The Rise of the Houthis: Transforming Yemen’s Political Landscape

By: Hugo Morrison

Photo credits: Henry Ridgwell (VOA), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Yemen’s Descent into Chaos

Yemen’s strategic location at the crossroads of the Middle East has made it a nexus of history, culture and trade for centuries. Yet in recent years the country has become synonymous with turmoil and conflict. Since 2015, Yemen has been embroiled in a devastating civil war, the effects of which have extended far beyond its borders. The conflict has ravaged Yemen’s fragile state institutions and created a power vacuum eagerly sought after by various actors amidst the government’s loss of control over the country. Among these actors, the Houthis, a Shiite Zaydi armed movement from northwest Yemen, have emerged as a pivotal force reshaping Yemen’s political landscape.

Since November, the Houthis have seized, detained and attacked more than 40 container ships in the Red Sea and the wider Indian Ocean, purportedly in retaliation for Israel’s actions in Gaza. These attacks have propelled the Houthis back into the mainstream spotlight, prompting the US to redesignate the Houthis as a global terrorist organisation. However, characterizing the Houthis solely as terrorists overlooks the complexities of their role in Yemen’s political landscape. The Houthis have long challenged traditional notions of statehood in Yemen. They control an area comprising 70% of the country’s population including the capital Sanaa, the Governorates of Dhamar, Al Bayda, Ibb, Raymah, Al Mahwit, Hajjah and Amran, and the strategically important Al-Hudaydah. They provide basic services, have established a parallel government, and contest the state’s monopoly on violence. Yet, alongside their territorial control, the Houthis have imposed a repressive rule and have been accused of human rights abuses including arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, instances of torture, and severe restrictions for women

While the Houthis control much of the country in the north, a secessionist movement has entrenched itself in the south, further complicating the nation’s political dynamics. As the government no longer has control over the country, Yemen has frequently been labelled as a failed state. However, this label merely skims the surface of the intricate transformations underway in Yemen. By exploring the Houthis’ governance, we can move beyond simplistic labels, gain a deeper understanding of Yemen’s complex political dynamics and acknowledge the significant role of both state and non-state actors in shaping Yemen’s future.

Greater attention must be paid to emerging forms of governance amid the growing influence of armed non-state actors (ANSAs) challenging state legitimacy. ANSAs significantly shape the complex political landscape, especially in failed or fragile states, echoing Charles Tilly’s theory of state formation. According to Tilly, “War made the state, and the state made war”. This notion underscores the intricate relationship between modern state formation and interstate violence. Modern state formation is driven by interstate violence as actors vie to establish sovereignty. It also drives conflict between states, as they compete to consolidate or defend their sovereignty. In the 21st century, armed conflicts between non-state and state actors have surpassed traditional interstate wars as the predominant form of conflict. Rival forms of authority are inherent in state-building processes rather than indicative of state failure as illustrated by the rise of the Houthis. This article delves into the ascent of the Houthis and its profound implications for statehood in Yemen.

The Houthis Rising Profile

Yemen’s history is marked by the 1990 unification of North Yemen (Yemen Arab Republic) and South Yemen (People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen) into the Republic of Yemen. From its outset, tribal and sectarian loyalties have long overshadowed nationalist and state allegiances, compounded by historical divisions between the North and South. Consequently, the government struggled to establish a unified national identity and enforce law and order.

The Houthis emerged in the 1990s from the Saada governorate in Northwest Yemen, in response to socioeconomic and political discrimination under President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The central government was largely absent in Saada. They therefore learned to build some experience in local service provision. They also established courts and prisons, resolved tribal disputes and provided security in areas neglected by the government, in return for protection money. 

In 2004, anti-government protests in Saada led by Zaydi groups, transformed into a Houthi-led insurgency after the government attempted to arrest their founder, Hussein al-Houthi. Through six rounds of conflict from 2004 to 2010, the Houthis transitioned from a grassroots movement to an insurgent force, garnering increased local support and bolstering their military capabilities.

The Arab Spring reached Yemen in 2011, with the Houthis supporting protests against Saleh’s regime. Clashes broke out between the Houthis and government forces in Saada, leading to the Houthis seizing control of government institutions, checkpoints, and the local army headquarters.

By 2012, President Saleh had resigned, succeeded by his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, whose legitimacy was tainted by his association with the previous corrupt regime. In 2014, widespread protests erupted against Hadi’s administration after the removal of fuel subsidies. The Houthis, seizing an opportunity, allied with former President Saleh and his loyalist troops, and then advanced from their Northern stronghold to capture Sana’a and key government buildings. Establishing a parallel supervisory system alongside formal state institutions, the Houthis deployed loyalists throughout government offices, effectively superseding the authority of official government figures. These Houthi supervisors, initially tasked with administrative oversight, have since consolidated authority in their respective fields, making the formal state hierarchy obsolete.

During negotiations with the government in January 2015, the Houthis rejected a proposed constitution dividing Yemen into six administrative regions, fearing isolation in the North. Instead, they demanded the country to be partitioned into two federal regions, North and South. Subsequently, they seized the presidential palace, prompting President Hadi to flee southward, leading the government to resign en masse. The Houthis dissolved parliament and established a parallel government known as the Supreme Revolutionary Committee. This seizure granted them access to Yemen’s entire arsenal of ballistic missiles and intelligence services, which they utilised to recruit members and forge alliances with local clans, solidifying their grip on power.

Consolidation

In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition launched a military intervention to reinstall Hadi’s government, marking the start of the civil war. The alliance successfully drove the Houthis out of Aden and the surrounding South. However, in 2017, another group, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), emerged. They contested control of the area and advocated for a separate southern state.

Despite facing challenges, the Houthis have consistently solidified their grip on power. In 2016, they dissolved the Supreme Revolutionary Committee and in collaboration with former President Saleh’s party, established the Supreme Political Council in its place. In 2017, the Houthis executed Saleh on charges of treason, replacing his supporters and assuming direct control over state ministries and institutions.

In April 2022, Yemeni factions agreed to a six-month UN-brokered truce. Despite sporadic clashes, there have been no major offences on any fronts. However, the aftermath of the truce saw the Hadi-led government resigning due to the withdrawal of Saudi support. In its place emerged the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), an eight-member coalition of anti-Houthi forces. Internal divisions within the PLC have fuelled significant infighting due to conflicting ambitions and ideologies, threatening its political legitimacy. This instability has empowered the Houthis to control territory and engage in permanent ceasefire negotiations with Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis have entrenched themselves in the country’s Northwest. They control nearly all of former North Yemen, except for the oil-rich Marib governorate, whose capture could sway the war’s outcome. With the STC asserting control in the south, they have effectively established the North-South divide they sought in 2015.

After years of fighting, the Houthis have transformed from a rudimentary force into a sophisticated military power, developing a strong standing army and expanding their naval capabilities. The Houthis role as proxies for Iran gains credence with their ambassadors in Tehran and substantial military backing, including weapons and training from Iran and Hezbollah.

The Houthis have achieved financial independence through various means, including controlling revenue-generating entities, diverting public funds and humanitarian aid, and engaging in illicit activities like kidnappings, smuggling, and extortion. In a significant move, in May 2022, international flights commenced from Houthi-controlled Sana’a, with the Yemeni government recognizing Houthi-issued passports, effectively acknowledging their legitimacy. Having controlled state institutions since late 2014, the Houthis have gained recognition among Yemeni officials and citizens as more effective state representatives than the government.

The Houthis actively seek international recognition as a legitimate political authority in Yemen, primarily through negotiations with Saudi Arabia. They view attacks on container ships as calculated moves to strengthen their bargaining position to achieve their domestic goals. By disrupting maritime trade and posing a threat to Western-led economic interests – of which Saudi Arabia is a part – they aim to compel Riyadh as part of any deal to end its military intervention and acknowledge the Houthis legitimacy. Recent talks exclusively involving the Houthis and Saudi Arabia are interpreted as validation of their authority.

Challenging Conventional Statehood in Yemen

Yemen has experienced the breakdown of central state authority across significant portions of its territory. Repression, marginalisation, and corruption, coupled with the government’s failure to provide basic services, paved the way for alternative sources of political power. The Houthis rose from a small religious revivalist movement in the mountainous north to a political power that controls an area comprising 24 out of Yemen’s 30 million population. War has strengthened the Houthis,  similarly to how it did for the modern state. They have ingrained themselves in the Northwest despite contending with rival tribal factions and the Saudi-led coalition. In the territories they govern, the Houthis have maintained control  by tightening their grip on key institutions and economic channels, establishing a system of resource extraction to sustain their military operations while monopolising the use of force.

The rise of the Houthis poses fundamental challenges to traditional notions of statehood, including sovereignty, social cohesion, and territorial integrity. Meanwhile, the credibility of Yemen’s PLC has been severely undermined, lacking control and governance over all areas of the country. Even before the war, state authority struggled to enforce rules or assert a monopoly over violence across its territory. However, the Houthis are not the sole challengers to the existing state system; the STC, backed by the UAE, poses another significant challenge. With its advocacy for a separate southern state, the STC further erodes the legitimacy of the nation-state concept in an increasingly fragmented landscape. The group declared self-governance in April 2020 and controls most of Yemen’s five southern governorates, including Aden, the interim capital.

Toward a New Understanding of Governance

Despite the erosion of central state authority, Yemen should not be considered a failed state. The preoccupation with non-state actors in ‘failed states’ often neglects their legitimacy and potential for new forms of governance.

The rise of the Houthis underscores the broader challenge that ANSAs pose to traditional state-centric approaches in international politics. As we grapple with the evolving nature of governance in conflict-ridden regions like Yemen, it becomes increasingly evident that conventional notions of the nation-state no longer exclusively define governance models. ANSAs are occupying voids left by dysfunctional state institutions, as exemplified by the Houthis’ mobilisation of support and establishment of control over institutions and territory. This phenomenon characterises a quasi-state, where an insurgent group “has institutionalised its authority within the borders of a formal state to such a degree that it permanently controls a specific territory and the economic resources within that territory.”

A unified Yemen remains an elusive goal. Acknowledging the power dynamics on the ground is crucial to any future political order. Indeed, it is imperative to recognize that powerful local actors will resist centralised state authority, making it clear that no single party can unilaterally govern Yemen. With the Houthis governing a significant portion of the population and showing no signs of relinquishing control, their inclusion in peace, stability and reunification efforts is key. Yemen’s journey highlights the need for a more comprehensive and adaptable approach to defining and managing statehood.

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