Khaled Abdullah / Reuters Houthi fighters ride a patrol truck in Sana'a March 25, 2015.

Houthi Who?

A History of Unlikely Alliances in an Uncertain Yemen

The Houthi tribal movement, supported by Iranian finances and weaponry, has captured Yemen’s capital city of Sana'a, forcing the resignation of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. In the streets of Sana'a, fighters chant, “Death to America, death to Israel, curses to the Jews, and victory to Islam.” The great irony of this slogan, of which members of the Houthi family are likely unaware, is that the Houthis were receiving weapons and support from Israel decades before receiving military aid from Iran. The Houthi movement and their loyal tribes have long been opportunistic recipients of international support, the origin of which seldom figured in the domestic nature of their political struggles.

THE ODD COUPLE

The last imam of Yemen, Muhammad al-Badr, was overthrown by Abdullah al-Sallal, founder of the Yemeni republic on September 26, 1962. For the next six years, Badr and his alliance of northern tribesmen fought a bloody guerrilla war in the mountainous highlands against 70,000 Egyptian soldiers who had arrived in Yemen in support of the republic. Throughout the conflict, one of Badr’s greatest obstacles was getting his hands on weapons and supplies. Help would arrive to him from a very unlikely source.

On the evening of May 26, 1964, Badr gathered the leaders of his northern tribal alliance, including the elder Sheik Hassan al-Houthi, for a khat chew and a strategic planning session. Badr promised the group that he would demonstrate for them a solution to the supply problems that had been plaguing their tribal militias. At approximately midnight, the group heard the roar of a plane engine and noticed the silhouettes of 14 parachutes appearing out of the darkness. According to the personal papers of British Lieutenant Colonel Neil McLean, one of the sheiks declared in disbelief, “Look, even God is helping the imam.” The aircraft, flown by members of the Israeli Air Force’s International Squadron, had been carrying packages containing munitions, medical supplies, and money for the imam’s war against the Yemeni republic and the Egyptian army.

Between 1964 and 1966, a team of Israeli pilots and navigators from the squadron would fly a total of 14 missions to the remote highlands of Yemen. The Israeli Air Force and intelligence community were willing to aid the northern tribesmen in their own struggle against Egypt, which was then Israel’s principal enemy. The imam in turn was willing to accept aid from Israel—or any country, for that matter—since his tribesmen had so few allies left. The imam was even prepared to diplomatically recognize Israel when, and if, he prevailed against the Egyptian-supported republic.

In 1966, a change in Israeli Air Force leadership and increased concerns for the safety of Israeli personnel flying to Yemen saw the end of Israel’s alliance with northern Yemeni tribes. Badr would eventually lose the civil war in 1968, and his tribesmen, including the Houthis, joined the Yemen Arab Republic in 1970 following a truce between the two sides. The northern tribes received the short end of the political compromise, leading to four decades of the Yemeni government’s neglect of the northern regions of the country. Israel, on the other hand, was able to entangle the Egyptian military and air force in Yemen for five years, thereby forestalling a confrontation in Sinai. As a result of the mission, Israeli military intelligence was able to observe Egyptian military capabilities and maneuvers, a fact that gave Israel a tactical advantage in the June 1967 war. Furthermore, the Israeli leadership perceived the mission to Yemen as a demonstration to both potential allies and enemies of the expanding capabilities of their air force.

Although the cooperation between Israel and the northern Yemeni tribesmen 40 years earlier does not in any way suggest a contemporary Houthi-Israeli alliance, it does underscore the domestic and historic nature of events in Yemen. The Houthi assault on Sana'a and the deposition of the country’s president and parliament is less a struggle between external forces than the continuation of a longer struggle between the northern tribes and the Yemeni republic for the very nature of the country’s government. The Houthi movement champions the political and social rights of the northern regions of the country by exerting its collective tribal authority over the country. Hadi, on the other hand, represents the last remnants of a revolutionary generation that had led the Yemeni republic since 1962.

DOMESTIC AFFAIRS

Religious divisions in Yemen, just like its local politics, are misunderstood by foreign observers who attempt to apply international models on a complicated tribal country. The northern tribes of the Houthi movement are followers of Zaydi Islam, the second-largest branch of Shiite Islam, which constitutes 40 percent of Yemen’s population of 23 million. Zaydi Muslims, known as Fivers for their recognition of Zayd ibn Ali as the fifth imam, are a distinct group from the Twelver Shiites who constitute the majority of Iran’s population. The great majority of Yemen’s remaining population belongs to the Shafi’i branch of Sunni Islam. For centuries prior to Yemeni unification in 1990, the northern half of majority Zaydis and the southern half of majority Shafi’is have remained as two separate regions.

Seemingly ignoring the complexities of internal Yemeni politics, and the fact that there are significant religious differences between Iranians and Houthis, Iranian Major General Ghasem Soleimani recently claimed that the Houthi coup was further evidence of the spread of the “Islamic revolution” throughout the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, in turn, has expressed alarm for what it perceives as an aggressive Iranian foreign policy aimed at regional domination. In response, Saudi officials have cut off vital foreign aid to Yemen and offered to lend support to Hadi and the remnants of his republic.

Western analysts have pointed to purported Iranian-Saudi tensions over Yemen as yet another example of a Shia-Sunni conflict. These broad international perspectives of current events in Yemen, however, have glossed over the very domestic nature of the Houthi movement. The fall of the Yemeni government and the political rise of the northern tribes is an internal conflict between republicanism and tribalism. Despite exaggerated American, Iranian, and Saudi depictions to the contrary, the Houthi movement is not a manifestation of an international religious conflict. The northern Zaydi tribes are an internal entity and have been the most prominent political force for centuries of Yemeni history, not a conquering force commissioned by the Iranians.

The failure to understand the religious and tribal dynamics of the Yemeni state could lead foreign powers to support an illegitimate government or a weak political entity with little or no chance of securing power and restoring stability to the country. The recently deposed Hadi escaped a Houthi-imposed house arrest in Sana'a and fled to the southern port city of Aden. Hadi, a former prominent politician of the South Yemen state before unification in 1990, has appealed to the Gulf Cooperation Council and the United Nations for a military intervention to turn back the Houthis’ advance. Outside of his old cronies in the south of the country, Hadi’s political support is extremely limited, as he represents the derelict government of the Yemeni republic.

The Houthi movement is not the only nationalist group to gain in popularity over the last decade. Al-Hirak, the movement for South Yemen independence, has gathered a substantial following as well. Ali Salem al-Beidh, a former South Yemen politician and one of the main leaders of al-Hirak, has held several meetings with Houthi leaders, leading to speculation that the two movements may agree to divide into two federated regions. This compromise would not be unfathomable, as historical Zaydi strongholds do not extend farther south than the city of Taiz. The same might be said for Hadramawt, the eastern section of the country that has traditionally enjoyed a relatively autonomous existence, far from the oversight of the central government.

Saudi Arabia may be forced to reconcile its suspicions of Iranian intervention and the reality of tribal unrest along its southern border in the event of Saudi military intervention. The border regions of Asir, Najran, and Jizan were annexed by Saudi Arabia following the defeat of the Kingdom of Yemen in 1934. These three border regions contain Shiite Zaydi tribes whose allegiance may lie more favorably with the Houthi movement than with the Saudi government. The porous and lengthy Saudi-Yemeni border represents another source of concern, as weapons and militias could easily be transferred to the Yemeni tribes across the border, constituting a direct threat to stability in Saudi Arabia.

Houthi hostility to the Saudi monarchy is a reflection of historic enmity and of Saudi Arabia’s participation in earlier stages of the Yemeni government’s war against the Houthis in 2004. These tensions notwithstanding, the Saudis had been the most ardent supporters of the northern tribes in their struggle against the Yemeni republic during the 1960s. Political allegiances have changed over the decades, yet Saudi leaders may find that reconciliation with the Houthis is the only guarantor for regional stability, especially given the lack of legitimate alternative political players in Yemen. By any estimation, the Houthis are not the greatest threat to stability in Arabia. The territorial expansion of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and several brazen attacks recently by operatives aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham represent a far greater threat to Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Western interests in the region.

PLAYING THE FIELD

Since perhaps the 1960s, there has not been a political movement that has managed to garner as much popular and tribal support as the Houthis. The movement is dangerous because it is opportunistic: the Houthis have relied on Israel, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan in the past, and now they turn to Iran. It remains possible, however, that they may even be willing to accept aid from the United States. 

Both the United States and Israel are certainly justified in fearing the Houthi slogan of “Death to America, Death to Israel,” particularly since it recalls for many the Iranian Revolution’s slogans from 1979. Rhetoric alone, however, cannot harm either country: the Houthis are not an international organization, nor are they capable of reaching far beyond South Arabia. The Houthi movement is a local tribal alliance seeking to overturn a secular republic that had marginalized the northern regions for decades, reestablishing instead a central government dominated by tribal authorities that existed before 1962. Their appeals for anticorruption, equality, and security are some of the main reasons they have garnered extensive public support and have emerged as a legitimate force of change for the country. 

The United States may need to look beyond alarmist slogans and flag burning to open a direct line of communication with Houthi leadership. Hadi’s government is powerless and has fled a political confrontation with the new Houthi government in acknowledgment that it lacks sufficient public and tribal support to wage a campaign against the Houthis. Those loyal to the Houthi family have emerged as one of the most effective military forces combating the expansion of al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham in the Arabian Peninsula. If the West turns its back on Houthi leadership because of slogans, opportunistic aid from Iran, or Hadi’s protestations, it might end up forsaking a serious partner in the Middle East.

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