Houthi fighters during a protest following U.S. and British strikes, in the capital Sanaa, Jan. 12. The Iranian-backed militia claims it is attacking shipping lanes in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. Photo by Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images
Yemen’s Ansar Allah organization, better known as the Houthi movement, became a global sensation overnight.
Its attacks on vessels beginning on Oct. 19 in the busy Bab al-Mandab strait between Yemen and Africa, the gateway to the Red Sea, disrupted global maritime shipping and prompted a United States and United Kingdom-led counter military response.
The Houthis launched the attacks demanding that Israel cease its military offensive in Gaza, and their operation has won them widespread popular support throughout the Arab world and even the West.
Social media in the West, and particularly in the Arab world, has been filled with support for “Yemen” (conflating the country with the militia group that controls it) as an ally for Gaza. In some pro-Palestinian protests in the West, demonstrators chant: “Yemen, Yemen make us proud, turn another ship around,” praising the militia’s perceived leftist agenda of anti-imperialism and defiance of global capitalism through their sea trade blockades. However, the demonstrators couldn’t be more wrong about the Houthis.
The Houthis cannot afford an anticlimax of a return to daily governance after triumphing over the Saudis. Prior to the war in Gaza, they faced increased domestic difficulties in Yemen, such as pressures from civil servants who claimed their overdue salaries. They needed an alternative, external opponent to justify pocketing the remaining resources of unfortunate Yemen in service of their war machine.
Peacetime governance and development are foreign concepts to the Houthi militia, which remains a state within a state, armed with extra-atmospheric missiles but lacking the ability or interest to serve its people’s basic needs.
The story of the Houthis begins with political dispossession. Being Zaydi Shiites, who make up about a third of Yemen’s population, they see themselves as the heirs of the Zaydi Imamate, a monarchical theocracy that existed in northern Yemen until it was ousted in a military coup in 1962, followed by a civil war.
In the 1990s, a Zaydi cleric, Badr al-Din al-Houthi, a fervent proponent of Iran’s Islamic regime, established the organization named after himself. It was originally a social movement within the Zaydi community in the northern mountains of Yemen that resented the corruption and deprivation under then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Al-Houthi ascended during the early 2000s, rising on the back of pro-Palestinian and anti-American sentiments that swept Yemen and the Arab world in light of the second Palestinian intifada and the American invasion of Iraq. (The pattern repeats itself now: The Houthis rise thanks to the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7 and America’s forceful support for Israel.)
Al-Houthi, like his Iranian patrons, linked his country’s socioeconomic injustice to the so-called U.S. imperialism and its proxy, Israel.
In 2004 the Houthi launched an armed rebellion against President Salah on the pretext of denouncing his approval for the U.S. military to conduct drone strikes against al-Qaida in Yemen. This anti-Western posturing branded the Zaydi group, former aristocrats seeking to reclaim their status, as a grassroots resistance to oppression.
Capitalizing on the Arab Spring protests in 2011, which finally deposed Salah and disintegrated Yemen, the Houthis expanded from their mountainous stronghold to a broader part of northern Yemen. They captured the capital, Sanaa, in 2014, and subsequently seized territories encompassing about 70% of Yemen’s population, which, aside from minor changes, they control to this day. In 2017, the Houthis assassinated Salah.
Much of Yemen’s suffering during this past decade of the Houthis’ rule stems from the brutal military campaign Saudi Arabia launched in 2015 against the group. Yet the majority of Yemen’s wartime fatalities, estimated at 230,000weren’t due to the Saudi bombardments, but from famine and epidemics largely due to Houthi oppression. They attacked civilian infrastructure, seized or cut off food and medical supplies, both to supply their own ranks and as a means of waging war on the Yemeni population.
When a cholera epidemic killed thousands in Yemen in 2018, the Houthis withheld a critical U.N. vaccination shipment for months to blackmail supply for their members, sold some of the vaccinations in the black markets, and stole medical equipment sent as foreign aid.
Ultimately, the Houthis have inflated the corruption they had pledged to combat, establishing their regime with child soldiersenriching themselves through mass human trafficking and sexual slaveryand implementinga violent morality police that abducts, rapes and abuses women, and restricts their expression and freedom of movement. Are these values that Western leftists want to get behind?
The Houthis’ hatred toward Israel does not solely stem from the Palestinian issue. As manifested in the slogan “Curse on the Jews” on their flag (in addition to “God is the Greatest,” “Death to America,” “Death to Israel” “and Victory to Islam”), antisemitism is a deeply rooted principle of the organization, associating the world’s Jews with global corruption and exploitation. Houthi school textbooks indoctrinate that the world’s Jews, not only in Israel, are a universal evil that should be fought. It is no wonder that, under their rule, the last Jews in Yemen faced persecution and were forced to flee.
Tired of futile war, Saudi Arabia reached a cease-fire with the Houthis in 2022, and right before the Israel-Hamas war, a Houthi delegation visited Riyadh in September 2023 to draft a peace deal that is largely a victory for the group, maintaining its rule in Yemen.
The regional escalation since Oct. 7 found the Houthis in a complex position as revolutionaries: They have won. As they watched their fellow Iranian-backed forces, Hezbollah, striking Israel as retaliation for the war with Hamas, the Houthis saw an opportunity.
The Houthis’ stance in the Gaza conflict serves the domestic purpose of diverting attention from internal troubles. It is also an opportunity to grab Yemen’s last profitable resources beyond their reach — the central oil and gas fields and the port of Aden on the Red Sea. To accomplish this, the Houthis must deter Saudi Arabia and the UAE from assisting their local proxies in Yemen. Showcasing their capability to shut down a global energy supply route is a perfect way to do so.
The romanticization of the Houthis, as if they serve some idealistic virtues, is detached from reality. The primary victims of the damage to shipping routes are not Western “imperialist” interests but the Yemeni people, who face an even greater supply shortage due to the reluctance of ships to approach the country.
The Houthis’ drive is not securing peace for Gaza and the liberation of the Palestinian people; it is taking over Yemen. The fallacy of many of the West who believe in the Houthis as a noble force for anti-imperialism and Palestinian liberation is shocking when faced with the reality.
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