Houthi supporters rally in Sana’a for the ‘Day of Wilayah’ events on August 8, 2020 // Sana’a Center photo by Asem Alposi
Commentary by Mohammed Abdulla Mohammed
Editor’s note: The author is a Yemeni journalist based in Sana’a. He is writing under a pseudonym for security reasons.
The Yemen War is often characterized in international media as a proxy war framed as part of the broader competition for regional hegemony between Iran and Saudi Arabia. An excessive focus on regional geopolitics creates a narrative that largely ignores the local drivers of the conflict and the historic context in Yemen that shaped them. This is critical in the case of Ansar Allah, otherwise known as the Houthis, a relatively young, militant, religious group that rose to power in recent years and whose objectives remain little understood or scrutinized by Yemen analysts and commentators who miss a crucial question: How is the Houthi movement understood from a local Yemeni perspective?
To get a grasp of how the Houthi movement is seen from a local perspective, it is important to dissect the movement’s relationship to Zaidism, the religious school within Shia Islam almost exclusively found in Yemen. It is from the principles of Zaidism that the movement draws its legitimacy and, to a large extent, its ideological discourse and its practices. Historically, Zaidism was closely associated with the notion of the rule of the imam (al-imamah or wilayat al imam). The imamate is a Zaidi religious principle of governance, according to which the legitimacy of the ruler is granted through “divine” privilege based on ‘sacred lineage’. While Zaidism allows for the position of the imam to be contested it is, however, exclusively held by Hashemite families – meaning those who claim lineal descent from the Prophet’s daughter and her husband Ali (the Prophet’s cousin). Various imams ruled areas of northern Yemen, with intermittent periods of foreign control, from the first Zaidi imamate at the end of the 9th century until 1962. Throughout that period, consecutive imams asserted their rule through a quasi-institutional state structure in which they held both “spiritual” and “temporal” authority.
Although the Houthi movement rose to prominence more than four decades after the overthrow of the imamate in 1962 and the founding of the republic, the objectives and ideology of the group were deeply influenced by this event. Most of the leadership of the Houthi movement subscribes to Zaidism and many hail from Hashemite families, including the Al-Houthi family. Thus, while it is true that the Houthis have received support from Iran, this is not enough to explain their rise to power. Their biggest strength is that they rooted their ideas in certain historic events and icons that resonate with a segment of the Yemeni population. As such, Zaidism cannot be reduced to just a religious sect, it is the legacy of the Zaidi Hashemite imams that continues to influence perceptions of Zaidism and ‘Zaidi areas’ today. Post-1962, many people from historically Shafi’ Sunni areas moved into the capital area, which is historically part of the Zaidi northern highlands. Additionally, the rise of Sunni Islamist movements and the spread of Wahhabism led to a demographic shift that could be characterized as a wave of ‘Sunnization’ at the heart of historically Zaidi areas. This occurred as Zaidism contracted in the decades following the 1962 revolution from a school of thought that occupies the center of power to a personal system of belief and spirituality in the private sphere.
The rise of the Houthis to power awoke fears among many Yemenis of a restoration of the ancient regime represented by the Zaidi imamate in place of the republican system and, with it, a return to the pre-1962 social hierarchies, and a geographic divide along sectarian lines.
Notably, while the republican revolution did result in structural changes it didn’t fully succeed in breaking away from the royalists. The September 26, 1962 revolution was followed by a civil war between republicans, backed by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, and royalists backed mainly by Saudi Arabia, that ended with a political compromise in 1970 that integrated elements of the royalist camp into the republican government. In retrospect, it seems that for more than four decades, dormant royalist sentiments were awaiting a change of fortunes to resurface.
During this period, the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 was a source of inspiration for those who supported the revival of the principle of wilayat al imam. This includes, most notably, the Believing Youth, founded in 1992 as Zaidi revivalist movement based in Sa’ada, some of whose members would go on to form the core of the Houthi movement.
The Houthi movement emerged to further prominence after it came into open conflict with the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Military operations launched by the Yemeni army in Sa’ada governorate in 2004 resulted in the killing of Hussein al-Houthi, the founder of the Houthi movement and the elder brother of the current leader, Abdelmalek al-Houthi. This was the first of six rounds of armed confrontation between the Houthi movement and the Yemeni government that became known collectively as the Sa’ada War, or the Houthi Rebellion, and lasted until 2010. Following the first round, leadership of the movement shifted to Abdelmalek al-Houthi, who was also inspired by Hezbollah and the Lebanese militant Shi’a group’s resistance to the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon and US hegemony in the region. Later, the power vacuum that followed the 2011 Yemeni uprising and the revolutionary fervor that ensued provided an opportune moment for the Houthi movement to refocus its insurgent activity toward marching on the capital, Sana’a, which it entered on September 21, 2014. This date is now marked in Houthi-controlled areas as ‘the Revolution of September 21’, celebrated as a public holiday exceeding the festive displays on the anniversary of the September 26 republican revolution that toppled the imamate.
The principle of the imamate in the Zaidi doctrine legitimizes rebelling against a standing imam who is deemed unjust or unqualified, but this right to rebel is exclusive to an aspiring imam who is a Hashemite himself. This Zaidi principle of the “right to rebel” marked much of Yemeni history with constant struggles for power among competing Hashemite families, and plays a key role in the Houthi movement today. It was used by the Houthi movement tacitly to justify its armed confrontations with the Yemeni state during the Sa’ada wars, and its rise to power backed by revolutionary rhetoric in the lead up to — and the aftermath of — of the 2011 uprising. Thus, while the Houthis draw some strength and impetus from foreign support, they are capable of creating a local base by embedding themselves in Yemeni history and a notion of Yemeni traditional culture.
As a rising group that is still in the process of consolidating power, the Houthi movement does not officially adopt an anti-republic/pro-imamate position. However, its rising historical revisionist narrative that attempts to whitewash the imamate has become more visible and mainstream in some parts under the Houthi control; this is seen in the type of books showcased for the first time in Sana’a libraries that put the imamate legacy in a positive light. That being said, it is understandable that the Houthis do not officially or publicly adopt a pro-imamate position given the historic stigma it still carries, cemented in over half a century of republican rule. Thus, openly adopting a pro-imamate position now would risk alienating large segments of their supporters. Instead, the Houthis strategically chose to push for the more group-unifying victimhood narrative condensed in the idea that Zaidis have been persecuted in republican Yemen – which conflates the perceived political and developmental marginalization of Zaidis in Sa’ada during Saleh’s regime with the experience of the general Zaidi population.
Although the importance of understanding domestic conflict drivers in Yemen cannot be understated, it would be a mistake to gloss over the role Iranian support plays in the Houthis’ ability to remain in control. If anything, the group’s military and logistical ties to Tehran have increased during the war years. Nevertheless, the Iranian influence is still largely confined to ideological, social and political support. Other influences on the Houthi movement include contemporary Islamist movements, both Sunni and Shia, as well as the history and traditions of Zaidi imams. Houthi activities should, therefore, be understood as a return to the traditionalism of the Zaidi sect and, by extension, to the key principle of the divine rule of the imam figure, albeit with the aforementioned cross-sectarian influences.
There is a precedent for overemphasizing external factors in past conflicts in Yemen. Following the 1962 revolution, international press coverage of the North Yemen civil war was heavily focused on whether the war would result in North Yemen joining the anti-colonial Eastern bloc or the capitalist Western bloc. At the time, as is also being done incorrectly now, the parties to the internal conflict were categorized based mainly on their proximity to or distance from two opposing international axes, with no attempt to understand the local factors that were, in reality, the primary drivers of the conflict. This analysis was and remains suspect. When Egyptian forces withdrew from Yemen after the Arab defeat in the July 1967 war with Israel, the republican system in Sana’a was left in a precarious position, lacking the external support it once had, yet the republic persisted.
The lesson to be drawn from the past is that foreign support for the Houthi movement is unlikely to dictate its ultimate success or failure. It is true that the Houthis make up a cohesive element in what is known as Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance’, whereby any major setbacks or ruptures in this axis could undoubtedly affect the group’s morale and its ability to latch on to a greater ‘vision’ for the region. However, so long as the local conditions and dynamics that led to the rise of the Houthis persist, and the group remains militarily cohesive, as is likely, its ultimate success or failure will not be determined by ties to Iran.
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.