The rise of Yemen’s Houthis

Shia rebels who fought several wars against the government have made significant gains since President Saleh ceded power

The Houthis could well be the biggest winners following the recent upheaval in Yemen. Before the beginning of the uprising against the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011 the group barely had any hopes of expanding so quickly both as a major military force and as a relatively accepted political entity within other parts of Yemen.

In terms of religion, the Houthis are part of the Shia Zaidi, a branch of the Shia Imamiya of Iran. The Zaidi believe that Muslims should be ruled only by a descendant of Prophet Muhammad whom they call an Imam. Yemen was ruled by such Imams for more than 1,000 years and their rule ended only in 1962.

This is interesting because the Zaidi do not represent a majority in Yemen. But the ideological differences between them and the Sunni Shafi’i majority are not as big as in the cases of Iraq and Iran. Both sects harmoniously lived together and prayed in the same mosques for hundreds of years.

Now, the Houthis are seen as a diversion, or an extremist offshoot that was only recently hatched amid a delicate political context and ironically many fingers point to their archenemy, former President Saleh, as the man behind their inception.

The Houthi movement metamorphosed in the same manner as the Taliban from a religious school into a religious military ideology. The school was allegedly sponsored by the former president and built in Saada, a remote province in northern Yemen, in the late 1990s. Saleh’s idea was to form a generation of religious fighters who could stand in the face of Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia’s territorial expansionist aspirations and sometimes “aggressions” against Yemen. At that time Yemen accused the Saudis of repeatedly encroaching on swathes of land along the yet unofficial borderline between the two countries.

But the Imam of the school, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, had other plans in mind. Hussein was the son of a prominent Imam of the Shia Zaidi of Yemen, and was said to have been influenced by the Iranian revolution. He turned the school into a breeding ground for a generation of hardline religious zealots. This coincided with the rise of other formerly marginalised Shia minorities in the Middle East, such as in Bahrain and Lebanon.

In 2000 President Saleh signed a border demarcation agreement with Saudi Arabia and made friends with the Saudi leadership. The Houthis were no longer needed as a bargaining chip in the military game. Saleh wanted the Houthis to lay down arms after he had aided and abetted their militarisation, or at least after having seen it happen under his watch without trying to curb it.

That’s when a series of wars began in northern Yemen. The Houthis are said to have started to get aid from Iran. Also, Saleh was accused of not being seriously willing to crush them for good. Every time their defeat was imminent he decreed a ceasefire and began peace talks with them.

Many theories have been advanced to explain his strategy. Among the theories is one that talks of schemes by Saleh to ruin his cousin and rival, Ali Mohsen. Mohsen is a descendant of the same al-Ahmar clan as Saleh, but a man of great charisma and military prowess, thus a serious potential competitor. Mohsen served as head of the first armoured division in the Yemeni army. In every war against the Houthis he was assigned the command by Saleh.

Rumour has it that Saleh wanted Mohsen killed in one of the wars. However, Mohsen always looked set to come out of the wars victorious – until Saleh issued decrees to stop the fighting.

During the last war in 2010 a documented incident corroborated the rumours. Saleh’s intelligence officers deliberately gave the GPS parameters of Mohsen’s location in the field to the Saudis and told them it was a Houthi rebel base. That was when the Saudis were conducting air raids to thwart a Houthi offensive on their territory. Mohsen’s base was bombed but he escaped the raid unharmed.

The Houthis’ most beneficial move was their decision to support the uprising against Saleh in 2011. In the eyes of the revolutionaries it came across as the natural thing to do, and the movement gained a favourable status among the forces of change. But during the chaos that accompanied the uprising and the infighting within the army, General Mohsen, who led the wars against the Houthis and who previously kept them at bay for years, decided to cede the Saada province to them as a reward for their participation in the uprising.

They immediately jumped on the opportunity and like the Kurds of Syria have taken advantage of the war there, the Houthis used it for their own agenda. Soon the Houthis diverged from the path of the revolutionary coalition of parities. They did that after having shown up as a civil movement and set up base in Sanaa. Now they march in Sanaa shoulder-to-shoulder with supporters of their former enemy, Saleh, holding up the same banners, chanting the same slogans and demanding the resignation of the new government.

They rejected the decision to turn Yemen into a federal state, then later on said they accept federalism in principle but object to the way the new six regions have been demarcated.

On the military level the Houthis have made a giant leap. By the time Saleh was forced to leave power in 2012 the Houthis were still a weak rebel group unable to make any military gains.

But that picture has now completely changed. Last October the Houthis launched ferocious attacks on areas south of Saada, their usual stronghold. They showed up in possession of more heavy and sophisticated weapons than ever before. They were able to defeat and displace thousands of non-Shia people in the town of Dammaj. In January Houthi fighters marched further south and succeeded in defeating one of the major tribal formations, the Hashid Federation, before reaching Arhab, another important tribal area just some 50km north of Sanaa.