Despite the introduction of some preventive measures, Yemen’s Houthi insurgents are not focused on the fight against the COVID-19 infection, but rather on fighting on multiple Yemeni battlefields. This strategy is definitely different from that of Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq and Lebanon, who are trying instead to rebrand themselves as guardians of public health.
As in many conflict-torn countries, Yemen is not able to cope with the potential spread of the pandemic: this is especially true for the Houthi-held areas, chronically impoverished and under Saudi sea, land and air blockades since the start of the Riyadh-led military intervention. The World Health Organization (WHO) recorded 142 attacks against hospitals from 2015 onwards, with less than 50% of the health facilities now functioning at capacity. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) confirmed that it started to cut humanitarian assistance in Houthi-held areas due to “unacceptable interference” by the movement in aid delivery. Detecting COVID-19 cases, before treating them, is the first challenge for Yemenis, who have already had to deal with outbreaks of cholera, diphtheria and dengue fever.
As in almost all of the world, the de facto Houthi authority of Sanaa launched anti-crowd measures. The Houthi “government” gave indications to close schools, stop prayers at mosques, limit public gatherings and regulate markets and shops. They trained medical teams, organized some sort of quarantine facilities and released over two thousand detainees from prisons; the number of public sector employees and private workers was reduced by 80%, except for health, interior, defense and intelligence workers. The Supreme Committee for Epidemics Control, a bureaucratic institution to contain the internal spread of the pandemic, was established in Sanaa.
The Houthis know this can’t be enough: they are making efforts to keep silence about news on confirmed COVID-19 cases in held territories. For instance, Mohammed Abdulqudoos, the deputy director of the Saba News Agency (Yemen’s official news agency, now controlled by the Houthis), posted on Twitter that a woman coming from Saudi Arabia was tested positive in Sanaa and placed in isolation (April 2). Then the journalist quickly retracted the tweet. Due to the Houthis’ authoritarian stance, tracking the spread of the virus in northern Yemen areas becomes even more difficult. The pattern of security governance adopted by the de facto authority in Sanaa is based on centralization: supervisors (musharafeen) monopolise both provision and adjudication. In this way, the Houthis can rely on established hierarchies for social control, especially useful in chaotic times of war and pandemic: supervisors answer only to the governorate-level supervisor and report directly to the movement’s leader.
On several occasions, the Houthis politicised the health emergency, blaming the United States and Saudi Arabia for spreading the virus in the country: politicisation accompanies disinformation. For instance, in a televised speech, the leader of the movement, Abdel Malek Al Houthi, described the pandemic as an American “biological warfare” plot. The Houthi TV station, Al Masirah (which broadcasts from southern Beirut), accused Saudi Arabia of sending Yemenis, who were infected in the kingdom, back home just to spread the disease in Yemen. A Houthi official of the Sanaa-based “government” warned citizens not to use the “COVID-infected” face masks that would have been dropped, according to them, by Saudi airplanes.
Despite exploiting the pandemic as a tool of domestic propaganda, the northern Yemeni insurgents are not interested in gaining popular legitimacy, in their administered areas, depicting themselves as health defenders. Conversely, the Houthis state – in public declarations as well as in online posts – that living in the front line is safer from virus than living in civilian contexts. Moreover, the Houthis stress that dying as “martyrs” on the battlefield is faster and less painful if compared with passing away as a consequence of pneumonia.
Surely, the purpose of this kind of communication is to boost recruitment and ranks cohesion. But it also reveals a different approach to COVID-19 with respect to the government-oriented strategy chosen by the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Hezbollah in Lebanon and the same Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Iran, all playing a role as part of their respective state institutions. In Iraq, the PMF publicises its engagement in sanitization efforts, medical assistance and provision of field hospitals, also assisting the army in enforcing the curfew across the country enforcing the curfew across the country. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has organized and enforced its own health emergency plan in controlled areas (southern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and Beirut’s southern outskirts), “to complement the government apparatus and not stand in its place”. This year, Iran displayed for Army Day (17 April) disinfection vehicles, mobile hospitals, medical equipment, and not missiles. The parade – exceptionally without marching soldiers – was held at a training center, with a public of commanders in face masks.
As a matter of fact, the Shia militias of Iraq, Lebanon and Iran are playing the health protectors card: a patriotic-style message to regain popular legitimacy in the eyes of the same communities they harshly repressed in pre-COVID protests. Doing so, they depict themselves as “defenders of the homeland, helpers of health” (IRGC), stressing their role in the “biggest campaign” (PMF) against the pandemic.
Therefore, it is quite surprising that the Houthis have chosen to follow another path so far, especially as they are working to unilaterally transform their de facto authority in Sanaa into an unrecognized “republic”. In Iraq, Lebanon and Iran, perceived visible enemies (Daesh, Israel, and the US respectively) today show a subtle, not acute, profile, also as a consequence of the pandemic. Moreover, many Iraqi, Lebanese and Iranian citizens continue to protest in these countries against bad government performance and dysfunctional systems of power: Shia militias are trying to react now with new collective goals and nationalist-style slogans. Instead, in the Houthi perception and narrative, the visible enemy (Saudi Arabia) is currently more present and powerful than the invisible enemy (COVID-19) and, most of all, still able to rally fighters and internal consensus against it.
But things can quickly evolve, depending on the context. As adaptable players, the Houthis would not hesitate to adjust their anti-COVID strategy if convenient for the group’s interests.
2 For a broader picture, Eleonora Ardemagni, “Government, De Facto Authority and Rebel Governance in Times of COVID-19: The Case of Yemen”, in The COVID-19 Pandemic in the Middle East and North Africa, The Project on Middle East Political Science, POMEPS Studies 39, April 2020.