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yemenite houthi

There is a war no one is talking about. A conflict that has been ongoing for years, causing several casualties, linked to terrorism and affecting the stability of the Arabic Peninsula. It is a struggle that sees, once again, Sunnis against Shias and, through their proxies, Iran vs Saudi Arabia. We're talking about Yemen and the Houthis' struggle; they're a Shiite armed group that can count on an estimated force of 100 thousand men.

The reason behind the silence surrounding this conflict is the fact that it is taking place in an archaic country like Yemen, located on the outskirts of the region's hot spots. But the country facing the Gulf of Aden is geographically strategic. Its chronic instability, a weak central government, tribal tensions and endemic poverty have allowed the development of a local branch of Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula (AQAP). But the Houthis' war against the government is probably the biggest threat to Yemen's stability.

The “martyr commander”

This Shiite community derives its name from its leader, Hussein Badreddin al Houthi, killed on September 10, 2004 during a clash with the Yemeni army. The Houthis belong to a minority sect of Shiism, the Zaydis, who worship Zayd bin Ali, great nephew of Prophet Mohamed, and consider him to be the fifth Imam (as opposed to the majority Shias who enumerate twelve legitimate descendants of the Prophet). The Zaydis have their own body of laws and theological school that dates back to 740 AD. Among the Shia sects, they are considered the closest ones to Sunnism. The Zaydis can be found in several countries (Iran, Pakistan, Iraq), but in Yemen alone they represent 30% of the population. There are around 400 tribes that are exclusively Zaydi. If we consider that Yemen has about 25 million inhabitants, it is pretty easy to estimate their potential military might.

Hussein Badreddin al Houthi was originally a member of Parliament for an Islamic party (Al Haqq) from 1993 until 1997. In June 2004 he began and lead the armed struggle in the area of Saada until that fatal June 8, 2004. Hussein used a religious undertone in his fight against the central government and became a self-proclaimed Imam. This was not the first Houthi insurgency in the history of Yemen. In 1992 Hussein's father, Badreddin, had founded the revolutionary movement “Ansarullah” to fight then Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. His secessionist plans had forced him into exile in Iran and lead to his killing together with one of his children.

The death of Hussein al Houthi did not put an end to the uprising, which is now lead by his brothers: Abdul al Malik, Yahia and Abdul Karim. Hussein is now worshipped as the “martyr commander”. Over the last decade, the relationship between the Houthis and the central government has shifted from repeated clashes to brief periods of truce. In 2011, during the so-called Arab Spring, the Houthis gave a decisive contribution in the toppling of president Saleh.

hussein al houthi
Hussein al Houthi

The bigger picture

In a country like Yemen, any armed struggle against the ruling regime is defined along tribal lines or – as is the case of the Houthis – religious ones. Large portions of the country are not under the government's control and are ruled by local tribal militias. Besides the issue of terrorism, there is an ongoing struggle between the incumbent president, Abd Rabbo Mansur (who comes from the south), and his predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh (who comes from the north).

The continuous tensions have ruled out any form of democracy and have turned Yemen into a chronically unstable, highly conflictual, dangerous and poor country. The political game in Sana'a is not played by political parties – that do formally exist – but by the different Sheykhs ruling over the respective clans scattered about Yemen. Each of them pursues a specific agenda, is not under the rule of the central government and often resolves controversies by picking up arms.

What makes the Houthi rebellion peculiar is that its religious undertone has become part of the wider conflict between Sunnis and Shias. Hence, the Houthis' struggles goes beyond the boundaries of Yemen and involves other regional actors. One of them is Iran, that has sided with the Houthis and forced the Saudis to react. The Houthis live along the border with Saudi Arabia and their militias have often crossed onto the Saudi province of Jizan.

In fact, the Houthis have always controlled a good portion of the north of Yemen and especially the governorates of Saa'dah, al Jawf, Hajjah and of the recently conquered Amran. In the areas under their control the Yemeni national army is banned. The insurgents have their own armed forces, their police and administration and do not recognize central authorities in Sana'a. The struggle for Amran and the clash between the Houthis and the powerful Al Ahmar tribe began in June 2013 when a Houthi family was killed in a restaurant.

The relationship with the Saudis has been tense for quite some time. In 2009 there was a brief conflict between the Houthis and the Saudi army. The 2013 changes in Saudi employment laws have lead to the expulsion of thousands of Yemeni expatriates living in the kingdom. There were about 2 million Yemeni workers in Saudi Arabia out of 9 million expats. In a poverty stricken country like Yemen, the Saudi's decision to deport them fueled strong resentments.

President Hadi relies on Saudi support for both his political and financial survival. Yemen's economy relies both on remittances from migrants abroad and on donations from other Arabic countries. Saudi Arabia is the largest contributor. On a different note, Qatar has decided to offer more money and has expressed its willingness to employ the Yemeni workforce that was expelled from Saudi Arabia, offering them access to both education and healthcare. This is yet another chapter in the fight between Doha and Ryad.

abd rabbo mansur hadi
Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi

The frontline has reached Sana'a

Recently, the struggle between the Houthis and the regime has hit the streets of Sana'a. The war has left the outskirts of the country and has become a veritable assault on government.

The Houthis reached the Yemeni capital after defeating a number of hostile tribes and causing over one thousand casualties. Their greatest opponents are the Sunni tribes with links to the Muslim Brotherhood and their local offshoot, the Al Islah Party. Another enemy of the Houthis are the tribes from the north of Yemen like the al Ahmar that supported (or used to support) former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his General People's Congress party. Then, of course, there are the Salafist groups with ties to Al Qaeda that label the Zaydis as infidels.

In this all out conflict, the Houthis have also found the support of a number of tribes that are in favor of change and that want to get rid of a corrupt and inefficient government that has recently raised fuel prices. President Hadi is called upon to find a solution under the threat posed by the Houthis. The Zaydi militias have set up road blocks in the Yemeni capital, control government buildings and the State's broadcaster.

Despite the attempts of holding a national reconciliation conference, there has been no progress in the dialogue between the Houthis and the government. The rebels, together with the Yemeni Socialist Party and other groups from the south, are demanding the setting up of a federal state comprising two regions: the north (where they aim to take over) and the south. But president Hadi is against a proposal that would bring the country back to the decades of conflict that lead to Yemen being united in 1990 and would rather opt for 5 to 6 federal states.

The federation would represent for the Houthis their first step towards secession and independence. For almost a thousand years and until 1962 a Zaydi reign ruled over the mountainous regions in the north of Yemen. The political marginalization suffered by these populations reinvigorated their pursuit of a return to the past. If having their own state could be an unsurmountable task, the Houthis want to at least have the possibility to rule over their affairs regardless of what happens in Sana'a.