When the armed Houthi movement, Ansar Allah, took over Sana’a on September 21, 2014, it was almost inconceivable that they would still be holding the Yemeni capital six years on. Look ahead to six years from today, however, and current trajectories seem to foreshadow the group and its leaders being only further entrenched in power at the head of a state they are dramatically recrafting in their image. The increasing likelihood of that possible future should alarm most Yemenis, regional leaders and the international community alike.
The Houthis exemplify the dynamic of the oppressed becoming the oppressors. They arose from a marginalized community within the Zaidi sect in Yemen’s northern Sa’ada governorate, and through the 2000s the central government, headed by then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, waged a series of six brutal wars against the group. Houthi fighters ultimately emerged undefeated and battle-hardened, though the widespread death, injury, imprisonment and torture many suffered left deep scars, and helped solidify a militant ideology.
In 2014, however, Houthi leaders managed to cultivate a populist veneer with which to ride into the capital. The Arab Spring-inspired Yemeni uprising had led to Saleh being replaced in 2012 by his deputy, Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who quickly spoiled the general good will accompanying his rise to the presidency through mismanagement and corruption. Houthi promises to fight corruption and reinstate a fuel subsidy Hadi had clumsily revoked, causing prices to spike, earned the group a degree of welcome when it entered the capital in September 2014. That the Houthis had by then entered into an alliance with Saleh also added a layer of popular cover for their subsequent coup d’etat against Hadi and the internationally recognized Yemeni government.
Though fearsome on the battlefield as they and Saleh’s troops pressed a military campaign south to Aden, drawing Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to intervene in the war, away from the frontlines the Houthis relied heavily on Saleh and his General People’s Congress party to take the lead on the diplomatic, political and bureaucratic affairs of state. A stunning feature of their rise, however, has been how much more capable they have become on these other fronts. By the time Houthi fighters murdered Saleh in late 2017, they had learned to handle the levers of state, finance and the economy to further their domestic dominance, allowing them to solidify unfettered control over most of northern Yemen.
The Stockholm Agreement in late 2018, which halted Emirati-backed Yemeni forces from attacking Houthi-held Hudaydah city, then changed the course of the war. The entrenched Houthi forces had threatened a prolonged battle over Yemen’s busiest port, which would have put millions of Yemenis at risk of famine, compelling western powers to intervene and stop the assault. With its attack thwarted, Abu Dhabi reconsidered its plans and eventually withdrew most of its troops from Yemen the following year. Meanwhile, Houthi tactics to thwart and stall the United Nations from being able to implement the agreed redeployment of forces away from Hudaydah city and port became a study in how to manipulate the international community. The Houthis thus managed to keep control of Hudaydah and effectively be under UN protection from future attack. The Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition lost the military initiative after the Stockholm Agreement, allowing Houthi forces to gradually regain it and eventually relaunch offensives on other frontlines.
In 2019, Houthi forces, with support from Iran, then demonstrated their increasing technological prowess by dramatically escalating their use of weaponized drones and precision guided missiles, allowing them to consistently hit targets across Yemen, Saudi Arabia and potentially beyond. In raising their profile beyond Yemen to become a regional threat, Houthi leaders are accruing international leverage. This is the lens through which to make sense of why the group is allowing the threat of an environmental catastrophe in the Red Sea to persist by preventing UN crews from assessing the decrepit Safer oil terminal offshore of Hudaydah. Similarly, Houthi forces’ periodic threats and attacks against international shipping passing through the Red Sea, one of the world’s busiest corridors for commercial freight, are another way to demonstrate the international community’s vulnerability to the group.
Meanwhile at home, the Houthis have been progressively disassembling the existing republican structures and remaking governance and society beneath them. Houthi opponents have accused the group of attempting to reestablish the imamate or to emulate the Iranian model, and while elements of both are present, the group is, in practice, cultivating a bespoke arrangement for social suppression.
The Houthi authorities have placed monitors and supervisors throughout government ministries and departments, creating a parallel command and control network to the traditional institutional hierarchy and thereby supplanting and disempowering the formal state. In a direct affront to the concept of equal citizenry in a republic, the Houthis’ theocratically-inspired khums, or one-fifth tax, implemented this year, to the benefit of Hashemites, seeks to institutionalize a sectarian elite and social caste system. The effective privatization of public schools through new school fees and the remaking of the school curriculum to reflect the Houthi sectarian doctrine seem intended to foster a culture of ignorance in which to raise the next generation of frontline soldiers, not learned scholars and thinkers.
While casting themselves in religious rhetoric, Houthi cadres employ a ruthless and pragmatic criminality akin to the mafia, using the tools of extortion, intimidation, co-option, corruption and the like in social and economic affairs. The engineering of fuel shortages in areas they control – which the Houthis publicly blame on the Saudi-led coalition’s import controls – to extract revenue from the local market through blackmarket fuel sales is a good example of Houthi racketeering on a mass scale. Another is the Houthis’ organized plundering of the international relief effort.
Earlier in the war, some commentators had proffered the idea that other Yemenis living under Houthi rule would rise up against the group once its nature became clear. However, the absolute intolerance of dissent in Houthi areas – where security forces brutally stamp out protests, arrest and torture activists and journalists, and persecute minorities – has created a prevailing fear that enforces social compliance. Networks of Houthi informants within communities undermine social momentum against the group by breeding fear between neighbors. Houthi forces also routinely use their ability to deny people access to jobs, aid, and basic necessities as leverage to make them heel. Over time, the Houthis also brought many of the traditional economic elites onside through a combination of coercion and allowing them continued access to Yemen’s largest markets in the north.
Much could change in the years to come, but where the Houthis have managed to adapt, evolve and advance since 2014, their Yemeni opponents have radically fractured and weakened. The “regional” military intervention against them has been whittled down to essentially Saudi Arabia, which is desperately looking for a face-saving way to exit the conflict. Looking ahead to the next six years and considering how to curtail Houthi ambitions for statehood, it is important to keep in mind that the military option has been used against the group for most of the past two decades, and through it the group has only become a more cohesive, capable and resilient fighting force. That should be a clear sign that it is time to switch tracks and apply as much time, energy and resources to diplomacy as has been plowed into war.
This editorial appeared in Battle for Marib – The Yemen Review, September 2020.
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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.