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For the situation in the Red Sea in 2023/24, including UK and US military action in response to Houthi attacks on shipping, see the Commons Library briefing, UK and international response to Houthis in the Red Sea 2024.

In 2014, fighting broke out in Yemen between the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi (backed militarily by a Saudi-led coalition from 2015) and the Houthis (an Iran-aligned Yemen group, who currently control northern Yemen, including the capital, Sana’a).

Since 2022, there has been some progress towards a political settlement. This included President Hadi handing power to a presidential council in April 2022, a ceasefire from April to October 2022, and further negotiations in 2023.

This Commons Library research briefing provides a summary of the conflict and recent negotiations. A separate briefing, UK aid and Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, describes the humanitarian situation and value of UK aid.

Origins of the conflict and current status

The conflict has its origins in 2011, when President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to resign following popular protests. Following an UN-backed transition negotiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi took power in 2012. Despite attempts to negotiate a fresh political settlement, conflict broke out in 2014 and Sana’a was captured by the Houthis. In 2015, a Saudi-led military coalition, whose members included Egypt, Bahrain, and the UAE, intervened to support Hadi.

Yemen is now divided between the Houthis in the north and the internationally recognised Government, which controls much of the south and east of the country. The Houthis, who emerged in northern Yemen in the 1990s, are one of several Iran-aligned armed groups in the Middle East. The United States says Iran provides the group with military support, though the US does not currently designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation.

During the 2023 Israel-Hamas conflict, the US has shot down Houthi missiles and drones approaching US ships and the Houthis have launched missiles and drones against Israel. In previous years, the Houthis have also conducted drone and missiles attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In September 2023, the Houthis attacked Bahrani troops.

Authority in southern Yemen is split between the Government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a UAE-backed separatist group. In 2020, the two agreed to enter into coalition. However, tensions remain and in 2023 the STC said it is prioritising a separate southern state in peace talks.

Before the 2022 ceasefire, fighting was focused on the city of Marib, which is the last northern stronghold of Yemen’s recognised Government.

The UN Development Programme estimates 377,000 individuals have been killed as a result of direct and indirect causes from the conflict between 2014 and 2021.

Negotiating a political settlement  

The UK is the penholder for Yemen at the UN Security Council, meaning it takes the lead on council activities, including drafting resolutions. The UK has called for an “inclusive peace under UN auspicious” and in 2023 backed initiatives by the UN Special Envoy for Yemen and talks brokered by Oman.

The first nation-wide ceasefire in the conflict for six years was agreed in April 2022. The truce was renewed twice but expired in October 2022.

In 2022, Hadi also handed power to a Presidential Leadership Council. International Crisis Group cite pressure from Saudi Arabia and the UAE for the action, with both states pledging financial support to the council shortly after the announcement. The UK and United States were among those to welcome Hadi’s action, but the Houthis argue the government remains illegitimate.

Since the expiry of the ceasefire in October 2022, there has been no return to the level of violence that occurred beforehand. As described above, however, the Houthis have launched some external attacks in 2023.

During 2023, there have been further peace talks between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, brokered by Oman. A major prisoner swap occurred in April 2023. In Spring 2023, both the UN and UK welcomed these initiatives and argued momentum was building for peace.

The decision of Iran and Saudi Arabia to re-establish diplomatic relations in March 2023 was expected to further facilitate negotiations towards a more permanent ceasefire or settlement to the conflict. To date, neither have been reached.

Speaking in August 2023, the UN Special Envoy to Yemen said trust between the parties remained “low”.

Challenges to a settlement include divisions in the southern presidential council, liability for the payment of public sector wages, economic support, and the influence of external powers.

Human rights abuses and arms sales

The UN, NGOs and UK Government have raised concerns about human rights abuses committed by all sides (PDF) in the conflict. These include indiscriminate shelling of civilians and air strikes against civilian areas.

UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia have proved controversial, as the Saudis have been accused of committing breaches of international humanitarian law (IHL) during its military operations in Yemen. The UK Government has argued there is “not a clear risk” that these UK military exports are used to violate IHL.

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