The emergence of the Houthis/Ansarallah movement in Yemen’s Highlands is a complex process which cannot be reduced to its sectarian component, but also features political and social aspects.
In the Sa’ada area, the elite transformations which were triggered by the 1962 revolution led to the empowerment of certain tribal leaders at the expense of the sayyids (title for the descendants of the Prophet), the religious and administrative elite of the former Shia Zaidi Imamate. This new tribal elite was subsequently reinforced and cemented through the politics of patronage exerted by the central republican government, often at the behest of Saudi Arabia.
In the Sa’ada area, the political and economic patronage of certain shaykhs and the development ostracism of large parts of the average population resulted in economic imbalances and a vastly unjust distribution of economic resources, mainly because a small group of people began to control a disproportionate amount of wealth and political power.
Social unrest was further aggravated by the spread of radical Islam. Zaidis and Salafis have increasingly crossed swords over the decades – even more so when Salafis took in the habit of inciting local communities to rise against the prominence of the ‘sayyids’ and other centuries-old Zaidi traditions their clergy deemed un-Islamic and thus nefarious.
As confrontations became more and more intense in their violence (beginning of the 1980s) the state took a predominantly Sunni-friendly position, a move which surprised many since President Saleh and most of his family members hailed from Zaidi Islam themselves.
It is against the backdrop of such a sectarian discourse that the Houthis defined themselves in opposition of the central government and by extension the Republic – at least as formulated under President Saleh.
It is important to note here that since the onset of the Ḥouthis conflict (2004), multiple attempts at de-escalation and conflict mediation have taken place to defuse the crisis and to restore peace and stability in Yemen. The appointment of mediators and mediation teams is not surprising, as mediation is the socially and politically preferred way of conflict management in Yemen. The Yemeni tribes, in particular, have well-established and effective mechanisms for channelling crises into negotiation.
For well over a decade the Houthis conflict has witnessed every possible kind of mediation and mediators: official and unofficial mediations, ‘insider-partial’ and ‘outsider-neutral’ mediators, mediation by persons, tribes, states, and international organizations, local emergency mediation, meditation of sub-conflicts and attempts at comprehensive conflict settlement. Yet after years of negotiations with the Ḥouthis, no sustainable solution and no golden formula for achieving mediation success have yet been found. Despite at times intensive efforts the conflict could at best only be temporarily stopped, and no sustainable results have emerged from mediation.
The Houthis dossier as it were, requires a complete rethink, and beyond that a fresh innovative approach to conflict resolution.
To better grasp the breadth of Yemen’s unrest – both its scope and its history, one needs to come to terms with the failures of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule in that he allowed for much of the Highlands to become economically and socio-politically marginalised. The unjust distribution of economic resources and political participation, coupled with the unfettered spread of radical Islam in the Zaidi heartland ultimately led to the emergence of a complex Zaidi countermovement. One could argue that it is Sana’a attempt to use brutal force over integration which gave both credence and clout to the budding Zaidi reactionary ideology. Needless to say that years spent in perpetual military confrontation hardened all Houthi militants to the harsh demands of war.
From 2004 onwards, the most influential wing of this movement, the Houthis, waged six wars (the so-called Sa’ada Wars) against the Yemeni government. These wars escalated from round to round due to tribal involvement, but ended in 2010 in a draw.
Since 2004, the Houthis have been exclusively led by members of the eponymous Al Houthi family, sayyids from the Marran Mountains southwest of Sa’ada city. Since 2006, their leader has been Abdel Malek Al Houthi, a younger half-brother of Hussain, the first leader of the rebellion, who was killed in 2004.
In between 2004 and 2006, Badreddin Al Houthi, father to both Hussain and Abdel-Malek briefly held the mantle of power. A well-known politician and religious scholar of Zaidi Islam he was one of the founders of the Party of Truth in Yemen and the spiritual leader of Ansarallah movement.
Much of the Houthis’ success lies in its leadership ability to combine Zaidi revivalism with sharp political criticism of both local and international actors, thus crafting a historically rooted discourse of justice and empowerment that has resonated throughout the region.
Hussain Al Houthi was able to create a strong network of devoted followers in Yemen’s north, where Zaidism remained strong despite the overthrow of Yemen’s Zaidi Imamate in 1962, in part due to the political liberalisation that accompanied the unification of Yemen in 1990 as well as the crisis within Zaidism precipitated by the growth of Salafist influence in the region.
Al Houthi’s growing influence in the late 1990s was accompanied by increasingly contentious behavior on the part of his followers, which in turn prompted the government, acting partly in response to shifting international dynamics, to overreact. The manhunt that eventually killed Al Houthi unleashed a spiral of violence beginning in 2004 that became known as the six ‘Sa’ada Wars’.
The group then transformed from a grassroots Zaidi revivalist network under Hussain Al Houthi’s leadership to a strong insurgent fighting force under the leadership of Hussain’s younger half-brother, Abdel Malek. By the sixth war in 2009, an aura of invincibility surrounded Houthi fighters as they pushed the fighting beyond Yemen’s borders. In November 2009, the Saudi Arabian military intervened to support the Yemeni government in its fight with the Houthis.
Three months later, the Houthis accepted a Qatari-negotiated cease-fire that teetered along during the following year.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, the Houthis managed to dramatically expand their territories, putting the movement on a crash course with Sana’a central government and evidently President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
The rest as they say is history …