A Review on Yemen: The Arab Spring Process and the Actors in Yemen


The Republic of Yemen has struggled with constant political instability since its foundation. The internal turmoil, which started with southern Yemen’s desire to become independent again in 1994 after the unification of Southern and Northern Yemen in 1990, has evolved into a terrifying situation during the Arab Spring process. In this paper, Yemen’s political background was examined and tried to address the source of the problems. Then, Yemen’s political, economic and social structures were researched and their effects on the Arab Spring process were observed. Then, relations between Yemen and Turkey were examined and finally, evaluations were made on the solution of the problems in Yemen.

Key Words: Arab Spring, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Houthi, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Civil War.


Middle Eastern and North African countries had undergone a very crucial process within the Arab Spring and caused radical changes in many states. Arab Spring emerged as a democratization process in North Africa and the other Arab states, and every state was influenced by each other by the end of 2010. In this respect, Arab Spring events had a domino effect. For example, when a protest started in an Arab state, the protest jumped to the next state and it continued like this. At this point, the reasons that started the Arab Spring process were despotic regimes, limited freedoms, high costs of living, unemployment, and emulation for other developed countries. The protests, which started peacefully at first, have evolved into civil wars due to the use of harsh force by the regimes. Therefore, the Arab Spring has caused bloody civil wars, demographic movements, terrorist incidents, refugee dramas, and the metaphor of spring has been frequently criticized in this respect. In this context, Yemen is one of the affected states from Arab Spring. In Yemen, the protests started peacefully, but over time the protests evolved into a bloody civil war, and this conflict continues. To understand the cause of conflicts in Yemen, we need to understand the historical background of Yemen. It can be said that conflicts in Yemen did not start within the Arab Spring process because we can define Yemen as a young country. After all, before 1990 there were two states, Northern, and Southern Yemen. In 1990, both states had agreed to unification and declared the Yemen Republic. This unification aimed to develop Yemen and provide stability in the country, but Southern Yemen wanted to be independent and the civil war began. Northerners won the civil war under the leadership of Ali Abdullah Saleh. On the other hand, Yemen’s geography affects the government when ruling the country because the presence of large deserts, rugged geography, and the presence of tribes have made it difficult for the central government to control the regions outside the capital. All in all, we can say that the conflicts in Yemen are chronic, and that the Arab Spring process has added a new dimension to these conflicts. In this paper, the Arab Spring process in Yemen, the actors in the region, and the relations between Yemen and Turkey will be examined and how solutions can be found to these problems will be discussed.

1. Yemen During the Arab Spring

Arab Spring notion was used for the first time by Marc Lynch after the big noise in Tunisia. Marc Lynch’s spring metaphor was represented as a deep expression of a challenge to the system (Cihangir, 2018). In this context, that metaphor includes hope, missing, and expectation. When this metaphor was adapted to Arabian countries, it is clear that the public has deep hopes, loses, and expectations in the Arab Spring process because, the public was so exhausted from despotic regimes, high cost of livings, unemployment, limited freedoms, and emulation of other prosperous societies. The public’s ideas, hopes, and expectations were aimed ar overthrowing this inoperative system and getting better life standards. That is why the public’s expectations can be connected with the spring metaphor. The Arab Spring process, which started with a Tunisian youth setting himself on fire and ending his life, affected every single Arabian state, and all protests spread like a domino effect into many Arabian states. People started to protest the cost of living, unemployment, and regimes in their states. The key point here is that every protest started with peaceful protests in all Arabian states. However, the attitudes of the regimes have been decisive at this point because although most regimes tried to calm the events by making concessions at first, they later used harsh force, and this caused peaceful protests to turn into bloody civil wars. Yemen is among the countries affected by the Arab Spring process. Arab Spring started within the youth people taking to the streets to protest future anxiety, lack of rule of law, state possession of all economic means, but the regime opened fire on the demonstrators on March 22, 2015, and this event caused a civil war (Çendek & Örki, 2019). Although, civil war continues today, and there are several governmental and non-governmental organizations in Yemen. For example, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Houthis, Al-Qaeda in Yemen. To better understand the Arab Spring process in Yemen, we need to examine Yemen’s political, societal, and economic situation. 

To start with the political situation, Yemen was never a stable country even after unification in 1990 because there was no effective central government administration, and all conflicts evolved into chronic issues. Moreover, there was no formal state structure in Yemen because elites were using political power without giving accounts (Gün, 2012). This situation caused inequalities in society because Ali Abdullah Saleh ruled Yemen in relations with patronage and made rich his allies and punished his opponents. The main key point that Ali Abdullah Saleh did not manage is that he could not solve the unfair distribution of income, unemployment, poverty issues in his Office duty, and these issues constitute the main pillars of the Arab Spring events in the country. Abdullah Saleh’s policies had deepened the conflicts and in 1994 South Yemen wanted to become independent again and a civil war began. North Yemen won the civil war within the leadership of Abdullah Saleh. All in all, the Arap Spring process just brought a new dimension to these internal turmoils.

Abdullah Saleh’s legitimacy was queried because he applied harsh power to protesters when the protests began, and he caused 45 deaths in the protests. After this event, both Saudi Arabia and the USA had tossed out Abdullah Saleh’s administration, and they started to search for ways to establish order without Ali Abdullah Saleh. On the other hand, Houthis are one of the factors that hinder the political stability of the country. Houthis, Shia Group, were started to be effective in the 1990s, and Houthis mission was to develop socio-economically backward Sada city and revive Zaidism which wanted to be dominated by the Salafist and Wahhabi movements. In other words, we can say that there are sectarian clashes in Yemen. Salih, who was attacked by a bomb during his visit to the city he went to, went to Saudi Arabia for treatment. He was forced to resign from his position as president in Yemen after talks with the Gulf Cooperation Council Organization (GCC) states in Saudi Arabia within the leadership of Saudi Arabia. At this point, we can say that Saudi Arabia aims to be the most influential power in the region and to be the leader of the Arab world. Mansur Hadi came to power after Saleh and he organized the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) which was composed of many groups and tribes to solve issues in the country, but it never succeeded. For example, the draft, which proposes the division of Yemen into 6 federal districts, was considered the most effective solution. But the Houthis rejected this draft because Houthis stated the Azal region, which is located in the North of the country and does not have access to the sea, as the reason for rejecting this draft. Therefore, problems in the country have deepened further due to the Hadi administration’s inability to provide any solution. Mansur Hadi limited aid and as a response, the public poured into the streets again. The Houthis seized many places including the capital city Sana’a, dissolved the parliament, and forced Hadi to retreat. Moreover, they formed the presidential consul under their control. After this event, Mansur Hadi escaped to the Southern part of Yemen to Aden, and he declared that he did not resing, and that he was still in his Office. Lastly, he wrote an open letter to ask for help from other states to stop the Houthi movement in Yemen. The Gulf Cooperation Council member states, led by Saudi Arabia, responded to the call for help. All in all, it can be said that the conflicts in Yemen are not new and have their roots in the past, and Yemen can be defined as a failed state.

To continue with the social structure, the importance of social structure is very important in the emergence of civil wars because if there is a polar structure in a society, there is a higher probability of internal turmoil in that society. The reason is that it is easy to mobilize mass populations and manipulate them. For instance, the difference between two groups in society may cause an unstable state in a country, as we have seen in the example of Yemen. In this context, Yemen is far away from the nation-state structure because Yemen’s society consists of tribes. This structure is an obstacle in moving towards a single target because nations have only one target and interest. On the other hand, each tribe may have different aims and interests. For instance, tribes’ members are more connected to each other than to the state. Hashids in the North and Socialists in the South can be given as examples of social groups. On the other hand, sectarian differentiates play an important role in civil wars; for example, the Shia and Sunni struggle has been going on for many years. In Yemen, it is seen that the conflict between the Shia Houthis and the Sunni regime continues. According to some experts, the civil war in Yemen is evaluated to be a Proxy War between Saudi Arabia and Iran because Iran gives support to the Shia Houthi movement and Saudi Arabia gives support to the regime and they have a clash at the sectarian level. 

Lastly, the economic structure is based mostly on agriculture, husbandry in Yemen. In addition to these sectors, oil and natural gas are also extracted in the south of Yemen. Yemen’s GDP from agriculture is 21%; this number corresponds to 9% in fossil fuels. On the contrary, Yemen is the poorest country despite the existence of fossil fuels because economic resources are at the hand of state-favored groups. This situation played an important role in the Arab Spring process because the public protested unemployment and poverty. On the other hand, other states give importance to Yemen because Yemen has the Babul Mendep Strait, where 8% of maritime oil trade takes place. In this respect, Yemen has a strategic location. In addition, the economic and infrastructure system in Yemen collapsed due to the civil war. Even commodities such as water and electricity, which are the most basic needs, cannot be met. For example, per capita income in Yemen was 4388$ in 2010, but this number decreased to 3805$ (Cihangir, 2018). Another example is that %55 of the public is poor and %60 of youths are unemployed (Semin, 2015). According to these findings, the Arab Spring process had a negative effect on Yemen’s economy. Lastly, at the end of the Arab Spring process, the Abdullah Saleh regime in Yemen was overthrown and the civil war still continues.

2. Actors in Yemen

There are several actors in Yemen. For example, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Houthis, member states of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). All these factors cause an unstable environment in Yemen. To start with Saudi Arabia, after the capture of the capital city by Houthis, President Mansur Hadi wrote an open letter and asked for help for Yemen to get rid of from Houthi movement. The GCC, led by Saudi Arabia, responded to that invitation and the GCC states organized an air attack operation and destroyed many strategic locations for Houthis. The reason is why Saudi Arabia is so involved in Yemen as Saudi Arabia tries to be the leader of all Arab world and the other reason is that Saudi Arabia and Yemen have very long boundaries. In other words, stability in Yemen is so important for Saudi Arabia’s national security because the presence of an unstable Yemen on the border may cause Saudi Arabia to reach an unstable structure. It can be said that there are two motivations for Saudi Arabia’s moves. The first one is hoping to be the leader of the Arab world. The second one is national security. To continue with Iran, Iran is not directly involved in Yemen, and Iran is on the opposite side against Saudi Arabia. In other words, Iran does not have any troops in Yemen, so it can be said that Iran has been indirectly involved in Yemen. At this point, we need to mention Houthi movements because Houthis and Iran have a common point. That point is that both of them, Shias, and Iran give support to the Houthi movement. In other words, the two reasons why Iran gives support to Houthis are that Iran wants to be the most powerful actor in the Middle East and has a common sect with Houthis. The last actor in Yemen which has affected an unstable environment in Yemen is AQAP. The AQAP found a vast area to move in Yemen within the Arab Spring process and took control of many cities, but its effects have decreased dramatically within the operations of the GCC since 2015. There are two most important actions of AQAP. The first one is AQAP organized a bomb attack on the USA’s naval vessel USS Cole in 2000, and the second one is a bomb attack on French tankers named Limburg in 2002. To conclude, it can be seen that there is an ongoing conflict in Yemen and all actors in Yemen further complicate this conflict and cause deepening the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

3. Relations between Turkey and Yemen

Relations between Turkey and Yemen did not develop until the 1990s, despite the fact of Ottoman legacy. However, the first Turkish Embassy opened after the visitation of Yemen by Turkish President Turgut Özal in 1988 (Ayhan, 2010). After this date relations continued to be stable, no development and no decline. On the other hand, relations had started to develop after 2000 because visits were made by both countries both at the level of heads of state and at the level of the foreign ministry. Relations reached a peak in 2008 within the visitation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh to Turkey on 25-26 February as an official guest of Turkish President Abdullah Gül. However, when the civil war started in Yemen, Turkey announced that Turkey supports the unity of Yemen. The key point here is that Turkey has always supported the regime. In the relations between Yemen and Turkey, there have been developments in the commercial and cultural fields beside the political level. For example, Turkey has donated 100 thousand US dollars due to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, screening of Turkish serials in Yemen, repair of some historical artifacts in Yemen by Turkey, the opening of Turkish schools in Yemen. As it is seen, relations between Turkey and Yemen had tried to be developed by both sides after 2000 and many attempts have been made in this direction. When we examined the relations, it was stated that Yemen did not have any trauma due to the Ottoman legacy; that Yemen found Turkey’s Middle East policies correct, and both countries have made efforts to improve relations.

Conclusion and Assessments

According to United Nations (UN), there is the biggest humanitarian crisis of all time in the World in Yemen due to the civil war and conflicts in the country. It can be concluded that the basis of the turmoil in Yemen goes back to the past. Despotic Ali Abdullah Saleh administration, which has been going on for many years, economic interests in the hands of a certain group, bad living conditions, and economic inadequacies have pushed Yemen, which is already in a complex structure, to an even more problematic country. In this respect, it can be said that the turmoil in Yemen is chronic. On the other hand, with the involvement of states and non-state organizations in the country, the conflict environment has grown even more. At this point, the Sunni regime’s support of Saudi Arabia against the Iranian-backed Houthi movement and the presence of the AQAP in the country caused a constant increase in tension in the country. However, internal turmoil still has not been resolved and an unstable structure continues in the country. The UN declared some resolutions, peace talks were held, but no solution was reached. From my point of view, to solve the crisis in Yemen, first of all, steps must be taken to end the humanitarian crisis completely in Yemen. Then, economic aid should be given to the legitimate government of Yemen and the country’s infrastructure system should be repaired. Finally, the right to self-determination should be given to the people of Yemen and the intervention of all actors in the country should be stopped.


Diplomasi Çalışmaları Staj Programı


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Semin, A. (2015). Yemen Krizi, Husiler ve İran-Körfez Güç Mücadelesi. İstanbul: Bilgesam.

Yakup, C. (2020). Arap Baharı Sonrası Yemen: Ülkedeki Temel Aktörler ve Koalisyon Operasyonlarının Meşruluğu. Akademi Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi7(20), 27-57.

Yemen and Arab Spring – Yemen and Arab Spring – Yemen and Arab Spring – Yemen and Arab Spring – Yemen and Arab Spring – Yemen and Arab Spring

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