Since the Houthis took over Sanaa in September 2014 and expelled Yemen’s internationally recognised government (IRG) the following February, they have consolidated their rule over two-thirds of the country’s population and one-third of its territory. With limited support from Iran, the group has held at bay a Saudi-led military coalition of ten countries that has access to some of the most sophisticated and expensive military technology in the world – a coalition supported by the United States, the United Kingdom, and some EU member states. As the Houthis are now the single most powerful actor on the ground in Yemen, the international community needs to engage with them as it seeks a political solution to the country’s devastating crisis.
The Houthi movement developed out of a Zaydi Shia revivalist group in the 1990s, in reaction to the rise of imported Salafism into its heartland around Saada, as well the widespread perception that the central government neglected the region. Broadly, the Houthis promote a neo-Zaydi ideology that is ill defined yet increasingly political and militaristic. Perhaps the only clear expression of this ideology is the belief that the descendants of the prophet, the sada, have the right and the authority to rule. This belief is reflected in the systematic appointment of members of that social group to senior positions in the military and the government. While the Houthis sometimes express a desire to establish a modern, republican Yemen – as seen in their National Vision for the Modern Yemeni State, published in 2019 – their recent imposition of taxes and gender segregation, and their preference for Hashemites in leadership positions, suggest that they aim to restore the historical sada Zaydi socio-political dominance of Yemeni society.
Today, there are two main strands in Houthi strategy and thinking. One is that of the hardliners, who are reluctant to accommodate dissent and relatively willing to use violence to achieve their political ambitions. They are now in the ascendant, due to their military successes. They want to rule all of Yemen, and will continue to wage war whenever it is possible to disturb Saudi Arabia. In contrast, the moderates – who are far weaker – focus on taking control of the territory of the former Yemen Arab Republic in the north of the country. They are more open to engaging with Saudi Arabia and working with UN agreements and proposed settlements. Unlike the hardliners, they might eventually find an accommodation with southern separatists and other political forces. Once the military conflict ends, political expediency and the need for additional support might strengthen their role.
Dominated by this hardline camp, the Houthis have in recent years increased their control of Yemen using several complementary strategies. Their most important strategy involves maintaining their hold on Sanaa. This allows them to control the highly centralised Yemeni administrative structure, by appointing personnel to ministries in the capital and at the governorate level.
The Houthis formalised control over state structures in February 2015, issuing a ‘constitutional declaration’ and replacing the government with the Supreme Revolutionary Committee, which has branches throughout Houthi territory. In 2016 the Supreme Political Council officially replaced the committee but, in practice, the latter retained its role. This was followed by the formation of the National Salvation Government – in which, formally, the Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress ruled as equals. But the Houthis demonstrated their supremacy when they retained control of the presidency, contrary to the agreement establishing the Supreme Political Council. The Houthis now regard themselves as Yemen’s legitimate rulers and the internationally recognised government – which is supported by the Saudi-led military coalition that intervened in the country in March 2015 – as usurpers.
The military and civilian officials that the Houthis appointed across the country operate under a network of supervisors at all but the lowest administrative levels. Often unqualified technically, these loyal supporters ensure that jobs and financial benefits primarily flow to the Houthi movement. The Houthis have complemented this with an intense propaganda campaign designed to indoctrinate the population with their views, one that taps into religious authority and widespread hostility to foreign military intervention.
The Houthis operate a highly repressive but effective surveillance system. In September 2019, they replaced Yemen’s national security and political security agencies with the Security and Intelligence Service. This gave them full control over the country’s security infrastructure. Dissent leads to arrest and imprisonment, fabricated legal charges, and harsh sentences. The Houthi government has particularly targeted journalists, sentencing some of them to death. And it established an all-female force, the zainabiyat, to police female dissidents. Yemeni women are extremely vulnerable to sexual abuse, ill-treatment in detention, and accusations of prostitution and immorality, as well as other forms of slander.
Despite promising transparent governance, the Houthis interfere in most businesses, including by forcing the closure of coffee shops – enterprises they view as controversial for allowing men and women to socialise with one another. The government collects taxes supposedly for the war effort, but there is a stark contrast between the impoverishment of most citizens and the luxurious lifestyle of supervisors and other senior Houthis. In June 2020, the Houthis imposed a 20 per cent zakat tax on all economic activity, reflecting their urgent need for income. However, they can at least claim that, in Sanaa, the streets are safe for ordinary citizens who do not engage in dissent. This contrasts with the capital of the internationally recognised government, Aden, where insecurity reigns.
The Houthis’ key international relationship – and one that has intensified during the conflict – is that with Iran. The Houthis are Iran’s most cost-effective ally in the Middle East, enabling the country to cause major problems for its main regional rival, Saudi Arabia, with only limited investment. While the Houthis inherited much of the expertise, technology, and weapons of Yemen’s security apparatus when they seized the government in 2014, the development of their tactical skills has come through technical assistance from Iran.
The Iranian-Houthi relationship is grounded in shared interests and goals rather than a common ideology. The Houthis will continue to participate in Iran’s campaign to weaken Saudi Arabia so long as this helps the group consolidate its rule in Yemen. Rather than proxies (as they are often described), the Houthis are equal partners in a shared military project that benefits both parties. But the Houthis are, above all, Yemeni actors with domestic goals. And it is clear that they would continue the war even without Iranian support. It would be a mistake to assume that Iran can direct Houthi behaviour.
The Houthis’ world view is conspiratorial: they view the European Union and its member states as subservient to a US and Israeli conspiracy implemented by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. However, the Houthis still want international recognition. Accordingly, they are willing to engage diplomatically with the EU and its member states, which they regard as less committed to the campaign against them than are the US, the UK, or Saudi Arabia.
Beyond their military confrontation with the Saudi-led coalition and its attempted negotiations on a favourable political settlement, the Houthis interact with the outside world primarily through international humanitarian networks. Yemen, home to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, is a focus for the United Nations and for international humanitarian agencies. And much of this crisis plays out in Houthi-controlled areas. As a consequence, the Houthis have determinedly maximised their control over international humanitarian networks’ substantial financial and material resources – seeing this as essential to controlling the population and maintaining a steady income stream. Yet the resulting clash with the UN humanitarian community led to a dramatic overall drop in aid in 2020, as many funders refused to finance the Houthi movement, however indirectly.
More than six years into the internationalisation of the civil war in Yemen, Houthi military gains in 2020 have demonstrated that their political influence and military forces are here to stay. Some foreign governments may want to marginalise the Houthis due to their seizure of power through military force and their human rights violations, but this is not on the cards. In the long term, the Houthis are likely to retain control of the Zaydi-majority parts of the country, as well as many surrounding Shafi-majority areas. Europeans need to accept that progress in resolving Yemen’s political and humanitarian catastrophe will necessitate engagement with the Houthis.
This engagement should include pushing back against current US and Saudi attempts to encourage European countries to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organisation – which would only strengthen the position of hardline forces within the group. Europeans should use channels of communication with the Houthis, and the incentive of wider international recognition, to press them to better respect human rights and demonstrate greater administrative inclusion in areas under their control. Europeans should make clear to the Houthis that the degree of international legitimacy they receive, and any subsequent international assistance to Yemen, is dependent on the group making progress on these fronts. Given Yemen’s desperate humanitarian and economic situation, the Houthis may come under growing internal pressure and increasingly look for a degree of international recognition. This would provide European governments with an opportunity to press for positive shifts in these areas.
Helen Lackner is a visiting fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations and a research associate at SOAS University of London. Her most recent book is Yemen in Crisis: The Road to War (2019)
Raiman al-Hamdani is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations; a research fellow at the Yemen Policy Center, funded by the German Federal Foreign Office; and a consultant at ARK Group.
This case study was submitted on an individual basis without prior knowledge of the respective contributions. The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This paper, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.