Risky Business in Yemen

By Rafael Hoffman

(Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)

Few Americans paid much attention to the Houthi terrorist group during its rise to power in Yemen. Yet, for several months now, the group has perpetrated rocket, drone, and highjacking attacks on American and Israel-linked shipping in the Red Sea. Its geographic perch, bearing down on the Bab al-Mandeb strait, allowed them to effectively close what is one of the world’s most important seaways, especially for energy transportation. The U.S. and a team of allied countries rallied to secure the area, but the Houthis only increased their attacks, threatening sailors, supply lines, and global costs.

After a series of warnings, the United States and Great Britain initiated airstrikes against Houthi targets in Yemen. Yet, the Houthis have only taken an increasingly defiant posture, pledging to continue attacks for as long as the war against Hamas continues in Gaza.

Those wary of Iran’s influence warned of the Houthi threat for years. The group, which was long viewed as a ragtag band of rebels, gets robust military aid and training from Iran. It is guided by a radical ideology capsulized in its motto, “G-d is the Greatest, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse Upon the Jews, Victory to Islam.”

The Trump administration lent material support to a Saudi proxy war against the Houthis. That war led to a dire humanitarian situation in Yemen, a nation long plagued by war and terrorism. The Biden administration withdrew support, delisted the Houthis as a terror group, and sued for a ceasefire. By 2022, fighting in Yemen largely stopped, but the Houthis remained highly armed and in control of much of the country.

Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen

Several weeks after Israel’s operation to destroy Hamas began, the Houthis entered the fray, aiming to act on their extreme anti-Israel position. They first targeted Israel directly with rockets. When those were intercepted, they shifted to the present attacks on Red Sea shipping.

Many warn that the Houthis have a high tolerance for losses and stand to gain much prestige by confronting the United States, making escalation a significant risk.

To gain a better understanding of the Houthis and the factors affecting the present conflict, Hamodia spoke to Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

Who are the Houthis and how did they rise to power in Yemen?

They’re a movement led by the al-Houthi family, which is an old family that has had a prominent role in areas of northwest Yemen for decades. In the 1990s, they became more politically engaged and in 2004 took up arms against the Yemeni government.

They drew a good deal of local support. The al-Houthis practice a form of Shiite Islam known as Zaydism and their region is more religious. Some felt Zaydism wasn’t getting sufficient support from the government. Their area is on the border with Saudi Arabia and, at the time, the Saudis were sponsoring a lot of Salafi mosque-building and proselytizing. That triggered a backlash and people looking to protect Zaydi culture and religion were drawn to the Houthis.

The Houthis led six rounds of fighting against the Yemeni government between 2004 and 2010. During that time, they evolved into a more cohesive and organized group. That fighting was mostly contained to the Saada province where the Houthis come from, but it still caused disruption and displacement among the population.

In the last round, 2009-10, the Saudis got drawn in as well in response to a cross-border incursion into their territory by the Houthis. The Saudis started an aerial bombing campaign, which didn’t go very well. They suffered quite a few causalities, and it was an early warning sign that their air force wasn’t as proficient as they might have thought. In a sign of things to come, Saudi Arabia’s involvement did more to rally people to the Houthis than it did to degrade their fighting capabilities.

In 2011, there were massive protests in Yemen during Arab Spring, which eventually toppled its President, Ali Abduallah Salah. The Houthis were part of these protests, but they were not the ones that toppled him. Yemenis from all different backgrounds protested for months and months until he had to leave office.

Now, in other countries that brought down leaders during Arab Spring, they did not stay around afterwards. Tunisia’s president fled to Saudi Arabia, Gadhafi was killed, and Mubarak was arrested and tried.

But, in Yemen, Salah just stayed around. He wasn’t put under any restrictions and, in the meantime, he began to see the Houthis as a way for him to get back into power. Even though his government fought a six-stage war against them, Salah now threw his support behind the Houthis hoping that they, and some elements in the military which remained loyal to him, would return him to power.

That support is what, by 2014, enabled the Houthis to sweep out of their stronghold in the northwest to take Saana, the capital city. In 2015, they kept pushing southwards and were on the verge of capturing Aden and taking control of the entire country.

There is a lot of talk, especially now, about the support the Houthis get from Iran. While Iran certainly helped them, it was Salah’s support that really allowed the Houthis to take power. It ended badly for him, though. Salah eventually split from the Houthis and was later killed by them.

What are the Houthis’ domestic goals?

Yemen was ruled by Zaydis for 1,000 years until 1962, when the country became the stage of a proxy war between Egyptian-backed groups in the south and Saudi-backed groups in the north. That was a period of revolution and, eventually, the division of Yemen into two countries, north Yemen and south Yemen, and that is how it remained until 1990.

The Houthis are an attempt to restore the order that existed before that happened. Their propaganda rhetoric, though, goes beyond that, and is identified with their motto, “Death to America, death to Israel, cursed are the Jews.” They’ve made identification of their enemies, including anything Jewish or American, central to their identity. They used that to mobilize support in a country with a lot of deep anti-American and anti-Israel feeling.

It’s unclear how coherent their political outlook is beyond a sort of localized religious program. Since 2014, the Houthis ruled with an authoritarian, draconian style. People are controlled by force, but the Houthis haven’t put any real institutions in place.

Have the Houthis provided governance or security in the areas they rule?

They’ve provided a degree of security by holding the line against the Saudi and UAE-backed groups in the country. There is more control in the areas under the Houthis than in parts of Yemen that have al-Qaida and other radical groups competing for power. In that sense, they provide basic security. But their rule has nothing positive to it. They haven’t built anything to help people’s lives.

The Galaxy Leader commercial ship is anchored off the coast of al-Salif, Yemen, December 5. (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah/File Photo)

How much of Yemen is under Houthi control and how secure is their hold on power there?

They control the capital of Sana and the areas around it, which is most of the northwest of Yemen.

Beyond that, it is hard to say, since Yemen is split into at least three different spheres of influence. There is a Saudi-led sphere associated with the officially recognized government. They have some level of control in the east. UAE-backed separatist groups have some degree of power in the south.

The Houthis have an advantage over both these groups since the territory they control is contiguous. The other groups have pieces they control here and there and even those places are contested by terrorist groups and others operating in Yemen.

When and how did the Houthis’ partnership with Iran develop?

It developed slowly. Iran’s support was in place before 2014. By that point, there were weapons transfers and other military support in place. It continued to increase, especially when the Saudis and Emiratis became more involved in Yemen. Iran saw this as a way to fight them off.

It started a vicious cycle. The Saudis justified their move into Yemen in 2015 as needed to counter Iranian influence. But, the Saudis getting more involved triggered a big increase in Iranian support for the Houthis.

Saudi Arabia’s choice to take an active role in Yemen in March 2015 was not by coincidence. That decision was made the same week the U.S. and the P5+1 were meeting in Geneva to finalize the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran. In my view, this was the Saudis’ way of telling the U.S. that we’ll now look out for our interests regarding Iran since your nuclear deal doesn’t engage any of our concerns about Iran’s destabilizing support for dangerous regional groups.

Of course, it didn’t go as planned. Instead, we saw a big increase in Iranian levels of support in terms of weapons, training, and technology transfers, which have now given the Houthis the capabilities to attack Red Sea shipping and further destabilize the region.  

Was Iran’s pouring resources into the Houthis chiefly a way to fight off Saudi Arabia, or did they see this as a way to gain more control over the waterways around Yemen?

I don’t know how much of a strategic vision Iran had at the beginning. I think it was more about seeing how hard they can poke the Saudis.

It is true that Iran has a long record of supporting groups that extend their reach indirectly.  I think they identified the Houthis as a group that could do that and hit Saudi Arabia at the same time. This relieved Iran from having to confront the Saudis directly, which would have been riskier.

This strategy has been successful for Iran. In return for a comparatively low level of investment into the Houthis, they’ve got Saudi Arabia bogged down in an unwinnable conflict for nine years.

Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) listens to Mohammed Abdul-Salam, spokesman for Yemen’s Houthi terrorists in Tehran, Aug. 2019. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

How essential is Iranian support for the Houthis’ military capabilities to its ability to rule and threaten the Red Sea?

Iran’s support amplifies the Houthis’ ability to project themselves externally, but internally, I think they would still survive without Iran’s backing.

The Houthis can’t be reduced to an Iranian proxy. They exist independently and have their own political, economic, and security objectives. I think they are quite capable of utilizing the domestic resources they have to control the Yemeni population in their sphere of influence.

Where Iran became more essential was in giving the Houthis the ability to strike back against Saudi Arabia and now to target shipping in the Red Sea.

How important is Israel and threatening the U.S. to the Houthis? Are attacks in their interest or are these strikes largely Iran’s bidding?

As they did when the Houthis attacked Saudi Arabia, Iran is pleased to see their enemies attacked in a way that gives them a degree of deniability. But I think these attacks originate more from the Houthis than from Iran.

The Houthis spent the last 20 years rallying local people in Yemen by saying, “Death to America, death to Israel.” They felt now was their chance to show these aren’t just slogans; they’re ready to put them into action.

If anything, I think Iran might be warier of escalation than the Houthis. Neither Iran nor the Saudis want escalation and they’ve been talking to each other quite a lot recently. We might see the limits of Iranian influence here if the Houthis decide that going all in on these attacks serves their interests.

Is the Houthis’ eagerness to insert themselves into the tensions surrounding the war in Gaza chiefly a way to rally domestic support or is it ideologically driven?

I think it’s a little of both. They wanted to show they stand behind their slogans. If they wouldn’t have acted, I think their supporters would have criticized them for not doing enough to hurt Israel and the U.S. after 20 years of their slogans, which identified them as their enemy.

Those attacks, and even more so, the fact that the U.S. and U.K. have struck back, gave them the rallying point the Houthis were hoping for. In the last weeks, we’ve seen massive rallies in Saana supporting them, so if their objective was to bring people back to full support, they were successful.

How popular were the Houthis in Yemen before these attacks started?

It’s hard to get good data on these things, but there were some signs their support was beginning to slip. People’s lives hadn’t gotten better over the last nine years. Now, they’re living in a repressive society with little to show for it.

Even though the fighting with Saudi Arabia and the government forces stopped since 2022, ordinary people haven’t seen tangible improvements in their lives. Under those circumstances, it was inevitable for people to start asking why the Houthis haven’t made their lives better.

But now, with these attacks, it seems people are rallying around the Houthi leadership.

What, if any, impact did the Biden administration’s initial delisting the Houthis as a Foreign Terror Organization, and moves for a ceasefire between them and the Saudi-backed forces, have on the present attacks on Red Sea shipping?

It may have emboldened the Houthis. The Biden administration made it very clear that their two Middle East policy priorities were ending the war in Yemen and rejoining the JCPOA.

Very early on in his administration, Biden said he was going to stop selling offensive weapons to the Saudis and wasn’t going to deal with [Saudi Crown Prince] bin Salman. That sent a very strong signal, which the Houthis might have picked up on.

Of course, October 7 changed everything for the Biden administration’s posture on the Middle East. One such change is that the Houthis are back on the terror list, albeit the Specially Designated Global Terrorist list, rather than the Foreign Terror Organization. The relisting has some minor adjustments, but it will still discourage organizations from engaging in Yemen out of fear they might transgress U.S. sanctions.

Now, Biden and Democrats in Congress have flipped 180 degrees. They were very critical of the Trump administration for supporting Saudi attacks on the Houthis, but now the Biden administration is the one bombing Yemen and the Saudis are urging restraint. It’s remarkable.

In this Sept. 2015 file photo, smoke rises after an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition on an army base in Sanaa, Yemen. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

The Saudis fought the Houthis for years. Now, not only are they absent from the fight against them, they are also reportedly discouraging the U.S. from taking action in Yemen. What caused this reversal?

The Saudis remember the costs of their conflict with the Houthis. The Houthis sent missiles and drones into Saudi Arabia for years. That set back their Vision 2030 of transforming the county into a hub of industry and tourism.

In March 2022, Saudi Arabia was hosting the Grand Prix motor race in Jeddah against the backdrop of thick black smoke from a Houthi missile attack on a fuel dump a few miles from the track. For Vision 2030 to work, bin Salman needs large-scale international business investment and millions of tourist visits. Neither of those will materialize if the world thinks Saudi Arabia is a target for attacks.

The Saudis are getting closer to their 2030 goal and need to show results. That’s why they’re intent on trying to de-escalate tensions across the region. That is partially what drove the China-brokered agreement with Iran last year. Saudi Arabia went through a very confrontational period with Iran until 2020. Now they need to focus on domestic and economic issues and can’t afford regional volatility. Given Yemen’s ties to Saudi Arabia, escalation there is something they desperately want to avoid.

Do you believe the U.S. can effectively deter Houthi attacks and secure the Red Sea through the type of air strikes they have been carrying out?

If the U.S. has good intelligence about where launch sites and weapons stores are, and can take out those specific targets, it should degrade the Houthis’ ability to attack ships.

But the Houthis have been getting bombed for nine years now. They have a lot of experience in concealing weapons and moving them around. So, it’s hard to see how anything short of a massive bombing campaign could succeed.

What we’ve seen so far is that the Houthis increased the frequency of their attacks after they got hit. If the aim is to try to make the Red Sea safe for international shipping, it might have the opposite effect, at lease for the short term.

Do you see a path to neutralizing the Houthis’ threat to the region?

U.S. and U.K. officials are almost attempting to deny the link these attacks have to the war in Gaza. That’s counterproductive, because regardless of what one thinks about the Houthis or the war against Hamas, the Houthis themselves clearly say they are doing this to support the Palestinian community in Gaza. And that’s consistent with 20 years of the Houthis saying, “Death to Israel, death to America.”

Until there’s a path towards a stop to the war in Gaza or at least the current phase of the military operation there, it’s hard to see what would get the Houthis to stop these attacks.

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