When reports started coming out that journalist Jamal Khashoggi had been brutally murdered and dismembered while in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the media and the world responded with shock and horror. But Saudi Arabia’s ongoing attacks in Yemen should have made apparent the kingdom's callous regard for human life and human rights. The long standing U.S. alliance should have made it clear that nothing was likely to change. Here’s what you need to know.

First, a bit about Yemen, the land that some claim was once home to the biblical Sheba. In 1962, the kingdom in Northern Yemen, established just after World War I, became the Yemen Arab Republic. In 1967, South Yemen ceased to be a British protectorate and gained its independence. In 1990, the two states unified and became the modern Republic of Yemen.

It’s the poorest country in the Middle East, and the government has typically been one of the most corrupt. But its recent history, prior to 2011, was marked by a power-sharing arrangement that at least maintained stability.

Saudi Arabia has long had a hand in the country. It's paid various players money as needed to ensure that the Saudi government retained a hand in their neighbor's affairs, and that tribes remained somewhat independent from the government.

Then, in February 2011, the capital of Yemen erupted in protest. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, at the heart of the power sharing arrangement, was forced to resign. A new leader, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, was installed. For a while, it looked like Yemen might be on the road to stability despite persistent threats from rebel Houthis, an armed political-religious Shiite group formed in the 1990s, and an al Qaeda insurgency.

But in 2014, Houthi rebels, alleged by both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to be backed by Iran, took control over the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country. Later that year, Saudi Arabia, with a coalition of Persian Gulf monarchies and with support from several Western countries, got involved, backing Hadi, who fled to Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. sold arms to coalition members, provided support logistics and intelligence and drone strikes.

That violence has split the country and led to calls for separation, fueling the civil war. Throughout the conflict, human rights groups have alleged crimes against humanity have been committed by both sides, and famine and cholera threaten millions of the civilian population.

U.S.-backed Saudi airstrikes have repeatedly been shown to hit civilian targets, including school buses and hospitals. The U.S., counting Saudi Arabia as an important ally, however, has rarely questioned Saudi claims that these strikes are accidental. Based on United Nations statistics, between 2015 and 2017, more than 5,200 civilians had been killed and another 50,000 had died from famine. In 2018, the U.N. found that 13 million Yemeni civilians could die of starvation.

In short, the ongoing conflict is a mess. But, why are the U.S. and Saudi Arabia involved in the first place? The simplest explanation is that Saudi Arabia considered the Houthis a threat or a potential threat because of alleged ties to Iran. That too, however, requires some explanation.

Regional hegemony

The conflict in Yemen is not isolated. It’s part of a broader feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The two countries have never declared war on each other, but have fought for influence through various proxy wars in what some have dubbed a cold war.

The modern roots of this conflict begin with the collapse of the multiethnic Ottoman Empire. After World War I, the various tribal factions in the region struggled for control.

Saudi Arabia came to dominate much, but not all, of the Arabian Peninsula. In 1938, just four years after Saudi Arabia became a country, Americans discovered oil beneath its desert sands. That made the Saudi state wealthy and connected it to the U.S. Its relationship with the U.S. was strengthened further during World War II, as that conflict demonstrated to President Franklin Roosevelt (and really to everyone) just how critical oil would be to the future of warfare.

The shah

Around the same time, Iran emerged as a country. In 1953, the United States overthrew the existing Iranian government and the popular prime minster, instead installing Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, with the aim of a government more sympathetic to U.S. interests. While the shah brought reforms, the country was far from stable, with a population under constant threat from his secret police and with rampant government corruption.

By the 1970’s, the U.S. was propping up both Iranian and Saudi regimes and enjoying easy access to oil. But trouble was brewing in Iran. The shah had never been popular and did not enjoy the perception of legitimacy that the Saudi royals enjoyed.

In 1979, Iran descended into turmoil as protests and violence overthrew the U.S.-backed shah in the Iranian Revolution. The puppet monarch was replaced by an Islamic theocracy led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Saudi royals interpreted the upheaval in Iran as a warning, worrying that the same popular movement might unseat them.

Also, prior to the Iranian Revolution, Saudi Arabia had been the undisputed leader of the Muslim world, as it was home to the two holiest cities in Islam. With a theocracy established in Iran, Khomeini claimed that role for himself, arguing that Iran should be seen as the leader of the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia and Iran also have religious differences — Saudi Arabia is a mostly Sunni country while Iran is mostly Shiite.

Then Iran began exporting its model of popular Islamic revolution, funding mostly Shiite groups to attempt to overthrow governments elsewhere — including Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia felt the need to fight back against Iran and reinforced its existing alliance with the United States and other countries through the Gulf Cooperation Council, which included other monarchies.

But Iran didn’t just threaten Saudi Arabia, but neighboring countries like Iraq as well. In 1980, Iraq, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, invaded Iran. That war became a stalemate. Once Iran had gotten the upper hand and posed a serious potential threat to Saudi Arabia, the Saudi and U.S. governments intervened to prevent a rout.

Recent events

In the wake of Sept. 11, the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 and overthrew Saddam. For the region, that meant that the buffer between Saudi Arabia and Iran was replaced with chaos. The U.S. failed to install a credible leader and Iraq descended into all-out war, spurring fighting between Sunni and Shiite militia groups. Iran backed the Shiite groups and Saudi Arabia backed the Sunni forces.

In 2011, the Arab Spring erupted across the nation, with pro-democracy protests threatening leaders across the Arab world.

The Saudis, faced with a new wave of popular revolution that threatened their power, felt that this was an assault on stability. Iran, however, welcomed the potential to overturn regional leadership.

That meant that the chaos of Iraq was suddenly popping up all over the Arab world. Like before, both Saudi Arabia and Iran started backing their preferred groups, leading to the devastating conflict in Syria and fueling instability.

In Yemen, the same thing happened, and the U.S., longtime allies of the Saudis and enemies of Iran, lent support to the Saudi-backed coalition conducting airstrikes.

Now, Yemen is locked in an increasingly deadly war, with mounting civilian casualties in part made possible by U.S. arms.

For its part, the U.S. has argued that it trusts its ally Saudi Arabia when it says that civilians are not being targeted in airstrikes as a justification for its continued involvement. That too is much more complicated due to U.S. dependence on oil and lucrative arms deals between the two countries.

Iran, of course, is not a clean actor. The U.S. has imposed sanctions on Iran for both its nuclear program and ongoing human rights abuses. Complicating that relationship, the U.S. also pulled out the Iran deal under President Trump. More recently, on Tuesday, the U.S. imposed new sanctions for the country’s use of child soldiers and the Baji militia force.

The U.S. is at least partly culpable for the ongoing chaos in the Middle East. Leaving the region and existing alliances has proved difficult in its own right.

In short, there are no easy answers in the ongoing war in Yemen, and many complicating factors. But Khashoggi’s disappearance and subsequent international outcry has shed renewed light on the conflict and U.S. involvement and raised new questions.

The long shadow of history, however, means that understanding the latest headlines is far more complicated than just a question about how a journalist was murdered.