Recent fighting between Houthi rebels, who took control of the Yemeni capital in September, and the army has thrown the country deeper into chaos.
Hashem Ahelbarra, an Al Jazeera correspondent who has reported extensively from the country, explains what is at stake and who the key players are in the conflict.
What triggered the latest bout of violence?
Hashem Ahelbarra: When pro- Houthi militias abducted Ahmad Awad Bin Mubarak, the Yemeni president’s chief of staff, President Hadi gave orders to the army to take over the security of the capital. This was seen by the Shia Houthis as a government plot to dismantle their Popular Committees.
The committees are pro-Houthi militias which were deployed on the streets of the cities that were captured by the rebels last year. They set up checkpoints around government buildings, at the international airport of Sanaa and near the presidential palace.
The Houthis had initially agreed to pull out their fighters once a government was formed. They later backtracked saying that withdrawing their fighters from the capital would lead to more instability.
Who are the main players in Sanaa right now?
President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was elected in 2012, is largely supported by the international community. As a Sunni he will continue to have the backing of the Sunni majority in Yemen. But he is widely seen as weak and inefficient.
The Houthis are no doubt the most powerful and organised political and military group in northern Yemen. They control a huge area that stretches from Saada in the north to the south of the capital Sanaa. Their leader is Abdulmalik al-Houthi.
Ousted by a popular revolt in 2011, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh still retains huge influence among Zaidi tribes – from which the Houthis belong – in the north and top military commanders. Some of the well- equipped elite Republican Guard units are still loyal to him.
President Hadi sees himself as the legitimate leader, while the Houthi leader is considered a saint by his followers. The former president tells visitors that Yemen under his rule was much better and more secure.
What do the Houthis rebels’ gains mean for the country?
The Houthis have established themselves as group that no one can defeat – at least for the time being. They are the ones who pull the strings. The president cannot make decisions without consulting with them. Officially, the Houthis say that their aim is to establish a vibrant democracy where minorities including themselves have a political representation in the government.
|Sunnis feel the Houthis are implementing Iran’s regional agenda [Getty]|
But when you talk with their supporters they are adamant it’s their leader who is entitled by virtue of his “descending from the House of the Prophet” to be Yemen’s strongman. But as the Shia Houthis expand, the Sunni majority feels threatened.
They accuse the Houthis of implementing an Iranian agenda in the region. This raises the spectre of sectarian divide in a country beset by violence and poverty.
What’s at stake for regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Iran?
The Saudis who have expressed strong support for the president are staunchly anti-Houthis. In 2009, the oil-rich kingdom launched air strikes against the Shia rebels in Saada province. And last year they declared the Houthis a terrorist organisation.
Officials in Riyadh blame the Houthis for being Iran’s proxy in the region. With their massive wealth and political influence the Saudis will continue to play a major role in Yemen.
Iran is widely seen as the main backer of the Houthis. The government said in the past it had seized weapon shipments sent by Iran for the rebels.
In the context of the strained ties between Saudi Arabia – the most powerful Sunni country in the region – and Iran – the most powerful Shia country in the region – there are concerns Yemen may be dragged into a devastating sectarian war.
What does this mean for the people of Yemen?
Half of Yemen lives below poverty line. They have endured decades of wars and instability. Economy is declining and the future looks uncertain. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula may take advantage of this situation to further expand in Sunni areas where anti-Houthi sentiment is on the rise.