The Houthi rebellion

In 2014, Houthi rebels from the far north of Yemen, backed by supporters of ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh, over-ran the capital, Sanaa. Saleh's sucessor, President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, fled to the southern city of Aden and later to Saudi Arabia as the Houthi/Saleh alliance rapidly extended its control to other parts of the country.

This prompted intervention by a Saudi-led military alliance which began in 2015 and was still continuing more than a year later. The intervention took the form of an intensive and highly destructive aerial bombing campaign, coupled with the use of unknown numbers of ground forces, including mercenaries, from a variety of countries

Who are the Houthis?

The Houthis – so called after the most prominent family in their movement – are officially known as Ansar Allah ("The Supporters of God"). They belong to the Zaidi sect, a branch of Shia Islam found mostly in Yemen which is thought to account for 35%-40% of the country's population.

Their first leader, Hussain Badreddin al-Houthi, the son of a prominent Zaidi scholar, was initially involved in al-Haqq ("The Truth"), a small political party which was allowed to win two seats in the 1993 parliamentary election. Houthi himself served as a member of parliament between 1993 and 1997.

The Houthis also began to attract attention through a movement called al-Shabab al-Mu'min ("Believing Youth") whose teenage members caused disruption at mosques in various parts of the country by chanting "Death to America, Death to Israel" after Friday prayers. The youths were often often arrested – only to return later and do it again. 

Believing Youth had begun as a local effort to defend Zaidi rights in the Saadah region, gradually expanding to provide educational and social services but later becoming increasingly political in its opposition to the Saleh regime's perceived pro-American stance.

The Houthis' grievances

Although Yemen had once been ruled by Zaidi imams and President Saleh was also a Zaidi, the Zaidis of the Saada area had become a marginalised group. Left largely to their own devices, they had become extremely self-reliant, organising their own affairs and constructing much of the rudimentary local infrastructure themselves in the absence of government help.

In addition to that, they felt their religious traditions were threatened by Saudi influence as increasing numbers of men converted from Zaidism to the salafi or Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. Converts included men who occupied the bottom of the traditional hierarchy and bitterly resented their social disadvantage, as well as youths who resented the power of the older generation or were attracted by the charisma of salafi leaders and their obvious financial resources. Speaking at a conference in 2013, Yemen expert Shelagh Weir explained:

"Certain sheikhs openly or tacitly supported salafism for personal or anti-Zaidi reasons or because of the subsidies they received from Saudi Arabia ...

"During the 1990s the growth of socially-divisive salafism within the heartlands of Zaidi Islam was encouraged and funded by officials and business interests in Saudi Arabia and in Yemen – including President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

"Salafis increasingly mocked or questioned the beliefs and rituals of the Zaidi majority, threatening them in mosques and accusing them of wanting the return of the imam [i.e. the end of the republican system] – though this was publicly denied by the Zaidi clerics."

Bernard Haykel described the Zaidis' religious concerns and their initial response to them in an article for the American Institute for Yemeni Studies in 1995.

Armed conflict

In 2004, armed conflict broke out in Saada, resulting (according to government officials) in the deaths of at least 98 Houthi supporters and 32 members of the security forces.

The authorities denounced Hussain al-Houthi for "harming Yemen's stability and interests" and offered a reward of $55,000 for his capture. They accused him of highway robbery, setting up unauthorised religious schools, raising the Hizbullah flag, damaging a water project, urging citizens to withhold taxes, attacking mosques and declaring himself Imam – a title not used in Yemen since the 1962 republican revolution. 

Shortly afterwards, Hussain al-Houthi was killed, apparently by security forces during an attempt at a mediated peace settlement. Predictably, this exacerbated the Zaidis' grievances.

Between 2004 and 2010 the Houthis and the Saleh regime fought a series of six intermittent wars. The most serious of these began in August 2009 when the government launched "Operation Scorched Earth" against the rebels. That phase of the conflict ended in February 2010 when both sides agreed a ceasefire.

'Operation Scorched Earth'

There was little first-hand reporting of the 2009-2010 war because of media exclusion from the area. The scale of casualties is unknown but many thousands of people fled their homes, resulting in a serious humanitarian crisis. The following blog posts trace the course of the conflict:

Ten die in Yemen mosque battle 
23 July 2009

Rebels attack again in northern Yemen 
25 July 2009

100,000 displaced in Yemen conflict 
4 August 2009

Yemen clashes ‘leave 16 dead’ 
5 August 2009

Yemen ‘on the brink of an explosion’ 
11 August 2009

Yemen: here comes the 'iron fist' 
12 August 2009

State of emergency 
13 August 2009

Call for Yemen rebels to surrender 
14 August 2009

Fifteen aid workers 'kidnapped by rebels' 
14 August 2009

Life in Yemen's war zone 
21 August 2009

Wildest place in the Middle East? 
22 August 2009

US calls for Yemen ceasefire 
23 August 2009

'100 rebels' dead at roadside  
24 August 2009

Yemen ceasefire on the cards? 
27 August 2009

Yemen military to 'change tactics' 
28 August 2009

Saudi hegemony in Yemen? 
30 August 2009

Tribesmen die in Yemen battle 
31 August 2009

UN warning on Yemen crisis 
2 September 2009

The Yemen war and family rivalries 
4 September 2009

A truce in Yemen? 
5 September 2009

Obama's letter to Yemen 
7 September 2009

The Economist on Yemen 
12 September 2009

A month of 'scorched earth' 
13 September 2009

Arms traffickers named 
13 September 2009

'87 civilians dead' in Yemen attacks 
17 September 2009

'Temporary ceasefire' in Yemen 
19 September 2009

'140 rebels killed' in Yemen 
21 September 2009

Al-Qaeda and the Houthi conflict 
27 September 2009

Yemen claims British backing 
28 September 2009

Shot down – or not? 
3 October 2009

Rift over Houthi rebellion? 
8 October 2009

Yemen rebels capture border district 
9 October 2009

Aid convoy from Saudi Arabia 
10 October 2009

Rebel leader 'ready for dialogue' 
11 October 2009

Troops seal off hospital 
14 October 2009

Endgame for the Yemeni war?
16 October 2009

Reports of rebel leader's capture 
19 October 2009

More Yemeni rebels face execution 
21 October 2009

Yemen's rebel leader 'is dead' 
21 October 2009

Yemen rebels 'clash with Saudis' 
23 October 2009

Yemen: 'army commander killed' 
24 October 2009​

Yemen: 'army commander killed' 
24 October 2009

Arming Yemen's rebels 
28 October 2009

The Iranian 'arms ship' 
30 October 2009

'Ten more days' of war in Yemen 
5 November 2009

Lining up against the Shia 
12 November 2009

Yemen rebel leader may be dead 
27 December 2009

Hopes for ceasefire in Yemen war 
4 January 2010

Yemen's humanitarian crisis deepens 
13 January 2010

US senate discusses Yemen 
21 January 2010  

End of the Saudi-Houthi war? 
29 January 2010

Yemen ceasefire talk ... again 
31 January 2010

Yemen's non-ceasefire 
1 February 2010

Yemen ceasefire hopes rise 
6 February 2010

Yemen ceasefire sticking points 
9 February 2010

Yemen's Houthi war 'is over' 
12 February 2010

Arms dealer's assets frozen 
15 April 2010

Renewed violence in northern Yemen 
30 April 2010

Gunmen try to free arms dealer 
12 May 2010

Houthi rebellion simmers on 
17 May 2010

Yemen releases top arms trafficker 
0 June 2010

More clashes in Yemen 
21 June 2010

Oil workers kidnapped in Yemen 
11 July 2010

New Houthi war 'imminent' 
13 July 2010

Eleven die in Yemen ambush 
16 July 2010

Yemen's Houthi war resumes? 
21 July 2010

Yemen death toll grows 
22 July 2010

Yemen rebels 'captured 200 soldiers' 
28 July 2010

'Captured soldiers' released, says report 
29 July 2010

Capture of Yemeni troops confirmed 
3 August 2010

Yemen's new deal with Houthi rebels 
29 August 2010

Many dead in Yemen car bombing 
25 November 2010

Second car bomb in northern Yemen 
27 November 2010

Saudi Arabia became militarily involved in the 2009-2010 war, launching airstrikes in support of the Saleh regime. The Saudis also became concerned about security on their porous border with Yemen and the ethnically Yemeni population in the south-west of the kingdom. (The Houthis, close to Saudi Arabia on the other side of the border, appeared not to recognise the 1934 Treaty of Ta'if which had formally ceded to territories of Asir, Najran, and Jizan to Saudi Arabia.)

The Saudis therefore declared a security/exclusion zone on their own side of the border, forcibly uprooting tens of thousands of people who lived in the area:

Saudi Arabia joins the war 
5 November 2009

Saudis continue battle with Yemeni rebels 
7 November 2009

Saudis deport 3,000 to Yemen 
8 November 2009

Video of 'captured Saudi' 
10 November 2009

Saudis admit attacks in Yemen 
10 November 2009

Rebels' challenge to Saudi state 
11 November 2009

Clearing out civilians 
17 November 2009

Saudis fanning the flames
20 November 2009

Saudi Arabia's border clear-out 
22 November 2009

Rebels kill three Saudi soldiers 
23 November 2009

Saudi troops 'enter Yemen' 
23 November 2009

Yemen 'dragged Saudis into war' 
29 November 2009

Saudis destroy border communities 
3 December 2009

A fight to the finish? 
14 December 2009

Mission accomplished? 
23 December 2009

Saudis 'torture Houthi rebels' 
5 February 2010

Saudi bulldozers destroy Yemeni village 
19 May 2010

Saudis 'used British planes to bomb Yemen' 
25 August 2010

France 'aided Saudi war on Houthis' 
13 November 2010

The road to civil war

The fall of President Saleh in 2012 and the ensuing political turmoil created new opportunities for the Houthis – especially when supporters of Saleh, their former enemy, began assisting them militarily.

From small beginnings they had emerged as a real political force – though one among many. Had they been wiser they would probably have settled for that, but by then a thirst for power seemed to be driving them. Seizing control of the capital in 2014, they began imposing their rule on parts of the country where they had little or no public support. The oppressed became oppressors as Yemen descended into civil war.

The Houthis and Iran

The fighting that broke out in Yemen in 2014 has often been characterised as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The words "Houthi" and "Iranian-backed" soon became coupled together in virtually every media report about the conflict. The Houthis have some religious affinity with Iran and nobody – least of all, the Iranians – would deny that Iran has given them encouragement. The question of how much material support they have received from Iran is more difficult to answer, however. The available evidence suggests it has been rather limited and that direct Iranian involvement in Yemen has been far less than that of Saudi Arabia  which has a long history of meddling in Yemen's affairs.

Yemen and Iran 
Blog post by Brian Whitaker looking at the evidence of Iranian involvement in Yemen. 30 March 2015

Six reasons why Iran won’t join the war in Yemen
By Hassan Ahmadian, Al-Monitor, 7 March 2016

The Conflict in Yemen: A Case Study of Iran’s Limited Power
By Shlomo Brom and Yoel Guzansky, INSS Insight No. 747, 16 September 2015

Iran's Game in Yemen
Why Tehran Isn't to Blame for the Civil War
By Mohsen Milani, Foreign Affairs, 19 April 2015

Iran and the Yemeni rebels 
Blog post by Brian Whitaker, 20 October 2009


Further reading

Constitutional Declaration by the Houthis 
6 February 2015

Here come the Houthis 
Blog post by Brian Whitaker, 26 September 2014 

Yemen and the Houthi conflict 
Conference report,15 January 2013

Statement by the Houthis 
5 October 2012

Testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
By Gregory D. Johnsen, 20 January 2010

Weak Foundations: State Failure and the Crisis in Yemen 
Elham Manea, 4 May 2010 

Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb  
International Crisis Group, May 2009

Yemen: Fear of Failure 
by Ginny Hill. Chatham House Briefing Paper, November 2008