While the crisis in Yemen still receives significantly less coverage than other conflicts plaguing the contemporary Middle East, international attention has sharply increased after the start of the intervention led by Saudi Arabia in 2015. As a consequence, the media, but also many scholarly contributions, tend to focus on foreign involvement in Yemen, leaving little space to the analysis of local players such as the Houthis.
Especially in the media, the Houthi movement (officially “Ansar Allah”), one of the main actors in Yemen today, is most often described only through the lenses of “Iranian backed Shia movement”. Crucial factors, such as the movement’s ideology, internal organization and the adaptability to external developments are largely ignored. However, these three factors are critical to explain the movement’s resilience in the face of vastly superior adversaries in terms of military resources and technology.
Taking a closer look at the Houthi movement’s rhetoric and ideology, one of the main things that spring to mind is the vagueness and broadness of the ideas laid out in the collected speeches of the founder, Husayn al-Houthi. Fourteen years after Husayn’s death, these speeches still constitute the ideological backbone of the movement. This doctrinal indeterminacy gives to the Houthis room to maneuver and adapt, without losing credibility. This becomes evident, for instance, in the Houthis’ ambiguous stance towards the Yemeni Salafis.
While the Salafi school founded in 1979 by Muqbil al-Wadi’i in Dammaj in Yemen’s North Western Sa’da province caused considerable friction with the local Zaydi population and is generally counted among the reasons for the emergence of the Houthi movement, doctrinal differences between radical Sunnism and Zaydism only play a role in more recent contributions to Houthi ideology. The school existed until 2014, when the Salafi population of Dammaj was forced to leave, following an intermittent siege of the center for several years. On the other hand, Muhammad Imam’s Salafi center near Dhamar still persists in territory controlled by the Houthis and is said to have negotiated a truce with the movement. At the beginning of 2018, Muhammad Ali al-Houthi, the de facto political leader of the Houthi movement and a cousin of Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, the current spiritual leader of the movement, allegedly visited the center in order to convince the Salafis to take up arms and fight alongside the Houthis. His request was apparently turned down by the center’s founder.
The same flexibility to forge coalitions with various actors can be seen in the Houthis’ alliance of convenience with Ali Abdullah Saleh, who also does not feature strongly in the movement’s ideological roots laid out by Husayn al-Houthi. Despite having fought against Saleh’s forces in six rounds of war (the Sa’da wars from 2004 to 2010), the Houthis joined forces with their erstwhile enemy in 2014 and managed to gain control over large parts of Upper Yemen, including Sanaa. Over time, the movement got the upper hand in the alliance. On October 2016, Ali al-Ja’ifi, the leader of the Republican Guard, one of the pillars of Saleh’s power, was killed and not replaced, weakening the elite unit. In addition, many combined Saleh-Houthi units came under Houthi control as vacant positions were filled not in accordance with established hierarchies, but reflecting military expertise and respect from the troops. These military leaders and the Houthi leadership are profiting from the emerging war economy, which includes the smuggling of weapons and fuel, collection of customs duties and briberies. Since the status quo is thus extremely profitable for certain elements of the Houthi leadership, it can be assumed that this dynamic is detrimental to a swift resolution of the conflict. The same holds true for the other actors in the current crisis.
Another factor prolonging the war and driving people into the arms of the movement is the tribalization of the conflict, which intensified during the fourth Sa’da war between Saleh and the Houthis in early 2007. As the government recruited tribesmen mainly belonging to the Hashid tribal confederation to fight the Houthis, members of the Khawlan ibn Amir and Bakil tribal confederations allied with the movement. While these alliances are prone to shifting and never include whole tribes, let alone whole confederations, they set in motion circles of retaliation which, due to the multilayered nature of the conflict, exceed the capacity of tribal law for containment. Societal conflicts, which before the war would have been mere disputes between equal members of a tribal society, now often take on a political and/or religious significance, due to the conflicting parties’ association with different factions in the war. The exaction of revenge and the restoration of honor are thus often linked to affiliation with one of these factions. A good example of this dynamic is the violent death of Ali Abd Allah Saleh in December 2017, which was widely interpreted by Yemenis as retaliatory act for the violent death of Husayn al-Houthi, killed by Saleh’s security forces in 2004.
At an international level, the movement was able to profit from Iranian and, ironically, Saudi Arabian involvement. While the Zaydis in Yemen have been accused of being influenced by Iran for decades, Yemen was not of great importance to Iran prior to the Saudi military engagement in the sixth round of the Sa’da wars in 2009. After 2011, mainly as a consequence of the Arab uprisings, Iran became increasingly involved in Yemen. The intervention of the Peninsula Shield Force in Bahrain and the assertiveness of Saudi Arabia as regional hegemon, coupled with the uncertain future of the Syrian regime, likely pushed Iran to play a more active role in Yemen. While the extent of Iranian support for the Houthis is still unclear, there is mounting evidence that Iran supplies arms to the Houthis. Nevertheless, the Houthis are not mere puppets of Iran. Reports depict that Teheran was less than pleased to see the Houthis marching on Sanaa in 2014. Moreover, the recent output of media outlets affiliated with the Houthis suggests attempts to convey a specifically Zaydi message: by publishing and re-publishing purely religious books and pamphlets, there appears to be an effort to counter the accusations of being Twelver Shiites and therefore quasi natural allies for Iran. This narrative is pushed most of all by media outlets and think tanks affiliated with Saudi Arabia, which is now also fighting an ideological battle against the Houthis on the Internet.
This ideological assault supports Saudi Arabia’s renewed military involvement in Yemen since 2015. Through airstrikes and the blockade, Saudi Arabia and the coalition bear a large part of the responsibility for the current humanitarian crisis in Yemen. As civilians are killed in raids, die of hunger, cholera, or lack of medical supply, the Houthis are able to divert criticism for self-made problems by pointing to foreign involvement. At the same time, the unpopularity of the military intervention attracts people’s support or at least sympathy, since the Houthis are the only force to actively fight against it.
It is hard to assess the real popularity and support the Houthis enjoy from the Yemeni population. However, thanks to a combination of vague ideology, political flexibility and loose internal organization, the Houthis have demonstrated to be a resilient movement. These factors allow not only the aggregation of personal wealth, but also the incorporation of fighters driven by pragmatic considerations, rather than ideological loyalty. External factors, such as the involvement of foreign nations or Yemen’s social structure, are also contributing to the movement’s persistence, at least in the short run.