Yemen’s war as seen from the local level

Marie-Christine Heinze, Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO) and Hafez Albukari, Yemen Polling Center (YPC)

This memo was drafted for POMEPS Studies 29,Politics, Governance, and Reconstruction in Yemen.” 

Seen from the outside, it looks as if Yemen’s war has plunged the entire country into chaos and suffering. For those unable to follow events in Yemen on a daily, if not hourly, basis, as some of us do, the pictures coming to us through the media portray a war-torn country where warfare and chaos have reached even its most distant corner. And indeed, the suffering is real and the humanitarian situation is as devastating as the media make us believe. The blockade of the most important port in Yemen, al-Hudayda, as well as the airport in Sana’a for civilian flights by the Saudi-led coalition (SLC); the appropriation and diversion of humanitarian deliveries by the Houthis; the dire economic situation due to which more than 55 percent of Yemenis have lost their jobs since the beginning of the war; the non-payment of salaries and the sky-rocketing of prices for staple food supplies are only some of the factors that have resulted in the fact that more than 75 percent of Yemenis today have to rely on humanitarian aid. Coupled with an outbreak of cholera and other preventable diseases and a health system that has all but broken down, the situation in Yemen can certainly be described as catastrophic.

At the same time, however, the war experience differs greatly for people on the local level. While there are areas where the humanitarian situation is extremely dire and economic worries are widespread, this is less the case in other areas. Likewise, there are regions in Yemen that have seen continued fighting and / or bombardment since the beginning of the war in September 2014 / March 2015, whereas other regions have experienced no direct fighting at all. Similarly, the type of security threats and the actors involved vary significantly across region. Indeed, there are areas in Yemen where “the war,” as such, is considered to be over even though the security situation continues to be dire; whereas people in other areas have lost all hope that they may ever see a return of something resembling a normal life again. This paper aims to show how varied and complex the effects of the ongoing war are experienced on the local level, placing a specific focus on the security situation. To this effect, we use data gathered by the Yemen Polling Center (YPC) in February and March of this year.[1]

Issues of greatest concern

According to this survey’s findings, the issue of poverty and living conditions ranked highest among people’s concerns, with 58 percent of respondents nationwide mentioning this issue. Issues relating to the war ranked second, with 14 percent of respondents nationwide mentioning “the continuation of the war and the general situation in the country” as their greatest concern, 4 percent mentioning the “bad security” situation and 6 percent ranking “air strikes and the siege” of the SLC as the greatest concern for their personal life.[2] But if we take a closer look at responses from the different governorates of Yemen, we can see that in some areas of Yemen, particularly in the northern parts of the country, security concerns took precedence over those pertaining to living conditions. The governorates of Amran, al-Mahweet, and al-Jawf stick out in particular as more than 60 percent of respondents mentioned issues pertaining to the war and the security situation as being the one issue of greatest concern for them: All three are governorates generally considered to be under Houthi control. All three, but particularly Amran and al-Mahweet, had seen continuous airstrikes since the SLC first intervened in the conflict in Yemen. Al-Jawf, moreover, had an active war front between pro- and anti-Houthi forces, which saw extremely brutal fighting over the course of the conflict;[3] whereas, Amran has seen regular violent incidents and extremely tight control enforced by the Houthis over a governorate where they are not particularly popular. In other governorates, too, particularly those that have seen a distinct amount of fighting and airstrikes, security concerns weigh heavily on people’s minds even if living conditions take precedence.

Chart 1: For your personal life, what issue is of greatest concern to you? (DK = don’t know; RF = refused to answer)

Security perspectives and threats

Interestingly, the above findings did not necessarily correlate with the responses we received to our question about feelings of personal safety. In al-Mahweet, for example, where the issue of security took strong precedence over the issue of living conditions and where 66 percent of the respondents had said that airstrikes were the issue of greatest concern to them, 64 percent of respondents said that they felt always or mostly safe and another 29 percent said they felt neither safe nor unsafe. Indeed, al-Mawheet has some of the most positive responses on this question if compared to other governorates with only 5 percent stating they felt mostly or always unsafe. In al-Jawf and Amran, feelings of personal insecurity were higher than in al-Mahweet, but still relatively low, when correlated with above findings on issues of greatest concern. How can this best be explained? Of course, we can always only speculate about the reasons why people respond in a certain way in a quantitative survey. To be able to know for sure, we would have to follow up with qualitative research. But for the case of al-Mahweet, for example, we may speculate that the concern regarding airstrikes arose from two sources: Either respondents had relatives working at or living close by military facilities that were a regular target of airstrikes; and / or they were influenced by the media under the control of the Houthi/Saleh alliance, which regularly reported on the threats arising from the “external (i.e. by the SLC) aggression against Yemen.” Many people in al-Mahweet are said to have been supporters of former President Ali Abdallah Saleh (who was killed by his previous allies, the Houthis, at the beginning of December 2017 after breaking away from the alliance) and were possibly particularly influenced by the discourse disseminated by media affiliated with the former president. In their personal lives, however, respondents felt quite safe.

If we move away from the detailed look at the various governorates for a moment and focus on the nation-wide perspectives on personal security, what is particularly striking is the fact that in a country that had been at war for more than two years at the time our survey was conducted, almost 60 percent of respondents nationwide said they felt always or mostly safe, while only 20 percent of respondents stated that the felt always or mostly unsafe. This can be explained as follows: As mentioned in the introduction to this paper, there are parts of Yemen which have seen little or no fighting at all in the course of this war, such as al-Mahra and Hadramawt, the two most eastern governorates of Yemen[4]; and Dhamar, where tribal leaders and others managed to keep their areas neutral in the face of Houthi control, thus largely preventing active warfare there. This does not mean, of course, that people haven’t experienced their share of insecurity, but rather that the impact of the war has been limited. In other areas, the war was limited to certain locations or fronts, where the people interviewed in the course of this survey did not necessarily live. In Taiz, for example, which is the governorate with the largest population in Yemen, a total of 500 questionnaires were implemented. Only 90 of these were implemented in Taiz City, however, which has seen continued brutal fighting since early 2015, whereas the rest of the interviews were conducted in the rural areas of the governorate, not all of which had been affected by fighting or where fighting had already subsided at the time the survey was conducted.[5] Moreover, in other areas, the war was largely considered to be over. This is the case in Aden, for example, which saw intense and brutal fighting in 2015, but where residents considered themselves to be living in a post-war era in early 2017, even if the security situation was still unstable (see also Heinze & Baabad 2017).

Chart 2: On a scale from 1 to 5 in which ‘1’ means ‘always very unsafe’ and ‘5’ means ‘always very safe’, how safe do you personally feel? (DK = don’t know; RF = refused to answer)

When asked about the three biggest security threats in their area, the number of responses also varied from governorate to governorate, testifying to the diversity of experiences of insecurity throughout the country. While 33 percent of respondents nationwide said that there was no direct threat to the security situation in their area – most prominently so in al-Mahra (85 percent), Dhamar (70 percent), Sana’a (60 percent) and Lahj (59 percent) – two thirds of respondents identified a range of threats that varied greatly throughout the country. Air strikes, as discussed above, were particularly mentioned in Amran (57 percent), al-Mahweet (44 percent) and Hajja (41 percent); the Houthis were mentioned as a major threat in Taiz (25 percent) where they have been leading a brutal war in Taiz City since early 2015, but also in al-Jawf (12 percent) and Ma’rib (9 percent) both of which have seen active war fronts between the Houthis and anti-Houthi fighters since 2015; and terrorist organizations such as al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the so called ‘Islamic State’ (IS) were mentioned particularly in Abyan (34 percent), al-Baydha’ (14 percent) and Shabwa (11 percent). Abyan has been one of the strongholds of AQAP over the course of the past years and particularly so after members of AQAP agreed to leave al-Mukalla (Hadramawt), which they had controlled since 2015, after tribal negotiations. As we have shown elsewhere (Heinze & Albukari 2017: 43-45), these security threats are addressed by a great variety of different actors, many of which (but not all) are both security providers and insecurity actors. Accordingly, the dynamics in each region and each governorate have their own internal logic that shapes ordinary citizens’ lives (see also Salisbury 2017).

Chart 3: In your opinion, what are the three biggest security threats in your area? (open question, code 3 answers) First answer (DK = don’t know; RF = refused to answer)


Yemenis throughout the country have had very different war experiences over the course of the past years and continue to do so. The various threats to personal well-being, whether due to difficult living conditions, security threats, diseases etc., and the sources they attribute to these circumstances influence their outlook on the current political situation and the actors that shape it. Accordingly, these actors are politically legitimized or delegitimized by their actions and the circumstances they create for people on the ground. Any new attempt at peace talks as well as any intervention by the international community in Yemen must recognize this plurality of war experiences, threat perceptions and actors on the ground.


Heinze, Marie-Christine and Hafez Albukari (20.12.2017): “Opportunities for SSR in Yemen”, in: Marie-Christine Heinze (ed.): Addressing Security Sector Reform in Yemen. Challenges and Opportunities for Intervention During and Post-Conflict, CARPO Report 04 in cooperation with KAS. Available at (20.12.2017).

Heinze, Marie-Christine and Marwa Baabbad (June 2017): “Women Nowadays Do Anything”. Women’s Role in Conflict, Peace and Security in Yemen, Report, Saferworld / YPC / CARPO. Available at (26.06.2017).

Salisbury, Peter (December 2017): Yemen. National Chaos, Local Order, Chatham House Research Paper. Available at (20.12.2017).

YPC (2017): Perceptions of the Yemeni public on living conditions and security-related issues. Survey findings, Sanaa/Aden. Available at—Perceptions-of-the-Yemeni-public-on-living-conditions-and-security-related-issues—May-2017.pdf (19.12.2017).

[1] This survey targeted 4,000 respondents (50 percent women) nationwide (except Sa’da and Soqotra) and was funded by the European Union. YPC implements its surveys through face-to-face interviews, with women only being interviewed by women and with all enumerators coming from the region they are implementing the questionnaires in (guaranteeing they speak and understand the local dialect and have the necessary networks to mitigate local risks to their security). Target areas are selected on the basis of a simple random sample among 146,000 population units in Yemen according to governorate population size. Each unit gets ten interviews (5 men, 5 women). The survey reflects the rural/urban population distribution in Yemen, with 68 percent of interviews having been implemented in rural areas. Hafez Albukari is the President of YPC; Marie-Christine Heinze acted as consultant to YPC in the framework of this research.

[2] At this point in time (February/March 2017), the cholera epidemic that spread rapidly throughout Yemen in the course of 2017 was only at its very beginning so few people, and mainly respondents in the South which had encountered other diseases such as Dengue Fever in the course of the war, were worried about the spread of disease.

[3] For an excellent map of the current war fronts in Yemen, see Salisbury 2017: 22.

[4] As we have pointed out elsewhere (Heinze & Albukari 2017: 41 fn. 2), however, only twenty interviews were implemented in the sparsely populated governorate of al-Mahra and all of these in the coastal area. People living inland may have greater security concerns.

[5] A map detailing all locations where YPC implemented questionnaires for this survey can be accessed via this link: (19.12.2017).