North Africa, West Asia

On a wretched third anniversary of the international intervention in Yemen, is the rise of the Huthis irresistible? Part 1

Only the Huthis would ‘celebrate’ three years of war with a theatrical performance including singing, dancing and poetry against a background of war films.

Helen Lackner
23 March 2018
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Yemeni men inspect a destroyed house allegedly targeted by Saudi-led air strikes in Sanaa, Yemen, 08 March 2018. Hani Al-Ansi/Press Association. All rights reserved. The Yemeni people have now coped with a full-scale war for three full years! While this anniversary marks the beginning of the air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition, the war has many other features.  Ground fighting between what was then the Saleh-Huthi alliance and those of the Hadi regime started a few weeks before the internationalisation of the war, and it was the threat of a complete takeover of Hadi’s interim capital, Aden, which prompted the coalition intervention. 

So where are we now? What is the impact of this war on the 29 million Yemenis? What are the prospects for the coming year? This two–part article addresses first the apparently irresistible rise of the Huthi movement and its prospects. Part two will look at the humanitarian situation, people’s survival strategies, and current prospects for a solution.

The failure of Saleh’s plans

In Sana’a the Saleh-Huthi alliance is terminated, with extreme prejudice for Saleh himself whom the Huthis killed on 4 December 2017. An alliance contre nature at the best of times, the struggle for supremacy between the two groups defined their relationship since its start: tensions increased and deepened over time as the Huthi movement grew in strength at the expense of Saleh’s military.

This was partly due to Saleh’s early tactical error to instruct his military units and political supporters to work with the Huthis. Presumably, his plan was to let the Huthis take the blame for everything that went wrong while his own forces stayed in the background ready to respond to his orders when the time came. However, this allowed the Huthis to gradually take over most leading positions in the military leading to their becoming the stronger element, while they imposed their ‘supervisors’ throughout the civil administration system, who controlled the activities of the institutions.

The Huthis fronting the alliance certainly achieved the objective of their being blamed for all failings including the worsening of economic and living conditions, but it also enabled them to oust Saleh’s supporters and weaken the administrative structures.  Clearly these moves contributed to his downfall.

Saleh’s popularity remained high throughout the period; this was demonstrated as recently as August 2017 when thousands of Yemenis came out in Sana’a to show their support on the 35th anniversary of the creation of his political organisation, the General People’s Congress (GPC).

Indeed, awareness of his popularity may have induced the Huthis to increase pressure on Saleh in the following months. Although many people, particularly among the intellectual middle classes and the politically aware population rightly blamed Saleh for running an extremely corrupt and kleptocratic regime, he remained popular among many ordinary Yemenis particularly in rural areas where 70% of the population still live.

This support persisted despite impoverishment of the majority, partly because some benefits ‘trickled down’ through the patronage system, most notably during Saleh’s visits around the country when he distributed both cash and other benefits. Saleh and many Yemenis also considered that Yemeni unification was a major achievement of his regime.

Huthi rule and its implications

Now fully and exclusively in control of Yemen’s northern highlands, the Huthi movement has come a long way from its early origins as a small Zaydi revivalist movement in the far north and the insurrection of 2004, when they were almost defeated by Saleh’s forces. 

During the 6 wars which followed between 2004 and 2010, their military strength and competence increased. Some people now say that all they know about is fighting.

The comparatively peaceful period between 2011 and 2014 was an opportunity to consolidate and establish administrative structures in their area of origin. Most importantly, it allowed them to gradually but quietly expand control into surrounding areas, moves which went largely unnoticed by the Yemeni political class, itself busy with the transition and the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) which included the Huthis. Their increasing power culminated in their [initially secret] alliance with Saleh as both opposed the main outcomes of the NDC.[1]

By 2014, among many Yemenis, the Huthis had developed a good reputation as a movement committed to social justice, opposing corruption and the neo-liberal agenda of the transitional regime. Huthi anti-corruption propaganda and opposition to President Hadi’s weak and notoriously corrupt Islah-dominated transitional regime gave them considerable popularity and enabled them to hold very large demonstrations in Sana’a in August 2014 against the IMF-inspired fuel price rises.

With the passive support of Saleh’s military and security forces, they took over the capital in September 2014 while president Hadi himself made no attempt to react, as he wrongly believed this would help him bring Islah to heel. By early 2015, they had evicted Hadi and his new government from Sana’a itself and shortly thereafter from the ‘temporary’ capital Aden.

A brief bombing campaign?

Faced with the complete collapse of the transitional regime installed under the official patronage of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), King Salman’s new[2] Saudi regime took military action through the coalition of 9 states which launched air strikes against the Huthi/Saleh regime on 26 March 2015. While the current Crown Prince in Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman [MbS], who was then Minister of Defence expected that a brief bombing campaign would both rapidly put an end to the Huthi problem while increasing his popularity at home, three years later it is clear that things have not gone according to plan. 

Not only is the aerial bombing campaign perceived by its victims as foreign aggression and has thus embittered the population against Saudi Arabia, but by now the Saudi-led coalition is also facing an international public relations fiasco. The limited media coverage of the war constantly emphasises its disastrous consequences for Yemen and Yemenis: the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the world’s worst cholera epidemic, millions starving and no political solution in sight, in addition to the thousands of dead and the destruction of most of the country’s infrastructure, let alone the social and political fragmentation of the country.

Over time, Huthi rule has become increasingly oppressive and disliked by the millions suffering it. It is characterised by administrative mismanagement, and financial exactions which worsen already abysmal living conditions. Prices of all basic commodities have risen dramatically through inflation, the collapse of the riyal, and the multiplicity of taxes imposed by the Huthis throughout the distribution chains at a time when people have no income.  

Government staff have not been paid since October 2016, the private sector has shrunk by half, while agriculture suffers the increased cost of inputs, lack of fuel for transport and irrigation, as well as a whole range of problems in the markets, including the risk of bombing.

When 79% of the population are living below the poverty line, the accurate word is destitution, rather than poverty. Huthi blatant corruption and exactions have ended their earlier positive reputation. To cap all this, they inspire fear by arresting, disappearing and imprisoning suspected opponents, often without any justification or evidence. Given all this, it is unsurprising that, by early 2018, they have become extremely unpopular. Their control is that of a police state, inspired by fear, not allegiance.

Ideologically the Huthis have two main characteristics which affect popular perception and contribute to defining their sources of support. First they believe that sada [people claiming descent from the Prophet] have an innate right to rule. This explains why they appoint sada to most senior positions, whether civilian or military. This explains the presence of some pro-Huthi populated enclaves throughout the country, but not all sada support them. Second they share all the characteristics of retrograde Islamist movements, focusing on a narrow interpretation of Islam and imposing restrictive norms of behaviour on the population and particularly on women. 

Prospects for negotiations

However distasteful, the Huthi movement is a major political force which must be addressed in any attempts to solve the Yemeni crisis. However there are difficulties: first the movement’s record of implementation agreements is unimpressive. For example they even failed to implement the 2014 Peace and National Partnership Agreement, probably because they anticipated further successes.

From their point of view the Huthis are on a winning streak: in 2004 they were a tiny movement in a small remote area in the far north of Yemen. Today they control the capital and the most populated parts of the country, have major military strength, have defeated and killed the man who ruled the country for 33 years. Moreover they have held the Saudi-led coalition at bay, and even carry out incursions deep into Saudi Arabia, all this largely on their own, though it is likely that Iranian assistance has helped them in their failed long-distance missile strikes into Saudi Arabia.

Despite Saudi and US claims of deep Iranian involvement, evidence only demonstrates minimal Iranian support, primarily propaganda and far more marginal material assistance. In addition some Huthis are getting very rich through the war economy. Huthi leaders are also aware of the weakness of the Hadi government and the divergent strategies of the UAE and Saudi Arabia within the coalition. In such a context, it is easy to understand their confidence and unwillingness to compromise regardless of the widespread hatred they inspire. Only the Huthis would ‘celebrate’ three years of war with a theatrical performance including singing, dancing and poetry against a background of war films.

Clouds on the Huthi horizon

However, this situation is most likely temporary and there are definite clouds on the Huthi horizon. It is becoming clear that killing Saleh and ending their alliance with the GPC was not a wise move. Militarily, the immediate impact was limited, with only the loss of a few locations in the Tihama and an enclave in Shabwa, as well as much of Taiz, while the situation in al Baidha remains confused; elsewhere, there have not been significant changes.

But, with UAE support, Tareq Mohammed Saleh is rebuilding a military force bringing together men who stayed loyal to his uncle and left their positions after his killing with others who had remained inactive in recent fighting, and any other opponents of the Huthis.

Politically, while the Huthis are still in control of a rump of GPC leaders, the main elements of that party are regrouping and likely to become, once again, the largest political force in the country, particularly in the Huthi-controlled area. A new GPC should bring together many who are currently involved with the Hadi government, others who have remained neutral and yet others who have emigrated and benefit from the remaining widespread popular support for Saleh in the country.

These developments suggest it would be wise for the Huthi movement to strive for peace now while they are strong.

The presence of their leading negotiator in Oman for the past two months is significant: he has held talks with a range of regional parties involved, probably including Saudis, indicating that the Huthi leadership is willing to take up this opportunity. 

The visit to Sana’a of senior European diplomats this week demonstrates the international community’s commitment to addressing Huthi concerns and finding a negotiated solution to the war.  Coinciding with the appointment of a new UN Special Envoy, these moves are promising indicators for the renewal of serious peace negotiations. 

Plenty can still go wrong: many significant political groups are still out of the loop, and their issues also need to be addressed. President Hadi can be expected to try to undermine any efforts towards peace which would give him and his internationally recognised government a position concomitant with their actual power and control in Yemen.

Huthi leaders themselves may let their successes go to their heads and miss the opportunity.  Meanwhile, millions of desperate Yemenis are longing for peace and leaders on all sides should take this seriously.

[1]  Details of this period can be found in earlier OD pieces, as well as in my book Yemen in Crisis: autocracy, neo-liberalism and the disintegration of a state, (Saqi, 2017)

[2]  crowned in January of that year after the death of his half-brother Abdullah

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