It has become a requirement to use the expression “Iran-supported” whenever referring to Ansar Allah, more commonly known as the Houthis. The revivalist and repressive movement has taken over large parts of Yemen and embarked on a campaign to recast the Yemeni people and society in its own image: one that values martyrdom over life.
It is also necessary, however, to be skeptical about the extent of Iranian support to the group. I have always argued that this influence has been exaggerated by Houthi opponents. No matter what the extent of Iranian assistance, the main factor behind Houthi successes over five years of conflict has not been Iran. Iran couldn’t have had that level of impact in the group’s victories without boots on the ground in Yemen. Rather, Houthi successes should be primarily attributed to the incompetence, corruption, and pettiness of its Yemeni enemies, the duplicity and scheming of their regional allies, and the indifference of the international community, represented by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who, for whatever reason, looked the other way as Houthis took over Sa’ada governorate and advanced toward the capital, Sana’a, in 2012 and 2013, came out in open support of that advance when Houthi forces seized Amran, defeating General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar’s main combat unit, Brigade 310. When the Houthis reached Sana’a, they needed a legitimizing cause to enter the city. Hadi came to the rescue again by arbitrarily raising fuel prices, disregarding years of negotiations with international donors and careful planning by the government on ways to mitigate the impact on the poor of reducing the crippling fuel subsidies. With that, Hadi gave the Houthis the rallying cry that they needed. When Houthis assaulted the headquarters of the 1st Armored Division, a unit loyal to Ali Mohsen, units from the Presidential Protection Brigades lobbed rockets into the base in support of the advancing Houthi forces.
Hadi’s free service to the Houthis did not stop there. After the takeover of Sana’a, he sheepishly agreed to continue giving them legal cover while he was under house arrest. It took him months to resign and remove that cover. Even after his escape to Aden, then to Riyadh, his services to the Houthis continued. Hadi’s long absence from Yemen, his failure to build a national army, his mishandling of the national economy, his corruption and nepotism are only a partial list of acts that served to legitimize Houthi control.
Two disastrous decisions deserve particular mention. On the governance side, Hadi’s decision to transfer the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) headquarters to Aden in September 2016 was the single most important event that prompted the Houthi takeover of state institutions in Sana’a. Until then, a tacit agreement to maintain state institutions had prevailed between the warring parties. The Houthis did not appoint ministers or heads of state enterprises and institutions at that time, but rather appointed acting ministers and acting heads. The CBY in Sana’a had continued to pay the salaries to all state employees, including Yemeni army soldiers who were actively fighting on both sides of the frontlines. When the CBY was moved, all of that changed, with the Houthis quickly seeking control over the mechanisms of state in the north.
On the military and political level, the president’s insistence on using his office and, indeed, the entire Yemeni government, to settle old scores with southern opponents fractured any potential coherent military response to Houthi expansion. In short, the “Hadi-supported militia” would be a more appropriate descriptor for the Houthis.
Other Yemeni parties also did their bit to support the Houthis. Now-Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and senior commanders have dubiously handled the government’s military budget and battles. Meanwhile, Islah’s overbearance and greed in dealing with rivals, particularly in Marib and Taiz, the Southern Transitional Council’s ethnic cleansing of northerners in Aden and other parts of the south, and Tareq Saleh’s rejection of the legitimacy of the internationally recognized government, are all free gifts that fractured the Houthi opposition and enabled the group to solidify its control over the Yemeni state.
The Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition was equally generous to the Houthi movement. This started with the first civilian massacre in Sana’a – a giant explosion in Faj Attan in April 2015, witnessed personally by the author, which destroyed an entire neighborhood and claimed hundreds of casualties. At times, Yemeni informers gave the gullible Saudis coordinates of civilian targets, often to settle local scores. Such incompetent coalition military actions mainly punished civilians and lent Houthi recruitment drives popular appeal.
The United Arab Emirates’ contribution to the Houthis’ success also was significant. It fractured and weakened the anti-Houthi front by forming an assortment of militias in Taiz, along the west coast and in the south. Their destructive campaign in the south was enabled by Hadi, who monopolized southern representation at the national level and weaponized Yemeni unity against his rivals in the south. The icing on the cake of the UAE’s gifts to Houthis was the recent theatrical normalization of relations with Israel, which, in the eyes of the majority of Yemenis, validates Houthi claims that they are fighting Israel. With that exaggerated display, the UAE handed a poison pill to its allies in Yemen and all the anti-Houthi forces.
However, the Saudis gave the greatest gift to Houthis. Between 2016 and 2018, when frontlines were largely static, the coalition provided the Houthis the opportunity to complete their military takeover of northern Yemen and get rid of their erstwhile partner, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Many Yemeni army units had remained loyal to Saleh, and on various occasions, the Saudis carried out airstrikes on their bases while nearby Houthi militia units were left unscathed, allowing those Houthi forces to move in and assume control. Thus, Riyadh, which for close to a century had a strategic objective to degrade the Yemeni military threat, ended up facilitating the Houthis’ assertion of military dominance in the north, a process that was largely completed by 2017, shortly before the Houthis murdered the former president.
Even today, the Saudis will not stop giving. Their thinly veiled designs on Yemeni territory, as clearly demonstrated by their military deployment and actions in Al-Mahra, provide the Houthis a cause to rally Yemeni nationalists in defending the integrity of their homeland.
The international community, particularly through the UNSC, also helped the Houthis, with their greatest gift being Security Council Resolution 2216. The resolution was intended to prevent the Houthis and Saleh from overtaking the Yemeni state and military. In reality, the coalition used the resolution to legitimize its massive military assault and blockade on northern Yemen, unleashing a humanitarian and economic crisis, and weakening the local population vis-a-vis the Houthis. This made the people more compliant and easier for the Houthis to recruit. The UN was then forced to send an army of aid workers and hundreds of millions of dollars to Yemen to address the humanitarian crisis it helped unleash, which the Houthis became increasingly adept at diverting for their own ends. The Houthis also had few vulnerabilities outside Yemen, thus the international sanctions accompanying 2216 did little to harm the group but rather made them more self-reliant.
Those who puzzle over the incredible Houthi success should stop thinking of the movement as an Iranian pawn or a satanic plant. It is neither. It is a youthful Yemeni ideological movement that exploits the weaknesses and contradictions of an aging political system paralyzed by decades of kleptocratic authoritarianism and its scheming regional allies at odds with each other. With enemies like these, the Houthis hardly need friends.
Abdulghani Al-Iryani is a senior researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies where he focuses on the peace process, conflict analysis and transformations of the Yemeni state. He tweets at @abdulghani1959.
This commentary first appeared in Battle for Marib – The Yemen Review, September 2020.
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 diplomatic, political, social, economic, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.