FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Rise of Yemen’s Houthis

‘They move like ghosts through these canyons and caves. One minute we think we have their position on a hill side and moments later they’re firing on us from the opposite direction.’ This is how a senior Yemeni Army officer described what it was like to fight the Houthis when I visited the northwestern governorate of Hajjah in 2009, which was then the scene of a brutal war between the Houthis and the Yemeni government. By 2010 the Houthis had largely defeated both the Yemeni Armed Forces and elements of the Saudi Armed Forces that were sent across the Yemeni border. They showed themselves to be tenacious masters of guerrilla warfare. Since 2011, the Houthis have proved themselves to be just as adept at navigating Yemen’s labyrinthine politics.

The Houthis coalesced as a movement in the early 1990’s and were initially dedicated to reviving and defending the Zaidi sect of Shi’a Islam to which roughly thirty-percent of Yemenis belong. By 2004, the Houthis were at war with the Yemeni government, a conflict which would persist until 2011 when popular anti-government protests began. From their spiritual, martial, and political heartland in the governorate of Sa’da, the once fringe movement has determinedly and methodically expanded its power base and its territory. The capstone of the Houthis’ expansionist campaign was their largely uncontested seizure of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, in September of 2014. Fast forward to 2015 and the Houthis are responsible for the resignation of Yemen’s president and his government. The Houthis are now first among Yemen’s power brokers.

How did a fringe movement come to control a significant percentage of northern Yemen and neuter the Yemeni government? In short, the answer is by applying what they learned during their prolonged war with the Yemeni government. First and foremost, the Houthis are a well-organized and capable fighting force, one that now has access to an abundance of heavy weaponry thanks to the effective dissolution of the Yemeni Army in late 2014. The Houthi leadership understands that the key to political success in Yemen, or at least in northern Yemen, is to make sure that you have the biggest stick. They have shown that the key to maintaining power and influence is to use the stick as carefully and as little as possible, something that former president Saleh forgot. To this end, the Houthi leadership has worked assiduously to build relationships with the leadership of many of Yemen’s northern based tribes.

The Houthis have also demonstrated that they can provide a measure of security and stability in the areas that they control. Houthi controlled governorates like Sa’da and al-Jawf, once the most restive governorate in Yemen, enjoy relative security. In the case of al-Jawf, the Houthis have largely eradicated al-Qaeda and are working to diffuse the blood feuds that were one of the primary sources of instability in the governorate. Via a growing and relatively sophisticated media network, the Houthis routinely highlight these successes.

However, the Houthis’ may benefit most from the sheer desperation of many Yemenis who have endured years of insecurity and declining standards of living. ‘The Yemeni people are exhausted. The economy is a disaster. More people than ever go hungry. With conditions like these, even some of those opposed to the Houthis are ready to give them a chance,’ says a Yemeni MP. ‘What choice do we have? There is no government and there is no army. Who’s going to stop the Houthis?’

In his speeches, Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi has emphasized that the Houthis do not want to rule Yemen. Given the moves on the ground this may be somewhat disingenuous, but Abdul Malik al-Houthi is an astute strategist who realizes that officially taking up the reins of power in Sana’a could well be ruinous for the Houthis. While the Houthis have broadened their power base to include many Sunni tribal leaders and politicians, both in the north and the south, they are still viewed by most Yemenis as a Shi’a organization. A Houthi led government would be viewed as a return to the Zaidi dominated imamate that ruled north Yemen up until the 1962 revolution, and, as such, it would be deeply unpopular with the majority of Yemeni who are Sunni. While senior Houthi leadership undoubtedly recognizes the dangers of officially leading some kind of future government, Hadi’s resignation and the power vacuum in the nation’s capital may leave the Houthis with no choice.

So what would a Houthi led government look like? It might be surprisingly diverse. The Houthi leadership has cultivated relations with segments of Yemen’s southern leadership, with youth groups, and of course with those power blocs associated with the Saleh regime. While the Houthis have never clearly articulated their political agenda, the leadership does back the strong federalization of Yemen. The federalization of Yemen has been demanded by southerners for nearly twenty years and is likely the only viable solution for keeping south and north Yemen together. One of the Houthis’ demands issued to the government of President Hadi was for the government to include more representatives from the south as well as more Houthi representation.

The Houthis’ journey from a poorly equipped and at times desperate band of guerrilla fighters to a group that now governs large swaths of north Yemen, has produced a leadership that is cautious and methodical. It would be a mistake to underestimate the Houthis’ political and martial acumen. It would also be a mistake to assume that the Houthis will only add to the chaos that threatens to engulf Yemen. Regardless, the international community and the West in particular will have to engage with what, for now at least, is the best organized and most cohesive power bloc in Yemen.

Michael Horton is a Yemen analyst with a decade of experience who has written extensively on Yemen for numerous publications including: Jane’s Intelligence Review, The Economist, Intelligence Digest, and the Christian Science Monitor.

More articles by:

Michael Horton is a writer and Middle East analyst.

July 19, 2018
Rajai R. Masri
The West’s Potential Symbiotic Contributions to Freeing a Closed Muslim Mind
Jennifer Matsui
The Blue Pill Presidency
Ryan LaMothe
The Moral and Spiritual Bankruptcy of White Evangelicals
Paul Tritschler
Negative Capability: a Force for Change?
Patrick Bond
State of the BRICS Class Struggle: ‘Social Dialogue’ Reform Frustrations
Rev. William Alberts
A Well-Kept United Methodist Church Secret
Raouf Halaby
Joseph Harsch, Robert Fisk, Franklin Lamb: Three of the Very Best
George Ochenski
He Speaks From Experience: Max Baucus on “Squandered Leadership”
Ted Rall
Right Now, It Looks Like Trump Will Win in 2020
David Swanson
The Intelligence Community Is Neither
Andrew Moss
Chaos or Community in Immigration Policy
Kim Scipes
Where Do We Go From Here? How Do We Get There?
July 18, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
Politics and Psychiatry: the Cost of the Trauma Cover-Up
Frank Stricker
The Crummy Good Economy and the New Serfdom
Linda Ford
Red Fawn Fallis and the Felony of Being Attacked by Cops
David Mattson
Entrusting Grizzlies to a Basket of Deplorables?
Stephen F. Eisenman
Want Gun Control? Arm the Left (It Worked Before)
CJ Hopkins
Trump’s Treasonous Traitor Summit or: How Liberals Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the New McCarthyism
Patrick Bond
State of the BRICS Class Struggle: Repression, Austerity and Worker Militancy
Dan Corjescu
The USA and Russia: Two Sides of the Same Criminal Corporate Coin
The Hudson Report
How Argentina Got the Biggest Loan in the History of the IMF
Kenn Orphan
You Call This Treason?
Max Parry
Ukraine’s Anti-Roma Pogroms Ignored as Russia is Blamed for Global Far Right Resurgence
Ed Meek
Acts of Resistance
July 17, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Trump & The Big Bad Bugs
Robert Hunziker
Trump Kills Science, Nature Strikes Back
John Grant
The Politics of Cruelty
Kenneth Surin
Calculated Buffoonery: Trump in the UK
Binoy Kampmark
Helsinki Theatrics: Trump Meets Putin
Patrick Bond
BRICS From Above, Seen Critically From Below
Jim Kavanagh
Fighting Fake Stories: The New Yorker, Israel and Obama
Daniel Falcone
Chomsky on the Trump NATO Ruse
W. T. Whitney
Oil Underground in Neuquén, Argentina – and a New US Military Base There
Doug Rawlings
Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” was Nominated for an Emmy, Does It Deserve It?
Rajan Menon
The United States of Inequality
Thomas Knapp
Have Mueller and Rosenstein Finally Gone Too Far?
Cesar Chelala
An Insatiable Salesman
Dean Baker
Truth, Trump and the Washington Post
Mel Gurtov
Human Rights Trumped
Binoy Kampmark
Putin’s Football Gambit: How the World Cup Paid Off
July 16, 2018
Sheldon Richman
Trump Turns to Gaza as Middle East Deal of the Century Collapses
Charles Pierson
Kirstjen Nielsen Just Wants to Protect You
Brett Wilkins
The Lydda Death March and the Israeli State of Denial
Patrick Cockburn
Trump Knows That the US Can Exercise More Power in a UK Weakened by Brexit
Robert Fisk
The Fisherman of Sarajevo Told Tales Past Wars and Wars to Come
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail