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Who're the Houthis & What's Their Role in the Iran-Saudi-UAE Proxy War In Yemen?

The Houthi Movement in Yemen claimed responsibility for a suspected drone attack in Abu Dhabi on 17 January.

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Edited By :Saundarya Talwar

The Houthi Movement in Yemen, officially known as the Ansar Allah ("supporters of God"), has claimed responsibility for a suspected drone attack that took the lives of two Indian nationals and a Pakistani national in Abu Dhabi in the UAE on Monday, 17 January.

In retaliation to the Abu Dhabi attack, two airstrikes by a Saudi-led coalition hit the Houthi-controlled Yemeni capital Sanaa on Tuesday, killing 14. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are allied to each other in their fight against the Houthis.

What is important to know, however, is that the UAE government and the Houthis are not direct enemies of each other.

The UAE is an external participant in the Yemeni Civil War that has been raging for more than seven years.

The civil war is multifaceted and complicated. We break it down for you in this explainer by answering some of the main questions.

Who are the Houthis? How did civil war break out and how did it internationalise? What is happening to the peace process, and why is Yemen known to be suffering from the most serious humanitarian disaster in the world? Read on.

Who're the Houthis & What's Their Role in the Iran-Saudi-UAE Proxy War In Yemen?

  1. 1. Who Are the Houthis?

    The Houthis are a tribe from Northern Yemen, and belong to Yemen's Zaidi Shia Muslim minority.

    The first political-military organisation of the Houthis was formed in the early 1990s by Mohammed al-Houthi and his brother Hussein al-Houthi.

    Similar organisations started coming up in reaction to what they perceived as an increasing influence of Wahhabism (a doctrine of Sunni Islam) in the country, thanks to Saudi Arabian's relations with the Yemeni government.

    In 2004, these tensions exploded when Hussein al-Houthi launched an insurgency against the Yemeni government, then led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

    The latter was accused of corrupt governance and of stealing the country's wealth for his own family.

    The 2003 US invasion of neighbouring Iraq worsened the situation in Yemen, radicalising the Houthi youth.

    Officially calling themselves the the Ansar Allah, the Houthis modelled themselves after the Iran-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah (a dominant force in Lebanon), and fought for an end to corruption and foreign influence in Yemen (like Saudi Arabia's).

    Their slogan was "God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam."

    When Hussein al-Houthi was killed by President Saleh's troops, the insurgency, far from being deterred, became even stronger.

    Despite pumping millions of dollars into fighting the Houthis, the Saleh regime backed by Saudi Arabia could not defeat the Ansar Allah.

    Conflict persisted till 2011, when Yemen erupted into a civil war, in which the Houthis played a major role.

    Their political objective continues to be the pursuit of international recognition of a Houthi-led government in the country.

    Expand
  2. 2. Civil War Breaks Out 

    The Arab Spring, which started in late 2010, rocked the Arab world.

    Starting with the Tunisian Revolution, the anti-government protests spread to Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Egypt, and for the purposes of this article, Yemen.

    Protestors took to the streets in 2011 against the Yemeni government led by Saleh.

    In what is known as the Yemeni Revolution, the people demanded an end to authoritarianism, unemployment, corruption, and poverty.

    The Houthis joined the protests in support of the revolution.

    President Saleh was overthrown during the revolution, and was replaced by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi after the 2012 presidential election.

    The transfer of power was brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, an intergovernmental political and economic union, de facto led by Saudi Arabia.

    The Houthis, unsurprisingly, rejected the transfer of power. They were, after all, fighting against Saudi Arabian influence.

    Hadi, viewed as a Saudi stooge, was highly unpopular.

    He was hated to the extent that the Houthis and Saleh temporarily joined hands for a few years.

    Along with the help of locals and some factions of the Yemeni army that were loyal to Saleh, the Houthis took control of Sanaa, the capital of the country, in January 2015.

    Hadi fled to Aden, another city in Yemen, that is now being recognised as the capital of the country.

    Two months after the siege of Sanaa, the Saudis intervened in support of the Hadi government. The UAE backed them.

    The Houthis, however, were not deprived of international support.

    Unwilling to risk the rise of regional Saudi power, Iran joined the highly internationalised civil war, which is now seen as a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran.

    Additionally, the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Yemeni branch of the rival Islamic State have used the instability in the country to organise terrorist attacks and occupy territory in the southern parts of the country.

    Expand
  3. 3. The Cold War of the Middle East

    Yemen has become to the Middle East what Vietnam was to Southeast Asia in the 1960s during the peak of the Cold War between the US and the USSR.

    This time, however, the belligerents are Saudi Arabia and Iran.

    Around 2014, Iran began to intensify its participation in Yemen by supporting the Houthis (both are Shiites and anti-US).

    Led by the Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, various types of weapons (like missiles and UAVs) and training have been provided to the Houthi rebels.

    Saudi Arabia refused to just stand and be witness to what they feared to be creeping Iranian influence in their southern neighbour.

    In March 2015, the Saudis led a military coalition against the Houthis with one objective – to reinstall the internationally recognised Hadi government in Yemen.

    Air strikes became the main means with which the Saudis supported Hadi's forces. No ground troops were committed.

    Then there is UAE, the country that was supposedly attacked by the Houthis on 17 January.

    It is backing Saudi Arabia and the Hadi government by virtue of being allied to the former in the GCC, thereby becoming an enemy of the Houthis.

    Abu Dhabi also fears the growing Iranian influence in its geopolitics.

    It, however, has been gradually reducing its role in the proxy war.

    The UAE aids the Aden-based government by providing funds and training to its troops.

    Small pockets of Emirati troops are present in several key Yemeni islands, one of which is called Mayun, which contains an airbase constructed by the UAE that links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.

    Talking about the airbase, Jeremy Binnie, an expert on West Asian affairs, said that it "does seem to be a longer-term strategic aim to establish a relatively permanent presence", reported Al Jazeera.

    The runway on Mayun Island allows whoever in control of the base, that is, the UAE, to launch of air attacks into mainland Yemen.

    Expand
  4. 4. Humanitarian Catastrophe and the Prospects for Peace

    The United Nations has referred to the Yemeni Civil War as the world's largest humanitarian crisis.

    Around 67 percent of the population, that is, 20.7 million people, were in dire need of humanitarian assistance in 2021, according to the United Nations Population Fund.

    The UNFPA report also says that 73 percent of the 4 million-plus people who are displaced in Yemen comprise women and children.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a crisis plagued by a years-long conflict and a crumbling economy.

    Peace talks have led to nothing.

    Despite the United Nations urging both sides to stop the fighting in order to manage the pandemic, and despite the ceasefire pledged by the Saudi-led coalition in April 2020, dozens of airstrikes were carried out on Yemen in the same month.

    The prospects for peace look even more bleak now, given the latest purported attack by the Houthis on the UAE, and the retaliatory strikes that followed.

    While an investigation has been initiated by the UAE government to probe the January 2022 attack, the Houthis have already admitted that they had "carried out... a successful military operation" against "important and sensitive Emirati sites and installations" using both ballistic missiles and drones.

    On the other hand, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is the UAE minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, stated that the "Houthi militia's "terrorist attack" that targeted "civilian areas & facilities on UAE soil" violated international law.

    "We reiterate that those responsible for this unlawful targeting of our country will be held accountable", he further added.

    The Houthis, through their drone attacks, are ordering the Emirati to mind their own business or face more attacks.

    It is unlikely that the UAE will be deterred, especially when it knows that it has the Saudis and the Americans by its side.

    National Security Advisor to the US government Jake Sullivan released a statement on Monday that condemned the Houthi attack, and reiterated that the US "will work with the UAE and international partners to hold them accountable."

    This war has been going for seven years without any signs of even an uneasy peace.

    The most recent violence will keep the pot boiling for quite a while, as the humanitarian situation in Yemen deteriorates further.

    (With inputs from Al Jazeera and The Washington Post)

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

Who Are the Houthis?

The Houthis are a tribe from Northern Yemen, and belong to Yemen's Zaidi Shia Muslim minority.

The first political-military organisation of the Houthis was formed in the early 1990s by Mohammed al-Houthi and his brother Hussein al-Houthi.

Similar organisations started coming up in reaction to what they perceived as an increasing influence of Wahhabism (a doctrine of Sunni Islam) in the country, thanks to Saudi Arabian's relations with the Yemeni government.

In 2004, these tensions exploded when Hussein al-Houthi launched an insurgency against the Yemeni government, then led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The latter was accused of corrupt governance and of stealing the country's wealth for his own family.

The 2003 US invasion of neighbouring Iraq worsened the situation in Yemen, radicalising the Houthi youth.

Officially calling themselves the the Ansar Allah, the Houthis modelled themselves after the Iran-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah (a dominant force in Lebanon), and fought for an end to corruption and foreign influence in Yemen (like Saudi Arabia's).

Their slogan was "God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam."

When Hussein al-Houthi was killed by President Saleh's troops, the insurgency, far from being deterred, became even stronger.

Despite pumping millions of dollars into fighting the Houthis, the Saleh regime backed by Saudi Arabia could not defeat the Ansar Allah.

Conflict persisted till 2011, when Yemen erupted into a civil war, in which the Houthis played a major role.

Their political objective continues to be the pursuit of international recognition of a Houthi-led government in the country.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Civil War Breaks Out 

The Arab Spring, which started in late 2010, rocked the Arab world.

Starting with the Tunisian Revolution, the anti-government protests spread to Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Egypt, and for the purposes of this article, Yemen.

Protestors took to the streets in 2011 against the Yemeni government led by Saleh.

In what is known as the Yemeni Revolution, the people demanded an end to authoritarianism, unemployment, corruption, and poverty.

The Houthis joined the protests in support of the revolution.

President Saleh was overthrown during the revolution, and was replaced by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi after the 2012 presidential election.

The transfer of power was brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, an intergovernmental political and economic union, de facto led by Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis, unsurprisingly, rejected the transfer of power. They were, after all, fighting against Saudi Arabian influence.

Hadi, viewed as a Saudi stooge, was highly unpopular.

He was hated to the extent that the Houthis and Saleh temporarily joined hands for a few years.

Along with the help of locals and some factions of the Yemeni army that were loyal to Saleh, the Houthis took control of Sanaa, the capital of the country, in January 2015.

Hadi fled to Aden, another city in Yemen, that is now being recognised as the capital of the country.

Two months after the siege of Sanaa, the Saudis intervened in support of the Hadi government. The UAE backed them.

The Houthis, however, were not deprived of international support.

Unwilling to risk the rise of regional Saudi power, Iran joined the highly internationalised civil war, which is now seen as a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran.

Additionally, the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Yemeni branch of the rival Islamic State have used the instability in the country to organise terrorist attacks and occupy territory in the southern parts of the country.

0

The Cold War of the Middle East

Yemen has become to the Middle East what Vietnam was to Southeast Asia in the 1960s during the peak of the Cold War between the US and the USSR.

This time, however, the belligerents are Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Around 2014, Iran began to intensify its participation in Yemen by supporting the Houthis (both are Shiites and anti-US).

Led by the Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, various types of weapons (like missiles and UAVs) and training have been provided to the Houthi rebels.

Saudi Arabia refused to just stand and be witness to what they feared to be creeping Iranian influence in their southern neighbour.

In March 2015, the Saudis led a military coalition against the Houthis with one objective – to reinstall the internationally recognised Hadi government in Yemen.

Air strikes became the main means with which the Saudis supported Hadi's forces. No ground troops were committed.

Then there is UAE, the country that was supposedly attacked by the Houthis on 17 January.

It is backing Saudi Arabia and the Hadi government by virtue of being allied to the former in the GCC, thereby becoming an enemy of the Houthis.

Abu Dhabi also fears the growing Iranian influence in its geopolitics.

It, however, has been gradually reducing its role in the proxy war.

The UAE aids the Aden-based government by providing funds and training to its troops.

Small pockets of Emirati troops are present in several key Yemeni islands, one of which is called Mayun, which contains an airbase constructed by the UAE that links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.

Talking about the airbase, Jeremy Binnie, an expert on West Asian affairs, said that it "does seem to be a longer-term strategic aim to establish a relatively permanent presence", reported Al Jazeera.

The runway on Mayun Island allows whoever in control of the base, that is, the UAE, to launch of air attacks into mainland Yemen.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Humanitarian Catastrophe and the Prospects for Peace

The United Nations has referred to the Yemeni Civil War as the world's largest humanitarian crisis.

Around 67 percent of the population, that is, 20.7 million people, were in dire need of humanitarian assistance in 2021, according to the United Nations Population Fund.

The UNFPA report also says that 73 percent of the 4 million-plus people who are displaced in Yemen comprise women and children.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a crisis plagued by a years-long conflict and a crumbling economy.

Peace talks have led to nothing.

Despite the United Nations urging both sides to stop the fighting in order to manage the pandemic, and despite the ceasefire pledged by the Saudi-led coalition in April 2020, dozens of airstrikes were carried out on Yemen in the same month.

The prospects for peace look even more bleak now, given the latest purported attack by the Houthis on the UAE, and the retaliatory strikes that followed.

While an investigation has been initiated by the UAE government to probe the January 2022 attack, the Houthis have already admitted that they had "carried out... a successful military operation" against "important and sensitive Emirati sites and installations" using both ballistic missiles and drones.

On the other hand, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is the UAE minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, stated that the "Houthi militia's "terrorist attack" that targeted "civilian areas & facilities on UAE soil" violated international law.

"We reiterate that those responsible for this unlawful targeting of our country will be held accountable", he further added.

The Houthis, through their drone attacks, are ordering the Emirati to mind their own business or face more attacks.

It is unlikely that the UAE will be deterred, especially when it knows that it has the Saudis and the Americans by its side.

National Security Advisor to the US government Jake Sullivan released a statement on Monday that condemned the Houthi attack, and reiterated that the US "will work with the UAE and international partners to hold them accountable."

This war has been going for seven years without any signs of even an uneasy peace.

The most recent violence will keep the pot boiling for quite a while, as the humanitarian situation in Yemen deteriorates further.

(With inputs from Al Jazeera and The Washington Post)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from explainers

Topics:  Yemen   Saudi Arabia   Houthi 

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