convince the Houthis that their goals cannot be achieved at the negotiating table.

Moreover, commercial shippers are already reluctant to import to Yemen given the high risk of delays, costs, and risks of violence. An FTO designation on the Houthis would only increase this level of risk for commercial entities and further place the vital work of humanitarian and peacebuilders at risk.

Even if humanitarian exemptions are permitted, financial institutions, shipping firms, and insurance companies, along with aid organizations, are likely to find the risk of potential violations to be too high.  As a result, these entities would dramatically scale down or even end their involvement in Yemen – a decision that would have indescribably severe human consequences.

About Congressional Action

What can Congress and the administration do to bring about an end to the blockade?

As a top foreign policy priority, the Biden administration must use its vast leverage to encourage Saudi Arabia to immediately and unconditionally lift the blockade and reach a nationwide ceasefire to end the conflict. Members of Congress should continue to call on the administration to do so while working to pass a new Yemen War Powers Resolution prohibiting all forms of U.S. support for the blockade and other offensive operations of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

How has the 117th Congress attempted to end U.S. complicity in the Saudi-led war on Yemen?

There were two key congressional votes on Yemen in 2021.

The first was Rep. Ro Khanna’s (CA-17) amendment to the FY22 National Defense Authorization Act to end U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led war on Yemen. It passed the House with 219 votes. 11 Republicans supported it and 11 Democrats opposed it. The amendment was stripped out of the final bill during conference negotiations between the House and Senate.

There were two key congressional votes on Yemen in 2021.

The second vote was a joint resolution of disapproval, led by Sens. Rand Paul (KY), Mike Lee (UT), and Bernie Sanders (VT), to block the Biden administration’s announced sale of $650 million in new weapons to Saudi Arabia. While the resolution failed to pass 30-67, the vote still showed momentum to end U.S. complicity in the war. A majority of Senate Democrats voted for it, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (NY) and Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (IL). Many senators told FCNL staff that they believed that these air-to-air munitions were defensive in nature and that they still supported ending U.S. complicity in offensive operations, including by terminating spare parts and maintenance for Saudi warplanes.

Have past congressional efforts to end U.S. complicity in the war had a tangible impact on the humanitarian situation and peace talks?

In 2019, Senators Bernie Sanders (VT), Mike Lee (UT), and Chris Murphy (CT), made Senate history by passing S.J.Res.7, the War Powers Resolution to end U.S. military involvement in the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen. This was the first time since the passage of the War Powers Act in 1973 that both chambers of Congress passed a War Power Resolution.

The advocacy effort for this legislation mobilized hundreds of thousands of activists all over the country to produce a bipartisan majority in the House and Senate. Its congressional passage pushed the UAE to draw down its military forces in Yemen, spurred a reduction in cross-border attacks by the Saudis and Houthis, led to the Hodediah ceasefire, and revived negotiations between the warring parties. But after the veto, Yemen suffered a breakdown in diplomacy, an uptick in violence, and a continuation of hostilities.

What is the War Powers Resolution?

The War Powers Resolution of 1973, otherwise known as the War Powers Act, is a federal law passed in response to executive overreach that enabled U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War. It was intended to provide a framework for Congress’s check on presidential power to use military force without congressional consent. The War Powers Resolution has three main parts.

  1. The President must get a declaration of war or specific authorization from Congress before sending troops overseas unless the United States or its armed forces are attacked. 
  2. If the President initiates hostilities, these can only last 60 days and must then be terminated unless Congress authorizes their continuation.
  3. If there is no declaration of war or specific statutory authorization passed within 60 days, Congress can require the president to end U.S. participation in hostilities at any time

Any member of the House or Senate, regardless of committee assignment, can invoke section 5(c) of the War Powers Resolution and get a full floor vote on whether to require the president to remove U.S. armed forces from hostilities. Under the procedural rules written into the War Powers Act, these bills receive a special expedited status that requires Congress to make a full floor vote within 15 legislative days of their introduction. This provision is especially useful because it allows members of Congress to force important debates and votes on the president’s use of military force and Congressional war authority.