The Houthis: From the Sa’ada Wars to the Saudi-led Intervention

Houthi supporters attend Ashoura commemorations in the Yemeni capital Sana’a on September 10, 2019 // Photo credit: Asem Alposi


By Maysaa Shuja al-Deen 

In February 2010, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh casually declared in a speech that the Sa’ada Wars were over. Six rounds of fighting between the Yemeni army and Houthi movement since 2004 did not end with any political agreement. The Sa’ada Wars had left the government and army fractured and divided politically, as a power struggle emerged between Ahmad Ali Saleh, the son of the president, and Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the country’s top military commander and President Saleh’s old partner in power. Years of war, meanwhile, served to strengthen the Houthis militarily, and after Saleh declared an end of the conflict, the Houthi insurgency was left to control Sa’ada governorate, the birthplace and stronghold of the movement. 

From its experience in the Sa’ada wars, the Houthi movement became a major political and military power in Yemen. Four and half years after Saleh declared the end to hostilities, the Houthis had expanded beyond Sa’ada to control the country’s capital, Sana’a. Even as the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition and Operation Decisive Storm succeeded in halting the Houthi military march across the country and expelling it from southern Yemen, the course of war later began to favor the group, giving the Houthis the momentum to consolidate their authority in northern Yemen and eventually resume their military expansion. The Houthi alliance with Iran has become more solid amid a conflict that has local and regional dimensions. Overall, the Houthis’ rise to power has been defined by several prominent characteristics, which reveal the nature of the movement and give some indication of its potential future actions. 

Alliances That Do Not Last

During their expansion from Sa’ada to Sana’a, the Houthis adopted a policy of forging temporary alliances and targeting rivals one by one. This often involved allying with a certain rival against another for a short period of time. For instance, during the Yemeni uprising in 2011, the Houthis did not mind coordinating and cooperating with the Islamist party, Islah, to get rid of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. This alliance also helped it make other political gains, the most important of which was the expulsion of the Sa’ada governor named by the government and the March 2011 appointment of Houthi ally Fares Mana’a, the most prominent illicit arms dealer in Yemen and the surrounding region.

When Yemen held its National Dialogue Conference (NDC), the Houthi Movement became closer with the Southern Movement, which advocates for the secession of the former South Yemen. The Houthis adopted the Southern Movement narrative that the South had been attacked by a northern tribal system. It also backed the Southern Movement and the Yemeni Socialist Party in demanding a two-region federal system for the country. Even during the NDC, however, the Houthis would continue to rely on their huge military strength to drive events in their favor. Following the breakup of the conference over the issue of federalism, the group resumed its military expansion, capturing Amran governorate, the northern gateway to the capital, in July 2014. 

The fall of Amran and the Houthis’ march toward Sana’a led to a rapprochement with a longtime enemy: former President Saleh. Saleh’s networks of influence and connections in state institutions and society played a key role in facilitating the Houthis’ entry into the capital Sana’a and seizure of power. This alliance was based primarily on confronting their mutual rival, Islah. Saleh believed Islahi leaders were behind the assassination attempt against him in June 2011, while the Islamist party was the Houthi movement’s most prominent ideological rival in tribal areas in the far north. Both Saleh and the Houthis also saw a benefit in thwarting the ongoing transition process, with the former wanting to prove the failure of the 2011 uprising while the latter sought to gain more authority via military force than any political process would grant them.

The Houthis’ mostly-unopposed entry into Sana’a in September 2014 was also aided by the desire of other parties to weaken Islah. President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi thought the Houthis would just confront the 1st Armored Division – led by military commander Ali Mohsen, an Islah ally and the army commander who fought the Houthis during the Sa’ada Wars – and other military forces loyal to Islah, ridding him of a difficult partner in power and allowing him to rule alone. Instead, the Houthis seized the entire capital. The group’s relations with different political parties became tense after the Houthis imposed their network of supervisors (mushrifeen)[1] on all government ministries. This tension ruptured in January 2015 after the Houthis kidnapped the head of the presidential office, Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak, while he was carrying a draft constitution to submit to the national committee tasked with overseeing the outcomes of the NDC. While the Houthis justified the move by saying the draft constitution stipulated a six-region federal system that had been rejected during the conference, their power grab was a primary factor in President Hadi and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah resigning in protest. 

By March 2015, when the Houthis invaded Taiz and the South in pursuit of President Hadi, who had fled to Aden and renounced his resignation, the group had lost all its temporary allies except their alliance with Saleh. This final union lasted until the former president called for a revolt against the Houthis in December 2017, which was followed by limited clashes and ended with Saleh’s murder at the hands of his longtime enemy and more recent ally.

Still, the Houthis do not rule out rapprochement with any party if it would benefit the group in the struggle against a mutual enemy. For instance, Houthi official Hussein al-Azzi in March 2020 publicly declared support for the secessionist Southern Transitional Council in its struggle with the Hadi government in South Yemen.

However, the group nature will only allow temporary alliances up to a certain point. In terms of ruling, the Houthi movement does so alone. It has not sought to form any lasting political or social alliances, for instance allying with some tribes, and instead has employed an approach reliant on oppression and imposing its will on Yemeni society.

Changing Depictions and Contradictory Rhetoric

Along with its military strength and alliances-of-convenience, on the road to seizing power the Houthi movement has shown a willingness to shift how it depicts itself and its motives, depending on the situation, regardless of whether this is inconsistent with its actions on the ground or its previously stated ideological stances. 

The group’s favored image is that of a minority that had long been persecuted by the Saleh regime, resulting in the marginalization of Sa’ada on the political and developmental levels. The Houthis were particularly fond of promoting this image inside Yemen during the 2011 uprising to demonstrate common cause with groups in Taiz and the South that also felt persecuted by the central government in Sana’a.

During the NDC the Houthis presented themselves, through their representative Dr. Ahmad Sharfeddine, as believers in secularism and supporters of the separation of religion and the state. This greatly contradicts with the origins of the Houthi movement as a Zaidi revivalist group and the religious ideology underpinning it. 

After seizing Amran in July 2014, the Houthis began promoting themselves as a group that fights corruption. The movement’s leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi reiterated this point in his speeches before the group entered the capital as well as afterward. This rhetoric, however, completely ignored the fact that the Houthis had allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose time in power had coincided with an expansion of political corruption in the country. 

The group later promoted itself as fighting the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda in Yemen following bombings claimed by IS against the Badr and al-Hashoosh mosques on March 20, 2015. The fight against terrorism also served as a pretext for the Houthi military expansion into Taiz and southern Yemen, though with the result that the sectarian nature of the group further enflamed tensions with these societies. 

After the Arab coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm on March 26, 2015, the Houthi leadership depicted the group as a national movement defending Yemen against foreign enemies. Notably, Yemenis who opposed the group were labeled as “hypocrites” (al-munafqun) in Houthi-controlled media. The term has religious significance, having been used to describe the Prophet Mohammed’s rivals in Medina, with hypocrites being considered worse and more dangerous than infidels.

Finally, the Houthis while governing have presented themselves as a legitimate authority that protects the country and that commits to the frameworks of the republic. This, however, flies in the face of its previous labeling of the 1962 Revolution, which toppled the Imamate and established the republic, as a “military coup.” Statements expressing the group’s commitment to democracy contradict the ideological and exclusionary nature of the group. Hussein al-Houthi, the founder of the Houthi Movement, labeled democracy a western conspiracy. The movement’s intellectual and cultural manifesto, which serves as the reference for Houthi ideology but has been deleted from the group’s website, also runs contrary to the concepts of a modern state, such as a constitution and citizenship, and advocates concepts associated with the Imamate, of which the most important is the authority of Ahl Al-Bayt (the family of the Prophet Mohammed) over the world. Thus, the Houthis’ claim that they want partnership with other political and social powers in Yemen is contradicted by their adherence to absolute religious ideas that they are not willing to compromise or give up.  

A Sacred Expansion

As the Houthis have pragmatically struck alliances and altered their image, another constant in their rise to power has been a desire for continuous military expansion. During their participation in the 2011 Yemeni uprising, the Houthis fought battles in Hajjah and Al-Jawf against the army and local tribes. While attending the NDC, the Houthis fought Salafists based in Dammaj, Sa’ada, and later tribes and Yemeni army brigades loyal to Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar in Al-Jawf and Amran. Even after their takeover of Sana’a in September 2014 and other political factions’ signing and adherence to the peace and partnership agreement, the Houthis continued their expansion in Al-Bayda, Ibb and Hudaydah governorates. 

This expansion cannot be understood without understanding the ideology and rhetoric the movement espouses toward its supporters. While adapting their public image depending on the context and audience, the Houthis have consistently adopted a special rhetoric when addressing their supporters – one in which they expose the religious and sectarian nature of the movement. The Houthis convey ideas that confirm the group’s purity, implying that the religious movement is the only righteous group, unlike other political and social powers. They also distinguish the Hashemites (part of the Ahl al-Bayt), which include the immediate Houthi family, as a special class apart from the rest of the society. In terms of framing the Houthis’ battles to extend their power and influence across Yemen, the group has labeled its military expansion beyond Sa’ada as “The Quranic March”. “Quranic” denotes that the group’s actions are religiously inspired while “March” implies a continuous mission, starting in Yemen with the ultimate aim of liberating Jerusalem as part of a broader struggle against the United States and Israel.

Loyalty and Cohesion

The Houthis are a religious Zaidi movement that is limited to Yemen. While they have expanded their rhetoric to more closely reflect ideas espoused by Iran and other Shia Islamist movements in the so-called ‘Axis of Resistance’, their nature remains highly local, based on ancestral and territorial history. One cannot easily join the core Houthi movement because it does not trust anyone who joined after it expanded beyond Sa’ada and became the ruling power in Sana’a. This can be seen clearly when looking at the background of most military commanders and mushrifeen, many of whom share kinship or connections by marriage to the Houthi family and were part of the movement dating back to the insurgency against the central government, like Al-Tawos, Al-Ejri, Al-Shami, Habra and Filita families.

The political pragmatism in dealing with outsiders, exemplified in temporary alliances and changing rhetoric, contradicts the Houthi movement’s true doctrinal nature and narrow composition. Relations between the movement’s members are based on absolute loyalty to the leadership and complete faith in the inevitability of reaching the movement’s goals. The group’s faith in its own purity has led to a sense of superiority over others and distrust of outsiders. 

Understanding the Houthis requires distinguishing between their true internal rhetoric versus the actions and words directed at non-members. Above all, loyalty to the leadership and the movement are the group’s core values. This coherence and unity has formed the basis for its existence and has served to protect it against outsiders, whether foreign powers or fellow Yemenis. The Houthi movement was formed and shaped during years of war. Even now, while governing in Sana’a and controlling the majority of Yemen’s population, the actions of the group remain influenced by the feeling that there always lurks a threat to the movement’s existence.

 

Maysaa Shuja al-Deen is a non-resident fellow at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies where her research focuses on sectarianism, political transformation and Yemen’s geopolitical role in the region. She tweets at @maysaashujaa.


About the Sana’a Center: The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover political, social, economic and security related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.


Endnotes

  1. Mushrifeen have come to play a critical role in Houthi governance in Yemen. They are appointed according to their loyalty to the movement and are tasked with supervising the work of state institutions. A mushrif represents the Houthis’ supreme authority, leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi, and is considered the final reference for major decisions.
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