Yemen Combatants Court International Allies for Proxy War

Could Houthis vs. Hadi Become Iran vs. Saudi Arabia?

As Yemen’s nascent civil war picks up pace, the various factions are all looking abroad for allies, risking turning the already nasty battle into a full-scale proxy war among regional rivals.

Recently resigned President Hadi, who has since unresigned, is courting Saudi Arabia for support in his territory, which presently centers around the southern city of Aden. The Houthis, by contrast, as courting the Saudis’ regional rival Iran.

Though the Houthis are Shi’ites, they are of a different branch of Shi’a Islam than Iran is, so the alliance isn’t nearly as natural as it might seem, and the internal religious split could be a source of rivalry.

Hadi seems to be trying to sell himself as an alternative to Iran, even as Iran’s links to the Houthis are tenuous so far. The Houthis, by contrast, seem to be trying to court international Shi’ites by arguing Hadi is a puppet of the Saudis and the United States.

Though these are the two factions most liable to find nation-state allies, Yemen’s civil war also features a massive al-Qaeda faction, AQAP, with its own considerable international ties, and a fledgling ISIS faction which claimed a massive attack just last week and which, like Libya’s ISIS affiliate, may be able to secure backing from the group’s parent organization and grow into a serious player.

The Houthis’ territory traditionally centers around Saada, but now includes virtually the whole west cost to Taiz. Hadi holds Aden and some of the surrounding area, while AQAP has influence in tribal areas across the center of the nation. ISIS, so far, is not known to control any territory.

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is senior editor of