Yemen: Who are the Houthis?

The Houthis lead a broadly-based movement for the national sovereignty of Yemen

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 268 February/March 2019

In November 2018, the US government announced it was considering designating the Ansar Allah coalition in Yemen – commonly known as the Houthis – as a terrorist group. Imperialist politicians and much of the bourgeois media uncritically follow this approach of seeking to present the Houthi-led opposition as the villains in the ongoing war in Yemen. Accusations that the Houthis are Iranian proxies and that they are being armed by Iran are parroted in line with the foreign policy objectives of the brutal Saudi-led coalition which has been making war on Yemen since 2015. However, the truth is that the Houthi-led movement is a broadly-backed resistance movement fighting for national sovereignty against attempts by Saudi Arabia and its regional and imperialist backers to loot, plunder and subdue Yemen.

Ansar Allah is a movement which emerged in north-west Yemen in the 1990s in opposition to the then Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh was increasingly aligned to Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel, and presided over a rule of corruption, inequality and unemployment. The movement was led by charismatic politician Hussein Badreddin Al Houthi, and later by his brother, leading to the simplistic characterisation of the movement as ‘the Houthis’. The movement is dominated by those who follow the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam, although it is by no means a sectarian movement, and other denominations participate. The movement became a strong political alliance against the austerity policies of governments imposed by Saudi Arabia and their imperialist backers – first Saleh, and then his replacement, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, after Saleh was forced out by popular protests in 2011. The movement’s fighters have been shaped by a series of wars with the Yemeni government, and government attacks on the movement have broadened the range of forces uniting under the Houthi banner. In 2014 Ansar Allah took over Yemen’s political capital, Sana’a, following Hadi’s refusal to step down when his presidential term ended. A coalition of foreign powers, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and backed by the US and Britain, launched an intervention in 2015 seeking to reinstall the pliant Hadi government. This war has since killed more than 56,000 people, forced millions into starvation and led to the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. As we go to press, negotiations are continuing in an attempt to agree a ceasefire in the crucial Houthi-held port city of Hodeidah.

The war in Yemen is frequently characterised as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, or as a sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam. The former is used to justify the brutal war and both assertions mask the economic and strategic motives of the Saudi-led coalition in destroying the resistance of the Ansar Allah movement. Journalists of the bourgeois media rarely mention the Houthis without the obligatory addition of ‘Iranian-backed’. Despite the hypocrisy of never describing Saudi Arabia or Israel as ‘US-backed’, there is little evidence for strong links between Iran and the Yemeni resistance movement. The fact that Iran is a Shia dominated country is often lazily cited as evidence. In reality however, Zaidi Islam is quite distinct from mainstream Shia Islam, and in fact has more similarities with Sunni belief. In addition there is widespread Sunni involvement in Ansar Allah. The simplistic line about sectarian alliances in the Middle East in fact follows the sectarianism of Salafi jihadists who condemn all other religious groups.

Actual links between Iran and the Houthi-led movement are desperately sought out by apologists for the war with little success. Iran and the Houthis share common strategic objectives, but even if Iran wanted to offer significant military or economic support, the punishing blockade of western Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition means that no shipments could be received. One widely reported incident in 2013 was the seizure of a ship called the Jihan 1, which the Hadi government claimed was transporting Iranian weapons to the Houthis. Investigative journalist Gareth Porter has looked into these claims and found them unconvincing, and a UN report was unable to independently confirm the allegation (Counterpunch 24 April 2015). Attempts have even been made to claim that the movement is receiving weapons from that other pariah state for the imperialists – North Korea. However, through years of wars and differing alliances Ansar Allah has built up a substantial supply of weaponry without the need to rely on Iran or North Korea. Most of this has come from the huge volumes of weaponry which the US has shipped into Yemen over the years to prop up its chosen governments. Claims that Iran are militarily supporting the Houthis are intended to discredit the movement’s credentials as an organic, locally relevant force. However, it is the massive support the Hadi government receives from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the US and other foreign powers, which clearly demonstrates which political power in Yemen could not exist without external support.

For Saudi Arabia and its allies, the destruction of the Houthi-led movement is necessary in order to dominate Yemen’s natural resources, and control its strategically important locations. The resistance of the people of Yemen to structural adjustment, austerity and subjugation to the imperialist financial system cannot be tolerated. Whilst different class interests are lined up behind the Houthi banner, the movement is made up of Yemenis refusing to accept foreign domination and occupation, and is currently united in the fight for national sovereignty. The Houthi-led movement declares that its military is inspired by the tactics and resolve of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front in the 1960-75 war. Having thwarted the coalition’s expectations of a swift and decisive victory against one of the poorest countries in the world, the Houthis have succeeded in trapping Saudi Arabia in its own Vietnam war.

See: ‘Chaos in Yemen: A conversation with Isa Blumi’, (The Nation, 21 December 2018).

Toby Harbertson

Pension funds

The war in Yemen is treated as a very distant matter by most people in Britain. However, it is much closer to home than it appears. A Guardian investigation has recently shown that £566m of British council workers’ pension funds is invested in arms companies which have been fueling the war in Yemen (10 January). This money is spread across 43 pension funds and is invested in five huge arms companies: BAE Systems, Airbus, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman. Millions more from these pension funds is invested in these companies in pooled investments which are not directly controlled.