FRESH AIR

As the Houthis threaten international shipping, spare a thought for the people of Yemen

Mar 4, 2024 | Alana Schetzer

Houthi rebel fighters fighting in Sana'a against the coalition forces (Image: Maad Ali/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News)
Houthi rebel fighters fighting in Sana'a against the coalition forces (Image: Maad Ali/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News)

The Houthi terrorist group – also known as Ansar Allah – leapt back into media attention in December following its unprecedented and ongoing barrage of missile and drone attacks against commercial and navy vessels in the Red Sea, all under the guise of supporting Hamas and the Palestinian people in Gaza.

The Iranian-backed Houthis are doing much more than attacking international shipping, however; they have been engaged in fighting a brutal, near decade-long war across Yemen that they instigated in 2014, and which has so far cost the lives of more than 377,000 Yemeni people and has caused more than 4.5 million people to be displaced. The war has devastated the already impoverished nation, with the United Nations dubbing it one of the world’s “largest humanitarian crises”.

Active fighting between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia and its local allies – along with the southern secessionist movement and UAE proxy, the Southern Transitional Council – effectively came to a halt in April 2022 under a ceasefire agreement, although there have been several violent outbreaks since. Meanwhile, the Houthis have been busy taking advantage of the ceasefire (just like they did with the UN-brokered Stockholm Agreement in 2018) to exacerbate the humanitarian suffering in the areas they control, which include the capital, Sana’a, and nearly all of what was once North Yemen, except for the eastern Marib Governorate.

While the ceasefire provided much-needed relief and respite for the Yemeni people, in many ways it has also driven home the reason why the war is being fought in the first place – to prevent the Houthis from taking over the country and subjecting the Yemeni population to the Houthis’ singular brand of inhuman and brutal rule. The ceasefire, along with a highly ineffective Yemeni government that remains at odds with its benefactors, and itself, has in fact given the Houthis the opportunity to escalate their human rights violations against the Yemeni people under their control.

In the areas they control, where about 70 per cent of the Yemeni population lives, the Houthis – who are members of the Zaydi sect of Shi’ite Islam – have introduced draconian, Taliban-style laws/rules that radically restrict women’s lives, including what they are allowed to wear, and banning them from using smartphones, wearing make-up and working at NGOs. They also introduced a male guardianship system for women, known as mahram. This is part of the Houthi extremist Islamic ideology that views women as things that must be controlled at all times and removed from the public.

Prior to that, the Houthis began a barbaric system of abduction and torture of women, extrajudicial killings of journalists – including minors – forced disappearances of religious minorities and political opponents, ongoing recruitment of child soldiers, widespread extortion of businesses, introduction of a caste-based tax system, coordinating sniper attacks and employing siege warfare against civilians. The horrors being inflicted on the Yemeni people continue, with the Houthis planting deadly landmines in populated areas and withholding the salaries of public sector workers. And they have completed their campaign to ethnically cleanse Yemen of all but one member of the country’s Jewish population – a people whose history in Yemen spans more than 2,000 years.

These practices continue today, amid fears that north Yemen is becoming the new Kabul.

The Houthis are also continuing to weaponise famine – something that, along with preventable disease, is responsible for approximately 60% of deaths across Yemen since 2015 – including diverting aid. And just days ago, the Houthis expelled aid workers connected to the United Nations and other humanitarian organisations, giving them just 30 days to leave.

Mohammed Hussein, who works for the UN in Yemen, told the Media Line that for the millions of Yemenis who depend on humanitarian aid every day, the decision could push them even further towards starvation. “The Houthis, during the years of war, have used all means to obstruct humanitarian and relief work in Yemen, through the suspension activities and the detention of aid workers,” he said.

On top of the physical cruelty and repressive regime it imposes, the Houthis – like their fellow Iranian proxy, Hamas, in Gaza – are also imposing their extremist Khomeinism doctrine on the Yemeni people under their control, using their own state-controlled media, cultural policies and education system to indoctrinate the population. Antisemitism and misogyny are key pillars of this system, as they are in Iran.

Just prior to the ceasefire, the Saudi Arabia-led alliance was seemingly on the cusp of rolling back some Houthi gains, which could have benefited the Yemeni people who live in the affected areas. It likely also would have weakened the Houthis’ long-term war effort, restricting them to demanding less in potential peace negotiations. And for all their faults – and there are plenty – the Saudi alliance, due to the ceasefire, is unable to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people, especially women and children, forced to live under Houthi rule.

The ceasefire is also allowing the Houthis to reap hundreds of millions of dollars by diverting income from taxes on oil, money that should be invested into public services and infrastructure. Furthermore, it has enabled the Houthis to create their own illegal market for oil and implement a new levy across multiple fields, including water, the fishing industry and minerals. Houthi leaders are personally enriching themselves, too.

Although the ceasefire was introduced to halt the suffering of the Yemeni people – 21.6 million of whom are in need of aid – the ceasefire could actually extend the conflict overall and lead to even more deaths and suffering for a people who have already paid an extraordinarily high price.

The Houthis are aware that Saudi Arabia is extremely eager to extract itself from the messy situation, and has already made several attempts to do so. Previous peace talks have offered generous terms to the Houthis, including lifting restrictions on flights to/from Sana’a, fully reopening the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeida, allowing trade to once again flourish and Saudi Arabia paying Yemen’s civil service and military salaries for six months. And yet, the terrorist group rejected them, holding out for an even better deal, knowing that they hold all the power. Saudi Arabia even restored diplomatic ties with Iran in March 2023 in the hopes that the Iranian regime would encourage its proxy group to finally accept a peace deal or at least reduce its weapons conveyor belt to the Houthis. Neither have occurred.

An unlikely and unintentional boon to Houthi dominance is the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) – the eight-member body that replaced Yemen’s long-time President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in 2022 and is Yemen’s internationally recognised government. The PLC inherited some of the same problems that (partly) caused Hadi’s downfall. The PLC also has a fragmented focus and disjointed strategy, and can’t agree on what a post-conflict future in Yemen could look like. Thus, it fails to present a united front and the Yemeni people and the PLC’s allies don’t know what it actually stands for. The Houthis know this, and they take advantage of their weaker opponents.

Adding to the problem is that Saudi Arabia itself doesn’t even back the PLC fully; instead of engaging and including the council in peace talks, Saudi Arabia instead shuts the PLC out of the process. Rather, the council was simply informed of what the Saudis had offered to the Houthis as an afterthought. This causes further fractures on the side that is meant to be fighting against the Houthis, whether that be on the battlefield or at the negotiating table.

Further aiding the Houthis is the fact that the PLC and Riyadh continue to quarrel over the financial crisis engulfing Yemen; the latter pledged $3 billion to the PLC to help stabilise Yemen’s crumbling economy, but in reality, only several hundred million has been transferred to PLC’s accounts so far. The Houthis have further strangled Yemen’s financial situation by their earlier drone strikes against export terminals, meaning that oil production has ground to a halt. This means that one of the PLC’s few revenue sources hasn’t been available since the end of 2022, and the Houthis also continue to financially squeeze the PLC by diverting commercial imports from the temporary government seat of Aden, in the country’s south-west, to the Houthi-controlled Hodeida Port. This in turn makes the PLC increasingly financially dependent on Riyadh, which in turn uses this power imbalance to resist any demands from the PLC when it comes to negotiations with the Houthis.

It creates a vicious cycle that continues to benefit the terrorists, while bringing ruin to the people of Yemen.

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