The Houthi movement is a group of Shiite Muslims that emerged in Northern Yemen in the 1990s. Due to the minority status of Shia Islam and conflicts between the northern and southern regions of Yemen, the Houthis have been at the heart of several protests and rebellions in order to further their beliefs.
The Houthi movement is based on Zaydi Shia Islam, a branch of Islam that is observed by a about 45 of Yemeni citizens. The Zaydi are generally considered more like Sunni Muslims than are other Shiite sects. In 1978, following a series of coups, a Zaydi general named Ali Abdullah Saleh (1942–2017) attained control of Yemen and proceeded to rule the country for the next thirty-three years. In 1990, Saleh united North Yemen (Yemen Arab Republic) and South Yemen (People's Democratic Republic of Yemen) as the Republic of Yemen following longstanding friction between the two halves of the country. The united Yemen is split along sectarian lines. Sunni Muslims, who make up about 55 percent of the population, are predominant in the South, while Zaydi are predominant in the North.
The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), began in northwestern Yemen in the early 1990s as a relatively tolerant theological movement that wanted to preserve the traditions of Zaydism. Some Zaydis believed that they were being ignored or shut out of Yemeni government and culture and became activists in opposition to Saleh's government, which they accused of profiting off of the poor. One such activist, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi (1959–2004), served as a member of Parliament but later quit to concentrate on grassroots efforts. Al-Houthi was a prominent leader of the pro-Zaydi movement. Saleh himself had allowed al-Houthi to run for Parliament to counter the influence of Saleh's other political enemies.
In 2003, after the U.S.-led coalition invasion of Iraq, the focus of the group under al-Houthi's leadership shifted. The group staged demonstrations to protest U.S. involvement in the Middle East and spoke out against Israel. The movement adopted the slogan "God Is Great; Death to America; Death to Israel; Damnation to the Jews; Victory to Islam." President Saleh viewed the group as a threat to his government, which considered itself an ally of the United States. Saudi Arabia also allied itself with Saleh against the Houthis. In 2004, al-Houthi encouraged his followers to arm themselves against government forces, leading to a series of skirmishes throughout the summer months of 2004.
In September 2004, Yemeni officials announced that al-Houthi and several of his aides had been killed. However, despite this loss and the continued military attacks, the government failed to suppress the Houthi insurgents, and conflict continued throughout the 2000s. After al-Houthi's death, several of his brothers took control of the group's leadership, and supporters began to refer to themselves as Houthis in honor of their former leader. Eventually, younger brother Abdul-Malik al-Houthi (1979–) became the recognized leader of the movement. A series of ceasefires were attempted throughout the decade, but ultimately none of them lasted long.
In 2011, a wave of anti-government uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, popularly referred to as the Arab Spring, reached Yemen. The Houthis, still focused on championing the Zaydi community, contributed to the series of protests that demanded the overthrow of Saleh's regime. Though resistant to these demands at first, Saleh resigned in 2011, handing power to his vice president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi (1945–), who would go on to win his own bid for president the following year as the sole candidate. However, conflict between the government and the Houthis continued, motivated by several factors including the fact that Hadi is a Sunni.
The Houthis were critical of the process that left Hadi in power, as no other presidential candidate had emerged to run against him. They also claimed that the transition of power following Saleh's resignation was tarnished by foreign nations, as the United States and Saudi Arabia sought to attain influence in Yemen. When Hadi announced his intention to break Yemen into six provinces, the Houthis balked at the predominately Zaydi regions in the North receiving only two landlocked areas. Hadi's intended plan would have also resulted in splitting the land that the Houthis controlled and likely furthering tensions. The Houthis increased their support among Yemeni citizens throughout 2013 by showing openness to secular policies. In 2014, they began secretly collaborating with their former enemy Saleh against Hadi's regime. The Houthis also allied themselves with about 60 percent of the Yemeni military who were still loyal to Saleh.
The September 21 Revolution
Having formed an alliance with former president Saleh and his allies, the Houthis began to seize control of Yemeni territory en route to the capital of Sanaa. The group openly called for a revolution to topple Hadi's regime. On 21 September 2014, the Houthis, along with groups of armed protestors and those still loyal to Saleh, successfully seized the capital. The Houthis continued to fight violent battles against their enemies in Yemen, such as al-Qaeda, throughout late 2014.
Disputes continued as a committee attempted by President Hadi attempted to draft a new constitution in January 2015. In response, on 20 January 2015, the Houthis seized the presidential palace in Sanaa and placed Hadi under house arrest. The Houthis then established an interim government led by Mohammed Ali al-Houthi. Hadi responded by submitting his resignation as president. On 6 February 2015, the Houthis announced that they were dissolving Yemen's Parliament.
On 21 February 2015, Hadi successfully fled the capital and sought refuge in his hometown of Aden in southern Yemen. He then rescinded his resignation and vowed to strike back against the Houthi government, declaring Aden the temporary capital of Yemen. The Houthis responded by declaring war on those loyal to Hadi and launched a campaign to seize control of Aden. Hadi then fled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and sought help from the Saudi Arabian government to topple the Houthi regime. On 26 March 2015, Saudi Arabia, with support from its allies in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain as well as additional support from the United States and the United Kingdom, launched Operation Decisive Storm (succeeded by Operation Restoring Hope) against the Houthis.
Saudi forces led a series of air strikes against Yemen beginning in March, killing an estimated 2,600 people, civilians, and combatants by October. As United Nations (UN)-backed peace talks made little progress, a humanitarian crisis emerged. The UN warned on 17 June 2015 that virtually all of Yemen faced critical food shortages. On 1 July 2015, the UN upgraded the crisis in Yemen to a Level 3 humanitarian emergency, the highest level of emergency. An air strike on 28 September 2015 hit a wedding celebration in a village near the Red Sea port of Mocha, killing an estimated 135 people. It was the single deadliest incident since the start of the conflict. As the conflict continues, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has reported over 230,000 Yemeni war deaths through December 2020, mostly from indirect causes like lack of food.
Challenges to Establishing Peace
Since the beginning of the conflict, ceasefires between the two sides have been attempted but have all failed to hold. A 2020 ceasefire motivated by the impacts of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic commenced after urgings from the UN but lasted only a week. Contributing to the tension between the Saudi forces and the Houthi regime is the presumed role of Shia-led Iran in backing the Houthis by providing them with financial and military support along with weaponry. The governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran remain bitter rivals, and both Saudi Arabia and the United States have accused Iran of carrying out attacks attributed to the Houthis.
The United States has established close ties to Saudi Arabia as an ally in the region and has followed its example in placing sanctions on Iran and backing the effort against Yemen in strategic ways. Since the start of the conflict, the United States has contributed weapons and strategic intelligence and training to the Saudi forces. U.S. officials argue that this is done to reduce civilian casualties, though the UN has disputed this involvement has had any positive effect. In January 2017, U.S. president Donald Trump (1946–) authorized a military raid in the Al Bayda province that left at least twenty-three civilians dead, including women and children. Trump administration officials characterized the operation as a success but acknowledged that some civilians may have been killed.
The Houthis announced in June 2017 that the UN Special Envoy for Yemen had been banned from future visits to the country. Houthi officials maintained that the envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed (1960–), failed to hold an impartial view of the ongoing conflict. On 4 December 2017, the Houthis assassinated former president Saleh after he had attempted to initiate peace talks with the Saudi coalition. In late 2018, Houthi leaders and representatives of the Hadi government signed the Hodeidah Agreement, establishing a ceasefire and a greater UN presence in the Yemeni city of Hodeidah and its surrounding ports. The UN subsequently launched a mission in January 2019 to uphold the agreement in the interest of delivering aid through these protected ports. In early 2021, the UN released a report accusing the Houthi regime of money laundering. The report states that US$423 million intended for humanitarian needs in Yemen were instead diverted to private corporations. An additional amount of nearly US$2 billion collected through taxes by the Houthis was also used to fund the Houthi war effort.
In early 2021, the Trump administration officially declared the Houthis a terrorist organization. This provoked criticism from international humanitarian organizations fearing it would make delivering aid to Yemen more difficult, a concern that U.S. officials said was acknowledged and accounted for. Following the inauguration of Trump's successor Joe Biden (1942–), officials announced that this designation would be revoked. In a further shift from Trump's policies, in February 2021, Biden announced that the United States would end support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, calling the war a "humanitarian and strategic catastrophe."