The Houthis’ forgotten war goes global
- January 11, 2024
- Elisabeth Kendall
- Themes: Geopolitics, Yemen
The Houthis emerged in Yemen as an Islamist movement in the late 1980s. Following the war in Gaza, their significance has grown as they disrupt trade through the Red Sea, with dangerous potential for escalation.
On 14 November 2023, the military spokesman of Yemen’s Houthis, General Yahya Sarea, released a statement with an image of an Israeli ship on fire with a vow to ‘sink your ships’. Five days later, dramatic footage captured on the bodycams of Houthi hijackers and beamed around the world showed heavily armed insurgents clad in black balaclavas jumping out of a helicopter onto the deck of the Galaxy Leader, a cargo ship affiliated with an Israeli businessman, and taking it and over 20 crew members hostage. On 9 December, a further Houthi statement broadened out the threat to ‘ships of any nationality heading to the Zionist entity’. In reality, the threat now also encompasses shipping with no clear link to Israel. To date, well over 100 drones and missiles have been launched at international shipping with links to over 50 countries.
The impact on global trade is significant. At least 17,000 ships pass through the Red Sea annually, carrying over 10 per cent of global seaborne trade and 20 per cent of global container volumes. The upshot is that insurance premiums have skyrocketed and several of the world’s biggest container shipping firms are re-routing around Africa. Longer journeys will, in time, impact supply chains and ultimately drive-up prices for consumers. After nine years of civil war in Yemen, which the international community barely noticed, despite the Houthis having launched over a thousand missiles and drones at Saudi Arabia, as well as striking targets inside the United Arab Emirates, suddenly the world is watching and wondering: who are the Houthis and what do they want?
The Houthis emerged in Yemen’s north-west highlands and take their name from their former leader, Husayn al-Houthi. He was killed in 2004 and they are currently led by his brother, Abd al-Malik al-Houthi. Although their tribal roots are strong, they are not a tribe, but a much broader grouping that is at once religious, political and military. Let’s take each one of these elements in turn.
Religion is central to the formation of Houthi identity politics. The Houthi movement is rooted in Zaydi Islam. Zaydism is a branch of Shi’ism, but it is a more moderate form than the ‘Twelver Shi’ism’ practised in Iran and closer in practice to Sunni Islam.
Houthi mobilisation began in the late 1980s as a revivalist movement seeking to end their religious, political, economic and cultural marginalisation following the toppling of their state, a religion-based Imamate, in 1962. The Imamate was forcibly replaced by the Yemen Arab Republic, which later became North Yemen. The new state was infused with proselytising initiatives led by Saudi-backed Wahhabi missionaries seeking to spread their strict Sunni belief system among the predominantly Zaydi population and ultimately to undermine Zaydi religious and political elites. In response, the Houthi leadership began to nurture a network of ‘Believing Youth’ and increasingly to adopt the kinds of Shi’ite symbols common in Iran. The seeds of sectarian tension were sown and would fester as the Houthi insistence on recognition tipped over into conflict. The Yemeni government fought six rounds of war against the Houthis from 2004 to 2010, with Saudi Arabia intervening directly against the Houthis in 2010.
The Houthis’ political positioning is entwined with their religious ideology and their political arm is known as Ansar Allah (‘Partisans of God’). However, Houthi influence now extends well beyond their traditional religious roots and geographical boundaries. While Zaydis make up around one third of Yemen’s population, the Houthis today control territory in which around two thirds of the population, or 20 million Yemenis, live.
The Houthis had largely discarded their guns to join the 2011 Arab Spring uprising and take part in the National Dialogue Conference that followed in 2013-14. However, the Dialogue itself failed to address how Yemen’s power, territory and resources would be shared. The Houthis, mistrustful of a transition process led by a southern-born President whom they saw as installed by the international community (elections took place but he was the sole candidate), took matters into their own hands.
The Houthis took over Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in September 2014 and proceeded to march south. In so doing, they managed to win over significant support among Yemenis beyond their traditional powerbase by framing their power grab as a principled stand against government corruption and ineptitude. This marked the beginning of the civil war in Yemen. The war became internationalised in March 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition attempted to push back the Houthis at the request of the internationally recognised government of ousted President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. As is often the case when wars begin, the Saudi-led coalition imagined victory would be swift and the Houthis would be defeated in weeks or perhaps months. It has now lasted more than nine years.
As the war dragged on, Houthi hardliners became politically dominant and it is hard to assess the extent to which the Houthis hold power by consent as opposed to fear. Authoritarian measures, recruitment of child soldiers, the weaponisation of food, broad repression, the imprisonment and torture of dissenting voices, attacks on civilian infrastructure – all this became the norm, at least until a fragile truce was established in April 2022. The truce continues largely to hold despite formally expiring after six months.
One of the most significant but rarely articulated developments in Houthi politics is their increasingly supremacist ideology. Several leadership statements suggest that only direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, preferably through the line of his martyred grandson al-Husayn, have a legitimate claim to authority. The Houthi ruling family claims to descend directly from al-Husayn. Hence it is difficult to see how the Houthis in their current form can exercise democratic and consultative government, either in the areas they control or as part of any future power-sharing structure in Yemen more broadly.
The Houthis’ military capability has become increasingly sophisticated during the course of the war. Their arsenal includes attack drones and long-range missiles capable of flying up to 2,000 km – enough to reach the Israeli port city of Eilat – as well as a diverse range of anti-ship missile systems and drone boats, with sufficient capacity to continue to disrupt global shipping in the Red Sea.
Houthi military capability in the international arena was amply demonstrated prior to the current Israeli war in Gaza. The most notable attacks were the large-scale coordinated drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil facility in September 2019 and the strikes on oil trucks and airport infrastructure inside the United Arab Emirates in January 2022, which resulted in several casualties.
These major attacks were designed to change the calculus of the ongoing civil war in Yemen in which Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the main players in the anti-Houthi coalition. That strategy worked. By 2023 the Houthis had transformed their standing vis-à-vis their regional foes from that of terrorist enemy into recognised political interlocutor in Saudi initiatives to resolve the Yemen war. This doubtless increased their confidence and engrained the lesson that violence pays.
The Houthis would not be able to operate at this level without arms, training and intelligence supplied by Iran and Hizbullah, its partner in the so-called Axis of Resistance. At the start of Yemen’s civil war, Iran’s influence was present, but not paramount; the real military gamechanger for the Houthis as they swept south was their alliance with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Nine years of civil war have, however, greatly extended Iran’s reach in Yemen. The war has succeeded in entangling Saudi Arabia in an expensive, complex and unwinnable war. This has damaged Saudi Arabia financially and reputationally; it has redirected Riyadh’s attention away from its northern flank in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon; and it has pushed the Houthis ever closer to Iran.
The Houthis should not be considered a direct proxy of Iran as in the model of Hizbullah, at least not yet. The Houthis are pragmatic. They will do Iran’s bidding as long as their interests align with and are served by Iran, as is currently the case.
Like Iran, the Houthi slogan calls for the extermination of Israel. The Houthis complete Iran’s encirclement of Israel through its Axis of Resistance. Hamas is positioned to Israel’s west in the Gaza strip; Hizbullah is positioned to Israel’s north in Lebanon; Iran-backed Shi’a militias are positioned to Israel’s east in Iraq and to Israel’s north-east in Syria; and the Houthis are positioned to Israel’s south in Yemen and the Red Sea
Preparations for maritime attacks in the Red Sea were reportedly underway in the weeks immediately preceding the Hamas attacks of 7 October, with the Houthi militarisation of islands in the Red Sea and deliveries of weapons and materiel to coastal sites. It is therefore possible that the Houthis are part of a planned incremental escalation across the Axis of Resistance, calibrated to appear reactive rather than proactive.
The Houthis have their own independent reasons for adopting a strategy of attacking Red Sea shipping, and their motives are at once domestic, regional and international. Domestically, they can frame themselves as the hero standing up for defenceless Palestinians. This rallies their flagging base, exhausted after nearly a decade of war, and it chimes with a broader public keen to do something to help. The Houthis appear to have replenished their ranks through a recruitment drive deliberately designed to harness Yemeni anger at Israel’s actions in Gaza. New recruits have reportedly been promised that they will be sent to assist Palestinians against Israel although this seems unlikely given the obvious logistical challenges of moving Yemenis across international borders. It is more likely that these fighters will remain deployed domestically to keep up pressure on Yemen’s internationally recognised government in an upcoming political process aimed at finding a power-sharing solution to end the civil war.
Regionally, the attacks on shipping, which the Houthis insist target only Israeli-linked vessels, enable the Houthis to plug into general horror around the Arab world at Israel’s apparently indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza. Houthi actions also increase their leverage in talks with Saudi Arabia, which is extremely keen to extract itself from the Yemen war. With a face-saving exit imminent, Saudi is keen to avoid antagonising the Houthis, particularly now that they have demonstrated their capacity to wreak havoc in the Red Sea and send missiles over Saudi airspace at a time when Saudi wishes to focus on developing its tourism sector and Vision 2030 economic plan.
Internationally, the Houthi attacks are winning maximum publicity, not only for the plight of Palestinians but also for themselves. Despite nearly a decade of war in Yemen, the world barely noticed the Houthis, and the conflict was often referred to as ‘the forgotten war’. Now the Houthis are making international headlines and, as global shipping re-routes and markets are rattled, they are also ensuring that the world at large is made to suffer repercussions from Israel’s actions. What seemed like a faraway problem in the Middle East is no longer so remote.
Do the Houthis really seek all-out war with America and Israel? Probably not. The Houthis have not been shy of issuing belligerent statements and sabre rattling. They have not yet, however, sunk any vessel or killed any crew. In reality it makes little sense for the Houthis to risk their hard-won military gains – territory, power and recognition – by provoking America to unleash its might against them.
This is particularly the case now when they are on the cusp of being recognised as a legitimate political authority in Yemen. On 23 December the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, announced that Yemen’s warring parties had committed to measures that would usher in a roadmap for a political process and the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Yemen. This has the potential to smooth the way for the Houthis to formalise at least some of their war gains: power, territory, coastline and resources.
This is an unpalatable prospect for Yemen’s internationally recognised government and for other power blocs, chief among them the Southern Transitional Council. Yet Saudi and international pressure is currently tuned towards handing the Houthis compromises and concessions in return for promises of peace, however unreliable such undertakings have proven in the past. The Houthis must be aware that this could very quickly change if they were to spark all-out war in the Red Sea.
The Houthis therefore look set to continue steering a course of maximum disruption in the Red Sea, a strategy that has thus far proven highly effective for them, but avoid undertaking lethal operations that could provoke massive military reprisals and risk quashing their new-found political standing.
There are few viable courses of action remaining for America and its allies. Coercive measures, such as imposing sanctions, have proven ineffective. Restrictive measures such as curbing the flow of funds to the Houthis have proven insufficient. Diplomatic efforts are a non-starter owing to the lack of leverage over the Houthis, albeit Oman has used its trademark neutrality to attempt to prevent an even worse conflagration.
Measures to strengthen Red Sea security have also been tried. On 18 December, the United States announced Operation Prosperity Guardian to establish a multinational maritime force focused on Red Sea security. It took its first lethal action against the Houthis on 31 December when US navy helicopters sank three Houthi boats after they tried to board a Maersk container ship, firing on both the ship and the US helicopters. Yet several countries have revealed their reluctance to join the force. Moreover, given that the US had already established such a force in the region over 18 months prior to the Red Sea attacks, its effectiveness cannot be guaranteed.
This leaves little beyond more aggressive military action. If the Houthis overstep red lines, as they did on 31 December, then the United States has shown that it will act. Even without further hijacking attempts and direct fire, however, it is unclear that the US and allies can tolerate indefinitely the sustained disruption of global trade under a barrage of Houthi drones and missiles. While western powers are naturally keen to avoid becoming embroiled in another Middle East war, highly targeted strikes against Houthi military installations and launch sites cannot be ruled out.
Would this work? On the surface, the Houthis appear no match for the highly professional, state of the art military of the US, the world’s biggest spender on defence, but the Houthis should not be underestimated. They demonstrate a high tolerance for casualties. They exhibit a striking indifference to the discomfort and misery their actions visit on their own population. After two decades of on-off conflict, they view war as a way of life not a last resort. They enjoy a high degree of confidence, having spent the past nine years fending off Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two of the region’s most highly invested militaries. They feel they have won the civil war, having extracted major concessions from Saudi Arabia and transformed their standing from that of terrorists to political interlocutors. They do not fear the US, having watched and celebrated the ignominious retreat of US forces from Afghanistan. And above all, they believe fervently that God is on their side.
Even if logic dictates that both sides would rather avoid war, there is a real risk that miscalculation, emotion or accident could set off a chain of events that sees the Red Sea region spiral into all-out conflict.