Of Houthis and Saudis: the Saudi-Yemeni conflict

By Rick Mendenhall

Saudi Arabia’s intervention in conflict-wracked Yemen heated up last week. Saudi Arabia, backed by its Arab coalition, unleashed helicopter gunships against Shiite rebels in Yemen. Airstrikes have killed an estimated six hundred already. The U.S. has quietly stepped up intervention measures, including intelligence sharing, to back Saudi Arabia.  Russia, Germany, France, and other countries have evacuated its citizens (with a little help from India). On the diplomatic front, Russia rejected a draft in the UN Security Council that would have banned arms shipments to the Houthi rebels. Iran condemned the Saudi bombing campaign as genocide. 

The recent rapid deterioration in Yemen might leave you scratching your head.  How did the situation in the country devolve into violence so quickly?  The conflict’s origin actually dates from 2004 when Yemeni Houthi rebels demanded the reversal of Yemen’s 1990 north-south unification. At the time, the Yemeni government believed that the rebel dispute would be resolved diplomatically. However, while waving the white flag of diplomacy on the one hand, the Yemeni government launched “Operation Scorched Earth,” a military offensive against the rebels in 2009 backed by Saudi Arabia and U.S. airstrikes. Conflict continued for years until the Houthis scored a victory in January of 2015 when they seized the Yemeni presidential palace. The Houthis installed their own leader as head of government, and the existing president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi fled to establish a rival government in Aden, a southern Yemeni port. Subsequently, Saudi Arabia launched air strikes against the Houthis.

Who are the Houthis and why is Saudia Arabia so set against them? They are connected with the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam, and are named Houthis for their original leader, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi. AlJazeera English describe the Houthi ideology “as a theological movement preaching peace.” The Houthis began as a youth education group in the mid-1990s, but became militant in 2004. Since their rise as a belligerent actor, Houthis have clashed with Salafis in Yemen.

Although the current struggle is tinged with theological undertones, the conflict is unmistakably a political power battle. The Houthis had long wanted their own federal province within Yemen, but the central government had denied such a request. Since the January Coup, Yemen has moved to make good on some of its political desires, but commentators aren’t sure if the Houthis will be able to govern all of Yemen because they only make up 35% of the Yemeni population. Moreover, to consolidate power the Houthis will have to oust Hadi from Aden.

The dual government in Yemen sets up an intriguing international legal conundrum. Is Saudi intervention legal? On the one hand, Hadi in Aden has consented to Saudi attacks, which would make them legal. On the other hand, the Houthis have not. Nathalie Weizmann from Columbia’s Counterterrorism and Human Rights Project has a full legal analysis here. The legality notwithstanding, the coalition of Arab nations seems to care little for the legal rules especially because, Iran, the Houthis strongest ally, is in a relatively weak position geographically and economically.