Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2010

War in Saada: From Local Insurrection to National Challenge

Christopher Boucek

April 2010

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


Yemen’s leaders consider their sporadic war against the Houthi rebels a conflict they can win and, in so doing, discourage southern secessionists—a more immediate threat to their hold on power and the nation’s territorial integrity. Instead, this war in the North has exposed greater vulnerabilities for the regime, weakened the central government, and emboldened other threats to Yemeni and global stability such as al-Qaeda. The conflict in Saada has occurred in six distinct rounds and come at a high price, affecting noncombatants disproportionately. Since hostilities began in 2004, more than 250,000 people have been displaced; the number of casualties is unknown. But fighting the Houthis—Shi’i Zaidi revivalists who, when the crisis began, were protesting the dilution of Zaidi influence and identity—has failed to improve security or stability. Yemen faces a very serious financial crisis, and fighting the Houthis has rapidly accelerated that crisis. In the six years of fighting in Saada, the war has evolved from a local insurrection into a national challenge. The cease-fire that began in February 2010 likely will fail, because the central government has shown little interest in addressing the Houthis’ core grievances and as a result of growing intransigence within the rebel movement. Without a serious international effort at mediation, further fighting is inevitable—and poses a serious threat to Yemeni stability.