When Yemen’s former strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh was still alive and in charge in 2010, local authorities in the capital, Sanaa, organized a pageant of sorts to celebrate national unity, which was already frayed at the time.
It is memorable if only because it was so bizarre.
Children dressed up as villains representing various threats facing the country. Wearing black cloaks and horror-movie masks, they crept on stage to steal the Yemeni flag.… until kids playing Yemeni soldiers arrived to seize it back.
Just four years later, one of the threats portrayed then — a clan-based Shia rebel group little observed by the outside world at the time — would swoop down from their mountain bases in Yemen’s north to seize the capital and oust Saleh’s successor.
A decade later, they would insert themselves on the world stage by attacking international shipping lanes in the Red Sea, in what they say is an act of solidarity with Palestinians being bombed by Israel in Gaza.
It’s a strategy analysts say is winning the Houthis new recruits in a country where they control two-thirds of the population, often through brutal means.
“There have been protests and support of Palestinians in the past, but you haven’t seen a specific group try to utilize that in order to increase recruitment, or, you know, try to rally the public,” said Baara Shiban, a Yemeni human rights activist and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think-tank.
WATCH | How the Houthis defied the U.S.:
How the Houthis defied the U.S. | About ThatAs Houthi rebels in Yemen continue to disrupt global shipping traffic and attack ships in the Red Sea, the U.S. is hitting back. Andrew Chang outlines the risks of further escalation in the region, and how far both sides could be willing to go.
Shiban says they are also using anger over the United States and Britain’s decision to launch airstrikes against Houthi targets to deflect from growing criticism at home.
“People were starting to pressure [the Houthis] regarding payment of salaries, meeting their humanitarian obligations,” he said. “And this is an easy way to distract attention first, and then second, try to crush any possibility of people either protesting or showing dissatisfaction with their rule.”
An uneasy truce in YemenAhmed Nagi, a senior analyst on Yemen for the International Crisis Group, agrees.
“This Gaza war was kind of a way out for the Houthis to tell people that you don’t speak about anything at this moment because we are at war and there’s something more important than internal issues,” he said.
Houthi arrests of activists and outspoken critics have been on the rise in recent weeks.
“Nobody actually gave that much attention to this type of arrest because everybody is busy with what’s going on in Gaza and with what the Houthis are doing in the Red Sea,” Nagi said.
After the Houthis seized power in Sanaa in 2014, Yemen fell into a civil war that became a proxy battle between a Saudi-led coalition backing the ousted government, which decamped to the city of Aden in the south, and Iran, which supported the Houthis.
According to UN figures, an estimated 377,000 people had been killed in the conflict by 2022, with 60 per cent of the deaths attributed to indirect causes, including starvation and lack of health care.
A Yemeni child looks out at buildings damaged in an airstrike in the southern Yemeni city of Taez in 2018. (Ahmad Al-Basha/AFP/Getty Images)
An uneasy truce — or a lull in fighting — has held since April 2022. The fear for many now is that the Red Sea crisis will re-ignite fighting in Yemen and throw the country even deeper into a humanitarian disaster it hasn’t come close to emerging from.
The World Food Program says 1.3 million pregnant and breastfeeding women and 2.2 million children under the age of five are suffering from acute malnutrition.
Last month, 26 aid agencies issued a joint warning, saying any disruption in the distribution of aid would be catastrophic.
“Political leaders must consider the dire humanitarian implications of military escalation, and refrain from actions that could result in renewed large-scale armed conflict in Yemen,” the statement read. “The recent escalation also underscores the risk of a wider regional and international confrontation that could undermine Yemen’s fragile peace process and longer-term recovery.”
Worries about ‘new cycle of violence’The Houthi militia has ordered aid workers with British or American passports to leave the country. And some NGOs are now reassessing security issues in the wake of Western airstrikes.
“A new cycle of violence is going to be a real disaster. Not only in the areas controlled by the Houthis, but for all of Yemen,” said prominent human rights activist Radhya Almutawakel in a telephone interview from Sanaa.
“People are waiting for a political agreement, not a new war.”
Agreement was in reach prior to current events, she insists, at least between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia.
Almutawakel chairs a non-governmental organization called Mwatana for Human Rights in Yemen, which catalogues rights violations in many different forms. In December, Houthi officials prevented her and others from the organization from leaving the country on a work trip.
She says they are used to being harassed. “We are covering all of Yemen, [which] is controlled by different armed groups, and they are committing horrible violations, including the Houthis.”
A coast guard boat sails past a commercial container ship docked at the Houthi-held Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen, in this file photo taken Feb. 25, 2023. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)The other groups range from al-Qaeda affiliates in the south to the Islamic State to pro-government militias, including one called the Giants Brigade, made up mainly of Salafist tribesmen and funded by the United Arab Emirates.
“We are trying to make ourselves [secure] as much as we can by being very independent and neutral and having very good relations with many international [organizations],” said Almutawakel.
She calls Washington and London’s response to the Houthi attacks flawed.
“[It] will not protect the Red Sea,” she said. “It will not even defeat an armed group. It’s very difficult to go in a war with an armed group that has never been defeated [in] nine years of war.”
Especially a group that has been strengthened over the years by help from Iran.
Seeking a larger regional roleBaraa Shiban says the Houthis’ moves in the Red Sea have raised them up the ladder of Iran’s “axis of resistance,” which is made up of regional militias.
He says it speaks to the Houthis’ ambition.
“They want to have control over the rest of Yemen,” Shiban said. “The second thing is that they want to play a bigger role in the region. They think they can play an important role, just like Hezbollah, and not be contained just within Yemen.”
So far, the Houthis have remained undeterred in the face of Western airstrikes.
On Thursday, U.S. Central Command said it had struck a ground control station in Yemen and 10 Houthi drones that it said “presented an imminent threat” to merchant vessels and U.S. Navy ships in the region.
The day before, a Houthi spokesman said the group would continue attacking U.S. and British warships in the Red Sea in “self-defence.”
WATCH | U.S., U.K. forces target Houthi rebels in Yemen:
U.S., U.K. launch airstrikes targeting Houthi rebels in YemenMilitary forces from the U.S. and U.K. launched airstrikes on sites in Yemen late Thursday, saying the strikes targeted areas that hosted radar, missile and drone capabilities used by Iran-backed Houthi forces to attack vessels in the Red Sea.
Shiban says the Houthis have shown they can fight, but not that they can govern.
But not all the criticism in Yemen is reserved for the Houthis. Far from it. The internationally recognized government is now run by a cabinet based in Aden called the Presidential Leadership Council. It also includes the Southern Transitional Council, which in turn is made up of secessionist tribal groups from the south, some financed by the U.A.E.
“[The Southern Transitional Council wants] to have their own negotiating team, which is apart from the internationally recognized government,” said Ahmed Nagi, if and when the time comes for Yemen’s warring parties to negotiate a long-term and comprehensive peace agreement.
For now, that prospect seems frozen.
“The Houthis are a fanatical armed group,” said Almutawakel. “But they are not the only fanatical armed group in Yemen.”