December 21, 2023

Some Historic Background On The Houthis

They say war is the great equalizer. That saying has held true in Yemen in the last two decades.

What must be understood is that Yemen is far more important and influential, historically speaking, than Saudi Arabia. It has always been the true power of the Arabian Peninsula. It has contributed more to the history of theology, religion, politics, poetry, and architecture of Islam and world history than central Arabia.  

The Houthis are only the latest expression of Yemen's rich history. 

They are not blameless for the destruction of Yemen since they aimed for more and more power at every turn of their war with the Saudis. But it's a mistake to assume they are completely power hungry. They are a reaction to local, regional and world historical events, and not just a Yemeni phenomenon. 

Their leaders cite the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the Israeli-Palestinian war, as strong ideological and political motivations for their group's origins and evolution. Their connection to the unpopular Islamic leadership in Iran is deeply rooted and poses political problems for Yemen long-term. 

It is also not sustainable for any group or nation to be in an eternal antagonistic relationship with its neighbours. Israel has not learned this truth, and neither has the Islamic opposition its criminal actions have helped spawn, of which the Houthis now stand as the most militarily effective and alluring.


An excerpt from, "Yemen's Humanitarian Nightmare: The Real Roots of the Conflict" By Asher Orkaby, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2017:
The modern state of Yemen was born in 1962, when revolutionaries, many of whom had absorbed contemporary ideas of nationalism at foreign universities, deposed Imam Muhammad al-Badr and created the Yemen Arab Republic, or North Yemen. For the next 40 years, the foreign-educated elite who had sparked the revolution occupied some of the most important positions in the new republic, serving as presidents, prime ministers, cabinet ministers, and chief executives. They based their legitimacy on the roles they had played during the revolution and its aftermath, achieving an almost mythic status in the national imagination. The revolution also transformed the rest of Yemeni society. It empowered Yemen's growing urban population and ended the dominance of those families - known as "sayyids" - who could trace their lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad. And it sent Yemen's northern tribes, which had supported the deposed Badr, into the political wilderness. Shut off from government funding, their region stagnated and their problems festered.

After North and South Yemen unified, in 1990, discrimination against the northern tribes gave rise to a protest movement in the north, led in part by the Houthi family, one of the most prominent sayyid dynasties in northern Yemen. Then, in 2004, during early clashes between northern tribes and the government, the Yemeni military killed Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, one of the leaders of the movement. His death marked the beginning of the northern tribes' armed insurgency and gave the rebels their name. For the next seven years, sporadic fighting continued, with neither side gaining a meaningful advantage.

. . .The Houthi advance unnerved Riyadh. Ever since Saudi Arabia was founded, in 1932, its leaders have worried about the security of the country's southern border with Yemen. In 1934, Saudi Arabia fought its first war against the Kingdom of Yemen to secure that border. Under the treaty that ended the war, Saudi Arabia annexed three Yemeni border provinces that it had occupied during the fighting. Since then, Saudi foreign policy toward Yemen has been driven by the need to maintain a weak central government in Sanaa that does not threaten Saudi security. Each time a popular movement or a strong central authority has looked as though it were appearing in Yemen, the Saudi government has responded with military action and financial support for pro-Saudi groups.

The Houthis' rise was the realization of Saudi leaders' worst fears. In 2009 and 2010, cross-border skirmishes between Houthi fighters and Saudi forces caused the first Saudi casualties along the Saudi-Yemeni border since the 1960s. After taking Sanaa in 2014, the Houthi leadership openly called for war with Saudi Arabia, using demands for the return of the three border provinces as a rallying cry for the movement.
An excerpt from, "The Destruction of Yemen and Its Cultural Heritage" By Lamya Khalidi, Cambridge University Press, October 16, 2017:
After losing control of the capital Sanaa to Yemen's northern Houthi movement, which is aligned with forces loyal to the former president ʿAli ʿAbd Allah Salih, current Yemeni President ʿAbd Rabbu Mansur Hadi turned to Saudi Arabia for help. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia and its coalition of nine states began a bombing campaign in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world. Prior to the conflict, Yemen was already 90-percent dependent on imported food and had been battling a severe water deficit. A twenty-eight-month-long siege of its civilian population has left the country in a situation that some humanitarian groups deem to be worse than the crisis in Syria. The media has barely covered Yemen's catastrophic crisis, partially because of overt censorship by the Saudi kingdom and a shielding of its systemic violations of international law by powerful allies including the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. These countries are clearly more concerned with billion-dollar arms deals with the kingdom than with putting an end to what has been described as the worst food crisis since the establishment of the United Nations.

Even less visible than the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Yemen has been the systematic degradation of the country's millennia-old cultural heritage by the coalition, its Yemeni opponents, and jihadi terrorist groups including the so-called Islamic State (IS). Tragically, much of this damage, notably that from Saudi air strikes and from demolitions carried out by the IS, appears to be intentional. The systemic destruction of the country's cultural heritage is in effect a targeting of its people and a gradual erasure of their cultural identity—once a point of unity amongst Yemenis.

Yemen's cultural heritage is as unique as it is universal, and those who value it most (often intuitively) are Yemenis themselves. It is the fingerprint of hundreds of thousands of years of human history and resilience, starting with the first waves of Homo sapiens migration out of Africa across the Bab al-Mandab strait 60,000 years ago, to the megalithic monuments, walled hilltop settlements, and desert necropolises of the Bronze Age (third–second millennium bce), followed by the golden age of the Sabaean kingdoms (900 bce–520 ce) which controlled the incense caravan routes, built the Great Marib dam irrigating the desert, developed writing and a legal system, and built pillared stone temples to their gods.

If mentions of the region in the writings of Herodotus, Pliny, and Strabo —including the unsurmountable difficulties encountered by Augustus's Roman legions under Aelius Gallus in trying to penetrate it between 26 and 24 bce—are not enough to highlight the importance of this region and its dichotomous history of insularity and interaction, one need only add that this was also one of the most ancient cradles of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with the latter still visible in the mosque architecture and in Yemen's rich ancient Islamic archives.

Yemen is a country of deserts, valleys, coastal landscapes, and spectacular mountains (3,666 m a.s.l.) watered by the tail end of the Indian monsoons. These landscapes meld with villages and cities built of mud and stone that are a testament to some of the most diverse and exceptional vernacular architecture in the world, recognized as such by UNESCO. Tim Mackintosh Smith captures the magical essence of this country when he writes that “the cities seemed to have been baked, not built, of iced gingerbread; Yemen was part of Arabia but the landscape looked like . . . well, nowhere else on Earth.”

An excerpt from, "Tribes and Politics in Yemen: A History of the Houthi Conflict" By Marieke Brandt, Oxford University Press, 2017, Pg. 37:

The recent decades of religious radicalization in Yemen are tantamount to a declaration of failure of Yemen's 'Traditionist Project', as Haykel has called it, which aimed to bridge the differences between domestic Sunni and Zaydi-Shia denominations. The spread of radical Sunnism in the Zaydi heartland, at times promoted by the Yemeni government, triggered the emergence of a Zaydi resistance movement, which not only was directed against the increasing 'Sunnization' of Zaydism, but also addressed the marginalization of the local Zaydi community. The Zaydi revival managed to develop a powerful social revolutionary and political component through its resistance to the post- revolutionary elite described above, and its more or less artificial stabilization by the patronage politics of the Yemeni and Saudi governments. Since the turn of the millennium, the Zaydi revival's sectarian, social revolutionary and political agenda has been significantly influenced and shaped by the Zaydi cleric and former politician Husayn Badr al-Din al-Hūthi, who has given the Houthi movement its name.

An excerpt from, "Regimes of Piety Revisited: Zaydī Political Moralities in Republican Yemen" By Gabriele vom Bruck, Die Welt des Islams, New Series, Vol. 50, Issue 2 (2010), Pg. 203 - 205., and 222 - 223:

During the 1990s, the Zaydi revival movement had concentrated on the establishment of study circles and on propagating the Hizb al-Haqq. It took on a further overt political expression when in 2003 some of the movement's leaders organised protests against the American invasion of Iraq. Because of their slogan shouting at mosques which expressed their rejection of foreign interference, they were accused of violating their sanctity and of calling on citizens not to pay zakat to the local authorities. The Hizb al-Haqq's programmatic defense of the bilad al-zaydiyya---the spiritual and territorial space of the Zaydiyya---against 'foreign' regimes of piety provided the largest impetus towards political activism which the government, now representing itself as an ally of the United States, was unwilling to tolerate. Five years after the army had failed to crush the Zaydi militia, the conflict gained further momentum when Saudi Arabia officially entered the war on 4 November 2009, conceiving of it as a jihad. Disapproving of the rise of an energetic anti-'Wahhabi' movement at its southern borders, Saudi Arabia has been determined to eliminate (or at least contain) it as a political force. It might also have reasoned that if the Yemeni leadership was ever to commit itself to a decentralised form of government (as proposed in 2009), locally elected leaders of the movement might control vital resources in the border region. There was concern, too, about further unrest in the southern province of Najran where, following Mish'al b. Saud's appointment as governor in 1996, many Ismailis lost their positions in the government and the army and their leaders were harassed. Even before it began combating Zaydi forces in Sa'da province, Saudi Arabia had provided substantial financial and military assistance to the Yemeni government, and was disinclined to support the Doha peace agreements of 2007 and 2008. The war was depicted as a case of defending Islam against aggression by Saudi Arabia's irreligious neighbours. It was the first time in the state's history that it committed its own army to fight an enemy and that a jihad was declared in self-defence. Officially there was no objective to occupy foreign land; nonetheless the state sought to turn its righteousness outwards by conducting a jihad against those labelled "rafida (renegates)" and "mulhidun (heretics). This was a crucial incident of the young monarchy's self-assertion, of 'acting like a state'. Most importantly, by declaring a jihad against 'evil-doers' outside its borders (one of the Saudi states' raison d'etre since the mid-18th century), the Saudi leadership has sought to restore its legitimacy among its internal critics. Moreover, the portrayal of the war as one against 'infidels' served to dispel possible doubts about the righteousness of a battle that led to a much higher death toll among women and children than among combatants.

. . .Invoking poetic and historical narrative as well as religious sources to buttress their arguments, some Zaydis warn against styles of piety that might provoke the authorities and cause divisions in society. Mindful of their own formative years and of the history of persecution of the ahl al-bayt, scholars such as Muhammad Sharaf al-Din who specifically address the sada advocate complicity with the state and political aloofness. On the other hand, the activists consider it their religious and national duty to defend those communities of faith they identify with and claim to represent. Here specific forms of enacting Zaydi identity can be contextualised in terms of local, transnational and even global factors. In important respects Zaydi activism---ranging from street protests to staging children's theatre---is linked to the rise of the Salafiyya in Yemen, energised ideologically and financially by regional powers. Representing itself as the promoter of indispensable reform, it has contributed to undermining the power bases of the Zaydi "ulama" in Sa'da and to aggravating Zaydi fears of extinction. Furthermore, events in Palestine and Iraq in the late 20th and 21st centuries have helped shape political solidarities and thus specific forms of Zaydi political expression. The repression of the latter was dictated partly by the 'war on terror'. In 2009/2010, those solidarities culminated in religious nationalism fostered by Saudi Arabia's war against its Zaydi adversaries, a war which will require further intense reflection on its agenda in Yemen and on the Zaydi---'Wahhabi' dynamic.

An excerpt from, "Houthi Missiles: A Military, Economic, and Political Tool" By Ian Williams and Shaan Shaikh, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 2020:

The Houthis have also employed antiship missiles to put warships and shipping vessels at risk along the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden since at least October 2015. They have successfully fired antiship missiles on Saudi, UAE, Turkish, and U.S. ships. 

Nevertheless, the Houthi’s lack of permanent radar since October 2016 has decreased the operational effectiveness of these weapons. The Houthis have instead had to deploy small boats to relay approximate target locations.

The Houthis also have antiair missile capabilities that they have used to down several aircraft. They have used these weapons to shoot down at least three U.S. UAVs, in October 2017 and June and August 2019. Earlier, in May 2015, the Houthis also reportedly shot down a Moroccan F-16 over Yemen’s Sa’ada province. In February 2020, Houthi forces shot down a Saudi Tornado fighter aircraft in northern al-Jawf province

Several coalition aircraft have also fallen near Houthi-controlled territory, supposedly due to mechanical or human error. However, the proximity of these incidents to Houthi territory raises the possibility that hostile fire was to blame. In March 2015, a Saudi F-15 crashed into the Gulf of Aden, reportedly due to mechanical failure. The same month, Houthi fighters claimed to have shot down a Sudanese warplane in northern Sana’a, although Sudanese officials denied the incident. In December 2015, a Bahraini F-16 crashed in Saudi Arabia’s southern Jizan province. In February 2017, a Jordanian F-16 crashed in Najran, Saudi Arabia. In November 2019, a coalition AH-64 Apache helicopter and Wing Loong UAV went down along the Saudi-Yemen border.

Arguably the most effective missiles the Houthis possess, however, are shoulder-fired and antitank guided missiles (ATGMs), among the smallest and least discussed weapons in their arsenal. These weapons are widespread in Yemen. Propaganda videos going back to August 2015 show fighters using ATGMs against Saudi tanks to great effect. A 2016 report suggests Saudi Arabia lost at least 20 Abrams tanks in a little over a year of fighting in Yemen. Houthi forces had previously gained experience with antitank weapons in their wars with the Yemeni government between 2004 and 2010. Still, they have since gained even greater lethality due to continued practice and acquisition of more advanced ATGMs.