Over the past two decades, the Houthis have advanced from being a local religious movement in Yemen’s northern governorate of Saada to being a de facto authority controlling the country’s capital, Sanaa, and most of its northern governorates. Several factors enabled this gain in power, including the breakdown of state institutions and the opportunities created by domestic and regional rivalries. But it was chiefly the Houthis’ ability to play on a range of religious, political, and social identities that helped them recruit fighters, defeat opponents, and build alliances. It was a pragmatic approach, whereby, depending on the circumstances, the Houthis favored certain identities over others. This flexibility made them a more potent adversary than anyone had expected.

Ahmed Nagi
Ahmed Nagi is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where his research centers on Yemen.
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Representing a once-powerful Zaidi Shia minority, the Houthis’ ultimate aim is to resurrect Zaidi leadership as a counter to encroaching Sunni ideologies. This is one main reason Yemen’s conflict turned into a proxy war between a Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition and Iran. Despite these actors’ involvement, however, the Houthis maintain tight control over northern Yemen and Sanaa, and recent international pressure to end the conflict may force a political compromise that enables the Houthis to take on yet another identity—that of a legitimate local government in North Yemen.

From a Religious to Political Movement

The Houthi movement was largely born from a major transformation of the Believing Youth Forum (BYF), founded in 1992 by Zaidi religious leaders in the northern city of Saada. According to one of the BYF’s co-founders, Mohammed Azzan, the forum was established to revive Zaidism by providing an educational and intellectual foundation for youth.1 However, when Hussein al-Houthi, a prominent and politically active religious leader, joined the organization in 1999, he changed its central role dramatically. Through exploiting communal solidarity and grievances, he turned the forum into a political platform that eventually became a military insurgency.

Prior to joining the BYF, Hussein co-founded the Party of Truth in 1990 to protect Zaidi interests. He was a follower of Twelver Shiism (a Shia denomination embraced by Iran) and identified with Iran’s political vision. He regarded the country’s late ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a role model. But not all Zaidi scholars supported his desire to revive Zaidi governance, and he gave up his parliamentary seat—held for only one year.

Similarly, not all BYF leaders supported Hussein’s political views or his eventual use of the forum for political purposes. But his father, Badreddine, was the organization’s spiritual guide, which helped Hussein extend his influence. Furthermore, in the name of Zaidi revivalism, Hussein was able to play on communal solidarity to gain more support among Zaidi tribes in Saada Governorate. He recruited disgruntled young Zaidis displeased with the status of their community after the republican revolution of 1962, which ended the thousand-year Zaidi rule in the North. He also exploited the Zaidis’ strengthening resolve against actions by Sunni groups. For example, in 1980, Salafis attempted to change the religious identity of Saada’s tribal communities through establishing the Saudi-financed Dammaj religious center in the governorate’s Safra District. And in the 1990s, they tried to expand tribal support of the Islah Party, whose ideology is tied to the Muslim Brotherhood. This created an opportune moment for Hussein to gather the Zaidis in Saada around him and strive to resurrect Yemen’s Zaidi leadership.

Over time, the BYF started to be known as the Houthi movement and transformed into a military force, opposing then president Ali Abdullah Saleh and seeking self-autonomy. Many Zaidis did not initially support the Houthi movement. But this changed when, in June 2004, war broke out due to a dispute between Saleh and the Houthis over the collection of a religious tax from neighborhoods in Saada, as well as other Houthi actions Saleh perceived as undermining his authority.2 The government sought to arrest Hussein, who was killed in fighting later that year. However, rather than intimidate his followers, Hussein’s death rallied Zaidi support and the movement’s influence grew. Hussein’s brother stepped into the leadership role.

The Houthi insurgency continued to grow in the ensuing years. One factor was the Houthis’ ability to bring together the Hashemites—influential, mainly Zaidi families that had played an important administrative role during Zaidi rule and claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad. Through making this connection and adopting the Hashemites’ identity, the movement gained the respect accorded to Hashemites and took advantage of their presence and networks outside areas of Houthi influence. This was a clear first step toward the Houthis moving beyond their religious identity to having an overtly political one.

A New Name, a New Strategy

After six rounds of conflict with government forces between 2004 and 2009, the Houthis had control over most of Saada Governate. With this gain in power, the movement saw an opening to expand its reach outside Saada (some Houthi leaders desired an authority-sharing arrangement, while others sought to control all of Yemen). During the 2011 Arab uprising, protests erupted in several governorates against Saleh’s rule. The Houthis participated, seeing an opportunity to advance community-level demands, such as more representation in local and government councils and compensation for their people killed during the conflict. For the first time, they could peacefully present their political aims and do so on a much larger stage.

However, the Houthis had to overcome a significant obstacle to gain nationwide attention. Because the religious or tribal identities they had embraced until then had little resonance among many Yemenis, especially in the South, the Houthis had to find one that would entice a wider cross-section of society. This began with renaming their movement Ansar Allah (Partisans of God) to put more emphasis on their political agenda. The name was derived from a Quranic verse that would appeal to a religious Yemeni society while echoing the name Hezbollah, with all the political imagery that accompanied the Lebanese party. The Houthis also invoked the political vision and writings of Hussein al-Houthi, which reflected themes that appealed to Sunni followers of the Shafi’i school of Islamic law, such as Muslim unity, prophetic lineages, and opposition to corruption. This allowed the Houthis to mobilize not only northern Zaidis, but also inhabitants of predominantly Shafi’i areas.

The adoption of a new name represented more than a change in rhetoric. The movement established networks of working groups to advance their political and religious agendas, which enabled them to recruit more fighters. Each group had three leaders focused on ideology, society, and security, and they all monitored the activities of public sector institutions.

The protests against Saleh ended in a political compromise brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in November 2011. This resulted in Saleh’s removal from power and the election of then vice president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, as a transitional president. By that time, the Houthis had become a hybrid entity, undertaking political and missionary activities while dramatically increasing their military capabilities. From 2012 to 2014, they took advantage of weak government forces to capture additional governorates near Saada, including al-Jawf, Amran, and Hajja.

While the Houthis rejected the GCC compromise, they participated in its most important outcome, namely the establishment of a National Dialogue Conference (NDC) in 2013–2014. Thirty-five out of 565 conference members were from the movement, which portrayed itself not as a religious group but as an actor with a national vision—an actor that could cooperate with other national actors. During this period, the Houthis initiated contact with Western diplomats to change their image as solely an armed group. It was a political calculation that complemented their domestic political and military strategies.

This external attention helped the Houthis depict themselves as adversaries of extremism. They used their Zaidi identity to affirm their opposition to Salafi-jihadi groups, at a time when the government was fighting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This enabled them to appeal to an even broader cross-section of Yemeni groups.

As the political arm of the Houthi movement was engaged in the national dialogue, its military forces were fighting different adversaries. This included the Salafis gathered around the Dammaj religious center, who were defeated and obliged to leave Saada in January 2014. The Houthis again depicted such actions as combating extremism, an attractive slogan that resonated with those worried about terrorist groups in Yemen. The war against al-Qaeda, the weakness of Yemeni state institutions, and a mounting political crisis brought tangible gains for the movement. The United States did not hesitate to deal with the Houthis, despite its slogan “Death to America,” presuming that they represent a valuable ally against the jihadis. And this contact has continued despite the United Nations Security Council’s claims in 2015 that Iran has been sending weapons to the Houthis by sea since at least 2009—at a time when the movement was seeking to build close ties with Shia communities throughout the Middle East.

The Houthis did not stop with the elimination of the Salafis in Saada. They moved to attack the Hashid tribes loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated Islah Party between the Saada and Amran governorates, again employing an anti-extremism slogan. They accused the Islah-backed tribes of having fought alongside the Salafis. The Houthis could act as they did thanks to the silence of then prime minister Mohammed Salem Basindawa and the endorsement from certain parties, including Saleh’s General People’s Congress. Because many Yemenis opposed the Brotherhood, these actors welcomed the weakening of pro-Islah tribes and supported an alliance with the Houthis. Even Hadi, though an Islah ally, saw an opportunity to rebalance his ties with the party and gain more political power.

From a Political to Revolutionary Movement

The Houthis ultimately rejected some of the NDC’s conclusions in 2014, particularly the one that would create a six-region federal system in Yemen, in which the Houthis’ influence would be limited to the Azal region. Azal would include the landlocked northern governorates of Amran, Dhamar, Mahwit, and Saada, isolating the Houthis from the country’s wealthier governorates where ports or oil reserves were located. This spurred the next phase of the movement’s advancement.

In this new situation, the Houthis sought to widen their margin of maneuver, which they did by exploiting widespread dissatisfaction with the Basindawa government. The Houthis became a revolutionary movement, fighting against a corrupt, ineffective government and calling for reform. They accused Basindawa of being aligned with the Islah Party and leveraged their own emerging alliance with Saleh to mobilize tribal communities that were isolated after the 2011 agreement. This came at a point when the national dialogue was marred by growing divisions among Yemeni parties—not only between Saleh and a coalition of parties that had opposed him named the Joint Meeting Parties, but also among these opposition parties themselves. The weakness of the Hadi administration did not help.

The Houthis thus saw an opening to fill the void and pragmatically allied themselves with Saleh, who sought to make a political comeback and viewed the Houthis as his ticket to doing so. The Houthis ramped up their offensive, and in July 2014, they entered Amran Governorate, located 50 kilometers away from Sanaa. Two months later, they took over the capital and replaced the legitimate governorate with the Supreme Revolutionary Committee.

The Houthis’ ability to play on a plethora of identities was particularly effective in light of the multiple divisions and rivalries in Yemen at the time. They benefited from the rift between the Gulf states and the Muslim Brotherhood after 2013, which further undermined Islah. The Houthis also profited from Hadi’s desire to weaken Islah and other powerful tribes in the North during the battles in Amran and Sanaa. The president opened secret communication channels with the movement and ensured that military units loyal to him would not confront the Houthis.

The Houthis’ takeover of Sanaa was a major step in dominating the governorates around the capital, before expanding outward. At each stage, the movement would display its adaptability by changing its alliances and identities. Once they controlled the capital, the Houthis—fearing that Hadi might try to counterbalance their rising power by aligning with Islah—tried to place Hadi under house arrest. The president fled to Aden, and from there, he denounced the Houthis’ actions as a coup. Hadi’s presence in Aden was a threat to the movement, as he was still the legitimate president. Therefore, they advanced against his forces to the gates of Aden City, prompting the Saudi-led coalition to intervene in March 2015.

In July 2016, together with Saleh’s General People’s Congress, the Houthis formed the Supreme Political Council, which subsumed some power from the Supreme Revolutionary Committee and began to manage areas the parties controlled. Yet relations with Saleh slowly deteriorated due to the increasing fear that he might betray them and revive his alliance with the Saudis. In December 2017, two days after Saleh had announced his withdrawal from his alliance with the Houthis and expressed a willingness to talk to the Saudi-led coalition, the Houthis killed him while he was leaving Sanaa. Since then, the Houthis alone have controlled northern Yemen, becoming the paramount power in that part of the country.

The culmination of the Houthis’ trajectory came in December 2018, when they participated in United Nations–brokered peace talks in Sweden among the warring Yemeni parties. The Houthis named half the negotiators to those talks, and, as such, received a measure of international recognition as the de facto ruling authority in northern Yemen.

Within a decade and a half, the Houthi movement transformed from a local religious movement in Saada into a dominant revolutionary power in the North, with links to political actors throughout the country. Bolstered by newfound legitimacy, it played a significant role in defining the outcome of the peace talks, the Stockholm Agreement, while the Saudi-led coalition faced mounting criticism for the humanitarian costs of its military campaign. Looking back, the Houthis could say that it was their ability to embrace different identities in separate contexts that led to their successes. The movement lithely adapted to the twists and turns of Yemen’s circuitous politics.

An Official Authority of Yemen?

Though the Saudi-led coalition and pro-Hadi forces have pushed the Houthis out of several areas, the movement still retains tight control over northern Yemen and Sanaa. Moreover, the Houthis are benefiting from growing rifts among factions fighting with the coalition—including those divided over the future of South Yemen and rival pro-Saudi and pro-Emirati Salafi groups. At a time when pressure is building on the coalition to end its military operations, and the cost of pursuing the war is rapidly mounting for the countries involved, a major reversal of the Houthis’ gains appears highly unlikely.

In this context, Saudi Arabia may choose to again revive the negotiations it had started with the Houthis in the Saudi border city of Dhahran al-Janoub in 2016. At the time, and with a sense of realism, Riyadh had sought to persuade Houthi leaders to sever ties with Iran in exchange for full Saudi support of postwar power sharing—reminding them that the kingdom had been the main supporter of Imamate rule and of the Zaidi Hashemite families during their conflict with Egypt and allied republican forces between 1962 and 1967. Such an accord is conceivable. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have shown a recent willingness to compromise with other regional allies of Iran, notably the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. And while the Houthis have irrefutable links to Iran, they deny being puppets. Moreover, some analysts believe their ties to Iran have only played a marginal role in their rise to power.

Meanwhile, the Stockholm Agreement is unlikely to have tangible results, given all the parties’ different interpretations of its points, lack of will, and deep mistrust. However, if a political compromise is achieved, the movement would likely establish a system combining its religious vision and political project. The Houthis have replaced most state officials with their own people and could function as a deep state, pulling the strings from behind the scenes. In that sense, they might persuade the Saudis that they are best able to secure the Saudi-Yemeni border, taking on yet another identity—that of an official authority in Yemen.

While the clashes on the border would stop under this scenario, the Houthis could use this new identity to settle their scores with internal factions, leading to a new wave of conflict and insecurity elsewhere in the country. These factions would no longer have Saudi protection.

Much will be determined by the conflict’s progression, but one thing is clear—the Houthis remain potent in the North, and, therefore, their acquiescence will be needed for any final resolution in the country.

Notes

1 Interview with Mohammed Azzan, a Zaidi cleric, Khartoum, Sudan, April 2016. The BYF’s other founder was Mohammed Bader Addein al-Houthi, Hussien al-Houthi’s younger brother.

2 Al-Sanani, Abdullah, (حرب صعدة من الصرخة الأولى الى الرصاصة الأخيرة) [Saada War from the First Chant to the Last Bullet] (Cairo: Al-Amal Publishing House, first edition, 2005).