The near-official slogan of the Houthi movement is: “God is the Greatest / Death to America / Death to Israel / A curse upon the Jews.” Crowds of supporters in the group’s northern Yemen strongholds have been chanting it for more than 20 years, ever since the phrase was brought back from Tehran at the turn of the century, when it was first directed at the then Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
So those who claim the Houthis are not serious in attempting to block Israeli-linked trade in the Red Sea underplay the extent to which the defence of Palestine is a foundational principle of the Houthi movement, and highly popular among Yemeni people. The rebel stance over the past two months has afforded this relatively obscure Shia group a status in recent weeks that even Hezbollah in Lebanon cannot claim. They are deeply authoritarian, but skilled mobilisers of popular opinion.
And as far back as 2014, Houthi leaders discussed with clerics in Tehran how “the road to Jerusalem” lay through the Red Sea.
The narrowness of the Bab el-Mandab strait is a gift from geography. In August 2018, the Houthis attacked two Saudi oil tankers to challenge Riyadh. Knowing that a third of Israel’s trade was with the far east, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, responded by warning Iran and the Houthis not to block the waterways.
Houthi attacks since then have been marked by elements of bravado – but also sophisticated improvisation. [Continue reading…]