Introducing Northern Yemen
The rough-and-ready north has always been Yemen’s hardest and proudest region and even today its fierce tribes are regarded with trepidation and respect by the rest of the country. Parts of this area seem to be always engaged in some kind of dispute, and armed conflict between tribes and the central government is common. At the time of writing the entire region was out of bounds to foreign tourists and we have been unable to conduct on-ground research in Sa'da and Shaharah since 2007 and in the rest of the region since late 2009.
In the province of Sa’da a violent uprising has dragged on since 2004 between government forces and a group of Zaydi fighters called the Al-Houthis. The group is led by Abdul Malik al-Houthi who claims they’re fighting discrimination of their minority Shia community whilst the Yemeni government claim they are trying to overthrow the government and install Shia religious rule. After several false ceasefires the government launched a full-scale offensive against the rebels in August 2009. The conflict quickly became international after clashes erupted between the Houthis and Saudi forces. At one point the Houthis had even managed to occupy several villages in Saudi Arabia. The Yemeni government also accuses Iran of backing the rebels, while the Houthis make counter-accusations that Al-Qaeda has joined Sunni tribal fighters in aiding the government forces against them and, ironically, that the US were launching aerial bombardments against them (the US responded by saying they were attacking Al-Qaeda elements). Finally, if there weren't already enough players in the mix, a number of tribal groups opposed to the Houthis joined the fight on the side of the government. A ceasefire in early 2010 didn't stop the fighting completely but it certainly helped reduce it. However, when the wider Yemeni revolution began in 2011 the Houthis quickly aligned themselves with the protesters and by March of that year they had taken control of Sa'da city as well as much of the province; and by the middle of 2011 they also controlled much of neighbouring Al-Jawf province; by the end of the year they had advanced into Amran and Hajjah governorates; and by the end of 2012 the Houthis were even in control of parts of Sana'a governorate. Today, they have essentially carved out a state within a state.
The upshot of all this fighting has of course been the widespread creation of internally displaced people (the UN estimates that around 366,000 people have been made homeless by the conflict so far), hundreds of civilian deaths and the breakdown of normal government services in the north. Both Unicef and Islamic Relief Worldwide accuse the Houthis of using child soldiers. The current chaos in Yemen, and extreme danger for outsiders in north Yemen means that very few journalists have had access to the Sa'da region for a number of years and obtaining accurate information on what has been happening there is very difficult.