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Dwindling Yemen: The Politics of Insurgency & The Rise of Houthi Rebels

The importance of Yemen

Yemen is one of the poorest countries of the Arab World. Today it faces a major humanitarian crisis, is deep in civil war and faces extreme food insecurity. Yet, the country’s underdevelopment or socioeconomic discrepancies are not the burgeoning issue. It is the crumbling regime and the war-torn capital city of Sana’a that makes most headlines on Yemen. The government has been brought to its knees by the Houthi movement, a Zaydi group who launched an insurgency against the Republic of Yemen in 2004. Yemen’s current political state of affairs is chaotic as the Houthis currently retain power over the capital city and parliament. From local insurgency to a national civil war, the rise of the Houthis has been major cause for concern. This article aims to address the Houthi rise to power in the context of Yemen’s fragile political fabric.

Yemen may be poor by status but the country is a major regional and international player. Yemen is situated in the resource-rich Arabian Peninsula and has several important seaports and chokepoints, for example, the Bab Al-Mandeb strait. This is a significant chokepoint for international maritime trade as it connects the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea and its importance can be likened to that of the Suez Canal. To this effect, it is not surprising why the civil war that has engulfed Yemen and brought the country to the brink of collapse has gathered so much attention.

Unveiling the crisis

The Arab Spring of 2011 symbolised a wave of revolution that swept through the Arab Middle East and North Africa. By that point, President Ali Abdullah Saleh had been clinging to power for over three decades. Notorious for governing an ungovernable landscape due its various political, tribal, religious and sectarian divides, President Saleh managed to hold onto power relying on nepotism and corruption. The uprisings in the Arab world confirmed discontent driven by feelings of exclusion and marginalisation and looked to mobilise against oppressing authoritarian regimes. Whilst these long-standing regimes promised reforms, they are nothing but brittle. Under intense pressure, President Saleh relinquished his powers in February 2012 and left an interim president in his place, Abdo Rabu Mansour al-Hadi. Tasked with political transition in Yemen, Hadi begun on a two-year transitory trajectory backed by an agreement brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). Plagued by insurgency and secessionist movements and dire poverty, Hadi’s presidency was jaded from the outset. Hadi’s biggest rival is the advancing Houthis – an incalculable threat to his parliament.

Who are the Houthis?

Akin to many Middle Eastern countries, the Yemeni demographic constitutes a patchwork of minority groups. This includes the Zaydi minority with the Houthi group being an offshoot of this minority sect whose roots lie in Shia Islam. However, it must be noted that the Zaydi offshoot is understood to have differing nuances from Shia Islam and doctrinally aligns closer with Sunni Islam. The war between the state and Houthi rebels began in 2004, led by a cleric named Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, who was later killed by Yemeni forces. The group then took its lead from the latter’s brother, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi. Since 2004, the group has engaged in on-off rebellions of varying intensity fuelled by economical and political marginalisation, an anti-American and anti-Israel rhetoric and disenchantment with the Sunni-dominated government.

Repression of minorities in the Middle East is an old tale that has been argued to be one of the primary reasons for both past and present conflicts. Let us consider the causes of today’s civil unrest in Yemen as part of a bigger picture. The Houthis insurgency is not without reason, in fact, several historical, political, religious and development factors play part in their consolidation and hold of power today. In practical terms these factors played out in six rounds of conflict, which lasted between the years of 2004-2010 when a ceasefire was proposed.

Houthi Rise to Power

A Sectarian War

The Houthis’ reasoning behind the six rounds of conflict is simple: suppressed identity due to Sunni influence, at least at the beginning. The sectarian narrative is but one part of the broader narrative. The Shia/Sunni divide has for a long time dominated many civil wars in the Middle East but has failed to solely determine causes for conflict. Several news outlets often fall victim to headlines encouraging a sectarian lens through which to view the current crisis in Yemen. For the most part, it is not. It would make better sense to view the crisis as an amalgamation of issues and events, which also contribute to our understanding of the rise of the Houthis. One way the conflict can be deemed sectarian would be to consider the Houthi rebellion in light of their targets. These targets are factions who have different religious views to that of the Houthis, namely the Salafis, al-Qaeda and the Sunni-led party of al-Islah. In view of these events, the Houthi rise to power can represent a sectarian war. But, for too long events in the Middle East have been painted with the sectarian brush to a point where other underlying causes are conveniently buried. It is in the interest of many tothe on-going war as a sectarian battle; however, to be preoccupied with this line of reasoning would be to forget that Yemen is going through a political shift. And this shift is not solely driven by sectarian differences.

Even if the battle of schisms comes to embody this conflict, the quintessence of the matter lies in the brutality with which the threatened central government responded. Several villages in the north of Yemen were destroyed, whether the inhabitants sided with the Houthis or not, and innocent civilians were killed. The legitimacy of the central government after that was entirely indefensible.  Support for the Houthis rose outside of its calling because the transition government, much like in the Saleh era, retreated back to old regimes upholding fragile political fabrics paired with poor governance.

Cracks in Yemeni governance

The Houthi insurrection does have sectarian undertones but it is more than just a sectarian battle. The six rounds of conflicts between the years of 2004-2010 serves to credit the growing discontent from marginalised communities. As well as fighting the dilution of the Zaydi identity, the Houthis have been fighting a war against the state for reasons more aligned to the latter’s reckless governance. The Saleh regime failed to consider growing national and rural issues such as underdevelopment, socioeconomic injustices and other core tribal grievances. The central government, both in the Saleh era and the transition period post the Arab Spring, failed to recognise Yemen’s deeply fragmented rubric due to its cultural, religious, political and tribal heterogeneity.

The six rounds of rebellion between the state and the Houthis exacerbated the challenges the government had been facing for a long time and as a result revealed its vulnerabilities. The Houthi rise to power can be explained as a long process and can even be seen as quite calculated. Their rise has been aided by cracks in the Yemeni governance, which, ever since the unification of North Yemen and South Yemen in 1990 to form present-day Yemen, has been fragile. So when the Arab Spring swept across Yemen in 2011, it reinforced the Houthi influence and opened up avenues for the insurgency group to capitalise on such a prime opportunity to consolidate their power.  Further to this, in 2014 under international pressure, President Hadi cut off fuel subsidies, causing mass protests that further perpetuated the crisis and formed the mandate for a Houthi takeover.

Regional Dynamics

Evidential arguments highlighting the current crisis as one driven by political discontent and insecurity are indeed correct. Nevertheless, an issue in the Middle East would almost be invalidated if regional dynamics were ignored. And so, in discussing Yemen and if the sectarian narrative upholds, then the Yemeni situation is not without a discussion encroaching on the Iran-Saudi rivalry. The situation in Yemen upsets the balance of power in the Middle East and does not bode well for Saudi Arabia especially. It is argued that Houthi success is attributed to the resources provided by Iran, whose history with the movement begun even before the Sana’a takeover. Iran’s interest in backing the Houthi rebels is to ensure a stable Shia led governance in the southern Middle East where rival Sunni Saudis are potent.

For Saudi Arabia, the Houthi insurgency is of grave concern as instability in Yemen could propagate an Iranian foothold on the peninsula. This would thus explain the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. Another reason for Saudi Arabia’s wariness is terrorism. The growing al-Qaeda presence is alarming for Saudi Arabia as it shares a long border with Yemen. Chaos in Yemen has laid the foundations for extremism and could lead to the proliferation of terrorism, which will have far fetching consequences regionally and internationally.

In the light of recent events, many are asking whether we are witnessing a proxy war. But this is hard to establish; the answers have been murky to say the least. It is a sound analysis of the current situation but perhaps the Yemeni civil unrest goes beyond the fight for regional dominance.

Present day Yemen: An outcry

What is happening in Yemen today is an issue of prolonged weak governing, corrupt leadership and foreign intervention on grounds that ultimately are not solely humanitarian.

All this withstanding, it is a humanitarian concern that has stemmed from political misdoings and mismanagement. The simmering months-long violence, despite ceasefires and failed political dialogue between different parties aiming to come to a cessation, has amounted to a civilian death toll of over 1,000 between March and April 2015. One can only imagine the numbers if we look at the crisis as a whole. A Houthi takeover has demonstrated resilience from the rebel group and certainly points to the fact that minorities can also come to power. However, this has been at the cost of innocent and vulnerable lives.

The fight is no longer about a rebellion against exclusion or feelings of marginalisation; this conflict is armed with violent repercussions that have left the poorest country of the Arab world devastatingly poorer. Saudi Arabia’s ‘Decisive Storm’, whilst having dented the Houthis’ advancement, has not succeeded in forcing the movement to surrender. In order to substantiate reforms, arms will need to be put down and talks of negotiations on how to govern a collapsed state need to take precedence. Perhaps then hope could be restored.

About the Author

Ayooshee Dookhee is a Politics and International Relations graduate from Royal Holloway, University of London. She is currently working for a public policy, public affairs and campaigns consultancy in London. In September 2015, she will be starting a Masters in International Relations with a focus on Middle East politics at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands. She has a growing interest for issues and conflicts in the Middle East having completed her dissertation on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Her further interests are in international human rights, women’s rights, gender and minority equality and the politics of the European Union.

She can be found here.

Cover image ‘Sana’a Medina Yemen – Daywatch‘ by drsno


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