On 14 November 2023, the military spokesman of Yemen’s Houthis, General Yahya Sarea, released a statement with an image of an Israeli ship on fire with a vow to ‘sink your ships’. Five days later, dramatic footage captured on the bodycams of Houthi hijackers and beamed around the world showed heavily armed insurgents clad in black balaclavas jumping out of a helicopter onto the deck of the Galaxy Leader, a cargo ship affiliated with an Israeli businessman, and taking it and over 20 crew members hostage. On 9 December, a further Houthi statement broadened out the threat to ‘ships of any nationality heading to the Zionist entity’. In reality, the threat now also encompasses shipping with no clear link to Israel. To date, well over 100 drones and missiles have been launched at international shipping with links to over 50 countries.
The impact on global trade is significant. At least 17,000 ships pass through the Red Sea annually, carrying over 10 per cent of global seaborne trade and 20 per cent of global container volumes. The upshot is that insurance premiums have skyrocketed and several of the world’s biggest container shipping firms are re-routing around Africa. Longer journeys will, in time, impact supply chains and ultimately drive-up prices for consumers. After nine years of civil war in Yemen, which the international community barely noticed, despite the Houthis having launched over a thousand missiles and drones at Saudi Arabia, as well as striking targets inside the United Arab Emirates, suddenly the world is watching and wondering: who are the Houthis and what do they want?
The Houthis emerged in Yemen’s north-west highlands and take their name from their former leader, Husayn al-Houthi. He was killed in 2004 and they are currently led by his brother, Abd al-Malik al-Houthi. Although their tribal roots are strong, they are not a tribe, but a much broader grouping that is at once religious, political and military. Let’s take each one of these elements in turn.
Religion is central to the formation of Houthi identity politics. The Houthi movement is rooted in Zaydi Islam. Zaydism is a branch of Shi’ism, but it is a more moderate form than the ‘Twelver Shi’ism’ practised in Iran and closer in practice to Sunni Islam.
Houthi mobilisation began in the late 1980s as a revivalist movement seeking to end their religious, political, economic and cultural marginalisation following the toppling of their state, a religion-based Imamate, in 1962. The Imamate was forcibly replaced by the Yemen Arab Republic, which later became North Yemen. The new state was infused with proselytising initiatives led by Saudi-backed Wahhabi missionaries seeking to spread their strict Sunni belief system among the predominantly Zaydi population and ultimately to undermine Zaydi religious and political elites. In response, the Houthi leadership began to nurture a network of ‘Believing Youth’ and increasingly to adopt the kinds of Shi’ite symbols common in Iran. The seeds of sectarian tension were sown and would fester as the Houthi insistence on recognition tipped over into conflict. The Yemeni government fought six rounds of war against the Houthis from 2004 to 2010, with Saudi Arabia intervening directly against the Houthis in 2010. [Continue reading…]