The Houthi Movement, known officially as Ansar Allah, is a Zaydi revivalist movement that takes its name from its eponymous founder, Hussein al-Houthi. Leadership of the movement remains in the hands of the al-Houthi family and especially Abd al-Malik al-Houthi.
Ansar Allah does not see itself as a political party, seeking to avoid the negative connotations of hizbiyya (factionalism/partisanship), while also aiming to be a social and cultural movement outside politics. At the same time, the Movement’s de-facto control of central and local institutions and the programme laid-out in its ‘National Vision’ suggests not only that it will likely continue to play an important role in most post-conflict scenarios, but that the rejection of the party label is a bid for hegemony—part of a programme for setting the parameters of the ‘political’ without participating in it directly.
Can Ansar Allah survive an end to war?
The idea that the Houthi Movement flourishes in war and will collapse in peace is something of a commonplace among the movement’s opponents, but it remains an untested proposition.
By the time of the 2011 uprisings, the Houthi Movement had asserted de-facto control of Saada governorate by force of arms, despite the six wars President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar waged against the group from 2004-2010 (the “Saada wars”). During the transition process from 2012-2014, Ansar Allah expanded its territorial control, making use of the divisions between the Islah party, former President Saleh, and interim President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi to advance into Hajjah and Al-Jawf, then take control of Amran, and finally of the capital Sanaa with limited resistance. Today, Ansar Allah is the dominant power throughout almost all of the former Yemen Arab Republic (former North Yemen).
There is little doubt that the movement has emerged strengthened through successive conflicts, growing significantly in size, organisational sophistication, and military capacity throughout the Saada wars and the current war. External intervention and the ongoing Saudi-led blockade legitimise the movement’s narrative of resistance, provide justification for its heavy-handed crackdowns on dissent, and obfuscate any local failures of governance—it is always the war, never Ansar Allah’s policies that are to blame for famine, fuel shortages, and collapsing educational attainment. Conflict with an external enemy is also keeping internal contradictions and competition between different power centres in the Movement in check.
Yet, to conclude from these observations that Ansar Allah would collapse in peace is unwarranted. While different power centres in the movement exist, they share a willingness to accept decisions made by the senior leadership as final. Moreover, the way that the movement has taken control of central and local institutions across the regions of Yemen it controls, the way it has implanted itself in formal institutions and built parallel networks of control centred on its core leadership in Saada, and its serious attempts to collect revenues and govern, not least at the local level, gives lie to the belief that Ansar Allah has little staying power without open conflict.
Ansar Allah has taken control of the formal and informal institutions of governance in the areas under its control. It has packed the central ministries in Sanaa with its supporters, appointed new senior officials in the governorates and districts, and actively recruited new members among civil servants. While much of the former structure and its employees remain in place, the presence of movement supporters in its key nodes is increasingly cementing Ansar Allah control. In addition, Ansar Allah has developed a parallel network of ‘supervisors,’ creating a finely woven web of surveillance and control in parallel to formal institutions, with a special focus on control of security forces.
Similarly, Ansar Allah has invested significant energy in informal institutions and centres of power. It has adopted a divide and rule approach to the tribal system, cutting off support to established tribal leaders and fostering competition among rival contenders by rewarding support and recruitment for the war effort with funds and influence .
The movement has also embedded itself in business. It has created monopolies for newly-established businesses affiliated with the Movement, taken control of large companies formerly headed by political rivals, and established silent partnerships in businesses with owners more willing to accommodate the Movement’s demands .
These changes have been accompanied by ongoing moves towards centralisation, increasing taxation, and ‘anti-corruption.’ The most recent UN panel of experts report decried the redirection of $1.8 billion of revenues by the movement for its war effort. Keeping in mind the Sanaa authorities’ lack of access to hydrocarbon revenue, (limited) ongoing expenditure through formal channels, and the collapse of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the revenues redirected to war alone suggest a higher tax to GDP ratio than before the war. Higher taxes in the midst of economic collapse are unpopular, but underscore the extent to which the movement’s administrative capacity and its de facto control has expanded.
Ansar Allah’s political platform: the ´National Vision`
The combined statements, judgements, and interpretations of successive leaders of the Houthi Movement function as spiritual and religious guidance. They are ambivalent, at best, about parties, elections, and other trappings of democratic politics, but have little to say about specific policies and do not lay out a political programme. This has contributed to the charge that the Movement advocates different agendas depending on the context and audience: a ‘civil state’ at the National Dialogue, good governance to Western diplomats, and holy war, sectarian division, and the illegitimacy of political rivals to its supporters.
Politicians and technocrats close to the movement have tried to allay this charge and lay out a political agenda in the form of the ‘National Vision.’ While the continuation of the war and the absence of a political process has broadly ensured that those within the movement tasked with prosecuting the war and in favour of its continuation have maintained their ascendancy, the energy invested in developing and implementing the National Vision is testament to the continued influence of the movement’s ‘political wing’. Indeed, it may be gaining influence, with some indications of a greater willingness of Mahdi al Mashat, the president of the Supreme Political Council, and Abd al-Malik al-Houthi to listen to their arguments.
The National Vision aims to achieve a “modern, democratic, stable and unified Yemeni state” committing to the republican system, elections, and equal citizenship (ibid: 20). It includes a problem analysis reflective of key issues identified in the National Dialogue (ibid: 26-28) and comes replete with key performance indicators based on international benchmarks and indices (ibid: 31). It is steeped in the language of good governance, human rights, community consultation, and other staples of international development good practice. Ansar Allah’s opponents have rejected it out of hand, as a propaganda document produced in bad faith.
Yet, Ansar Allah is investing significant energy into implementing the vision and achieving its indicators. ‘National Vision units’ have been created in ministries and the very limited public funding available for investments is being channelled towards its priorities. Viewed as a document that is as eloquent in its silences as its pronouncements--and read in conjunction with the de-facto evolution of institutions and governance practices--the vision does, perhaps, suggest the outlines of Ansar Allah’s political programme.
While the Vision suggests a genuine interest in improving administrative efficiency and capacity, increasing public revenues, and generating output legitimacy through improving services and reducing petty corruption (ibid: 39-41), its statements about rights and freedoms are much more heavily hedged. It ultimately lays out a framework for peace and future government that implies a recognition of Ansar Allah’s dominant status outside of politics. Without ever making it explicit, the Vision implies a continuation of the status quo in which the movement and its leaders possess far-reaching authority, without occupying a formal role in public institutions. It suggests toleration for political parties and pluralism within a narrowly conceived political arena of which Ansar Allah is not a part, stresses the need for consensus and “cohesion,” and envisages consultations between a central authority and community committees, not dialogue or competition between comparable national-level organisations (ibid: 35, 37, 39-40, 41).
The Ansar Allah’s role in future Yemeni politics
All of this suggests that Ansar Allah is likely to continue to play a key role in Yemeni politics for the next ten years and beyond. Peace might make some of the fissures in the Movement visible. Yet, a shared willingness within it to accept decisions made by the senior leadership would likely keep centripetal forces at bay. Likewise, its penetration of political institutions, security forces, and business make it unlikely that the Movement’s influence would collapse if the war ends. This embeddedness, coupled with the Movement’s views on politics and its insistence that it is not a political party, may make it a difficult partner for other political actors. On its present trajectory, it is hard to see Ansar Allah becoming part of a unity government it does not dominate. Whether it can deliver on its vision, and whether its policies will resonate with the wider Yemeni public, remains to be seen.
 J. Rogers (2020). Changing local governance in Yemen: District and governorate institutions in the areas under Ansar Allah's control. Berghof Foundation Working Paper, https://berghof-foundation.org/library/changing-local-governance-in-yemen
 ACAPS (2020). Thematic Report: The Houthi Supervisory System. ACAPS Yemen Analysis Hub: https://www.acaps.org/sites/acaps/files/products/files/20200617_acaps_ye...
 A. Nagi, E. Ardemagni and M. Transfeld (2020). “Shuyyukh, Policemen and Supervisors: Yemen’s Competing Security Providers.” Italian Institute for International Political Studies, Carnegie Middle East Center and Yemen Polling Center joint analysis, https://carnegie-mec.org/2020/03/27/shuyyukh-policemen-and-supervisors-y...
 UNSC Panel of Experts on Yemen (2021) “Letter dated 22 January 2021 from the Panel of Experts on Yemen addressed to the President of the Security Council.” UN Document S/2021/79, pp.34-36: https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/S_2021_79_E.pdf.
 Sana’a Center Economic Unit (2020) 'Yemen Economic Bulletin: Tax and Rule – Houthis Move to Institutionalize Hashemite Elite with „One-Fifth“ Levy‘. Sana'a Center For Strategic Studies: https://sanaacenter.org/publications/analysis/11628; see also: Rogers (2020) op. cit.
 UNSC Panel of Experts on Yemen (2021), ibid., p.34.
 A. Carboni (2021). “The Myth of Stability: Infighting and Repression in Houthi-Controlled Territories. ACLED: https://acleddata.com/2021/02/09/the-myth-of-stability-infighting-and-re...
 M. Shujaa Al Din (2020). The Houthis: From the Sa’ada Wars to the Saudi-led Intervention. Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies: https://sanaacenter.org/publications/analysis/10205
 Supreme Political Council (2019). National Vision for the Modern Yemeni State, p.8 http://yemenvision.gov.ye/upload/National%20Vision%20For%20The%20Modern%...