In a coordinated effort, the United Kingdom and the United States have launched strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen, framing it as a response to the group's assault on ships in the Red Sea. This military operation against the Houthis could expedite the international community's efforts to grapple with a predicament that, at first glance, resembles the case of Somali pirates but holds potentially graver consequences. Representatives of the mountainous Yemeni tribes have effectively disrupted the primary trade route between Europe and Asia, emerging as a new player in the broader Middle Eastern conflict. Shipping companies are diverting from the Suez Canal, causing global economic losses.
People of the Sea and People of the Mountains
A storm of indecision
The octopus tentacle
Not pirates at all
People of the Sea and People of the Mountains
Some label the Houthis as Yemeni rebels, while others see them as a movement that seized power in the country after a civil war. However, both are largely mistaken because Yemen, as a unified state, no longer exists. There are only territories controlled by separate forces, explains Uzi Rabi, the director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and the author of two books on the country, one of which is aptly titled “Anatomy of a Failed State.”
The question revolves around whether Yemen ever existed as one country. The South of the country was under British control since 1839, while the North was under the Ottoman Empire. The post-colonial history of Yemen unfolds as a conflict between its two halves, culminating in the unification of the North and the South in 1990. As we now see, this unification was not sturdy.
The two parts of Yemen differ in many aspects. The Southern capital, Aden, is a crucial port. The capital of the North, and later the unified country, Sanaa, lacks access to the sea. In ancient times, it was a mining and craft center. The majority of the population in Northern Yemen consists of cattle-breeding mountain tribes, influencing the character of its people, as Uzi Rabi explains:
“The South is populated by people of the sea, much more open compared to the conservative mountaineers. The mountaineers are closed off to their territory, reluctant to deal with outsiders. In Southern Yemen, you can find intellectuals educated abroad. In the North – not so much.”
Religions also vary. The South and the majority of Yemen's population are Sunni Muslims. In the North, millions are Shia Muslims, not of the Iranian kind but followers of another branch of this Muslim denomination called Zaydis, once widespread from Northern Iran to Morocco, now mostly confined to Yemen.
The Houthis are not even concentrated in the affluent Sanaa but rather in the northernmost part of the country. They gravitate toward the city of Saada, once situated at the crossroads of significant caravan routes in ancient times, and now just a town with a population of 70,000. It is a periphery that has long felt particularly deprived in this already impoverished country, Uzi Rabi explains:
“They have always suffered from resource distribution in Yemen. In the north, they faced pressure from the Saudis, Sunni Salafist fundamentalists. The power in the country also belonged to Sunnis. So, the Houthi uprising had both economic and religious motives.”
The group emerged in the early 1990s under the leadership of Hussein Al-Houthi. Interestingly, the name “Houthis” was adopted in honor of their leader after his death in 2004. The movement's older and official name is “Ansar Allah,” currently led by the founder's brother, Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi.
Houthis with portraits of Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi during a demonstration in Sanaa, 2022
Hussein's demise resulted from the initial, unsuccessful Houthi uprising. Since 2004, the movement gradually gained control over various regions of the country. However, as Yemen sits on the periphery of the Arab world, few paid attention. Everything changed in 2011 during the “Arab Spring,” as narrated by Israeli journalist, Arabist, and creator of the Telegram channel “Eastern Syndrome,” Ksenia Svetlova:
“From 2011, the war resumed, although some would argue that it never really ended. It all began with uprisings in the cities. There were the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State. But we also witnessed young people advocating for democratic values, university students taking to the squares like in Cairo. Yet, in the Middle East, power always leans towards those who possess weapons.”
ISIS, always well-equipped with weaponry, established a separate province in Yemen. Al-Qaeda, from the very beginning, was essentially local, with the bin Laden family hailing from this part of the Arabian Peninsula. As a result of the civil war, the group even controls a specific territory in Yemen.
Another faction is the Southern Front, uniting tribes in the south opposing the Houthis, aiming to restore Southern Yemen as an independent state. Currently, they receive support from the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia aids other factions. Meanwhile, Iran, as explained by Uzi Rabi, has been supporting the Houthis for about a decade:
“Iran began providing them with weapons and ammunition, turning them into their proxies. It supports Shiite groups in Arab countries experiencing civil wars. It has acted similarly in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Yemen also has other Shiites, but the Houthis appeared to be the most well-organized.”
Iran's assistance proved decisive. In 2014, the Houthis moved towards the capital. In January 2015, they practically took it over without firing a single shot.
A storm of indecision
Looking at the map might give the impression that the internationally recognized government of Yemen still controls extensive territories. However, when compared against a population density map or just satellite images, it becomes clear that the majority of genuinely inhabited lands are occupied by the Houthis. Even the official governing body, the Presidential Leadership Council, had to be formed in Saudi Arabia.
In 2015, it was Saudi Arabia that led the coalition of Arab states that invaded Yemen at the request of the legitimate government to restore order. The first operation was called Operation Decisive Storm, and the second was Renewal of Hope.
The coalition had air superiority, tanks, and other military equipment. The Houthis employed tactics using civilian shields, fought in cities, and the civilian casualties increased international pressure on the Saudis and their allies. Moreover, the country faced a genuine humanitarian catastrophe. About 20 million Yemenis were on the brink of starvation, explains Ksenia Svetlova, so the pressure from the international community escalated:
“But the Houthis did not lose in a military sense. It's a completely different army, like that of Hamas and Hezbollah, without tanks but with missiles and drones. All this high-quality weaponry comes from Iran. In their war against the coalition, they shelled military bases, airports, and border cities in Saudi Arabia. They made a very significant strike during a parade of government forces. Cracks began to appear in the coalition. The Emirates decided to support the separatists from the Southern Front.”
In 2021, the U.S. witnessed a change in leadership. Just two weeks after Joe Biden's inauguration, he announced the cessation of support for the operation. Faced with pressure and military setbacks, Saudi Arabia halted combat operations. As part of the peace process, the U.S. even removed the Houthis from the list of terrorist organizations, despite their use of suicide terrorists and underage soldiers.
In summary, the movement only strengthened toward the end of the war, Ksenia Svetlova observes:
“The Houthis have retained power in Yemen, continued to receive assistance from Iran, and gained combat experience – not from tribal clashes but from a real war.”
Since late 2022, there have been almost no military operations. In the spring of 2023, an exchange of prisoners began between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis. With China mediating, the Saudis restored diplomatic relations with Iran.
At this very moment, as the Houthis declare war on Israel, launching rockets at Eilat and blocking navigation in the Red Sea, they are negotiating with the official government of Yemen for peace. The UN expresses optimism about their prospects.
Haim Koren, director of the Middle East Department at the Center for Political Studies of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and former ambassador to Egypt, believes that the rocket blockade in the Red Sea for the Houthis is a way to strengthen their negotiating position and gain preferences from other states:
“They shelled Saudi Arabia with rockets and endured the international coalition's invasion. Their appetites are growing. The logic is to get their benefits in exchange for lifting the blockade. They are quite satisfied if Yemen falls apart again. The Shiite minority makes up 30% of the population. The Houthis control the part they need, including the capital – Sanaa. The problems of the Yemeni population as a whole do not concern them.”
The octopus tentacle
On the banner of the Houthis, five short phrases in Arabic are inscribed: about the “death to America,” the greatness of Allah, and the victory of Islam. Two of them are dedicated to the Jewish theme: “Death to Israel” and “Cursed be the Jews.” However, the Houthis only declared war on the Jewish state this autumn, over eight years after seizing power in most of the country.
Jonathan Spyer, an expert at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, believes two factors are to blame for this delay:
“First, the Houthis were too preoccupied with their own wars with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the Presidential Leadership Council. A ceasefire was reached in the civil war in 2022, giving them the opportunity to attack Israel. Second, there was no suitable context. If you recall, the last major operation in Gaza took place in 2014 when the Houthis were a relatively small organization.”
Currently, only one Jew remains in Yemen. Once, it was a country with one of the largest Jewish diasporas. Shortly before the creation of the state of Israel, a wave of pogroms swept through Yemen. Tens of thousands of people left the country, leaving everything behind. This was part of the mass expulsion of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the late 1940s.
A small community remained until the triumphant march of the Houthis. After that, Israel even had to conduct a small special operation to evacuate the last Jews from the country.
Therefore, the Jewish question is quite abstract for most Yemenis. But it invariably allows local forces to gain additional popularity. For example, a recent report by the Qatari channel Al Jazeera quotes the words of 48-year-old Abdullah: “ When the Houthis declared sending missiles and drones towards Israel, the news lifted our morale and brought a sense of euphoria.” He is not a soldier or a fanatic, just an ordinary supermarket owner.
The Houthis declared war on Israel on October 19. Since then, they have repeatedly reported launching rockets and drones. Some of them were intercepted by Israel itself, some by neighboring countries and the U.S. fleet. Others simply did not reach their destination for unknown reasons. Attacks on merchant ships have become the next stage of the confrontation.
A cruise missile launched by the Houthis being intercepted by a missile fired from an Israeli Air Force F-35I fighter jet on October 31, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)
The Houthis explained their actions as a reaction to the war in Gaza. However, Haim Koren is convinced that this is just a pretext:
“They don't care about the people of Gaza, nor does Iran. Their goal is a diplomatic solution that allows Iran to advance its influence in the region, and the Houthis to make money. It's a well-planned war.”
There is no doubt among experts that Iran is behind the Houthi attacks, especially considering that the missiles and drones they use are obviously not developed or produced in Yemen.
In fact, Iranians are testing their new weapons in this war, as noted by Ksenia Svetlova.
Shipments of Iranian weapons to Yemen have been intercepted multiple times. There is also plenty of information about the supply of drugs from Iran, primarily crystal methamphetamine but also heroin and the homemade stimulant Captagon, popular among jihadist groups.
The level of weaponry can be discussed using the example of the missile launched at Israel on October 21. It was a ballistic missile, and for the first time in history, the Israeli air defense system intercepted it in space. According to Jonathan Spyer, this is not something that could be developed in Yemen:
“If these weapons reached Yemen from Iran, it is reasonable to assume that Iran did not provide them with permission to 'fire at will.' We do not know the exact chain of command between the Houthis and Iran, but with some certainty, we can assert that the Yemeni movement does not make decisions independently. This attack is coordinated and supported by Iran. Iran uses its proxies to exert pressure on Israel, just like Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
In Israel, Iran's foreign policy towards the country is often likened to an octopus. The idea is that despite the declared hatred for Israel, Iran avoids direct war and prefers to surround it with groups dependent on itself from all sides: be it Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iraq, or Shiite militias in Syria.
However, the Houthis stand out somewhat from the common pattern, notes Jonathan Spyer:
“Hezbollah is just a franchise of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It even uses the same flag, just a different color. But the Houthis are a local tribal movement with a certain degree of autonomy. In this sense, they are more similar to Hamas.”
Since the beginning of the war in Gaza, the Lebanese Hezbollah has consistently shelled the northern borders of Israel, resulting in casualties among both military and civilian populations. Tens of thousands of residents of cities and settlements near the Lebanon border have been living in evacuation for almost three months. Nevertheless, unlike the Houthis, Hezbollah has not declared war on Israel. Jonathan Spyer believes this is due to its weaker control over Lebanon's territory and population:
“The difference is that Hezbollah is the strongest faction in Lebanon but not the only one. It cannot completely ignore the opinions of others. Not all Shiites in the country want to be dragged into the conflict. Yemen is a different story. In the territory controlled by the Houthis, there are no other forces. Their ability to stay in power is not influenced by the position and desires of the rest of the country's inhabitants.”
One of the objectives of the Saudi coalition in 2015 was to prevent the Houthis from controlling the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait – the narrow gateway between the Gulf of Aden in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea – and thereby influencing maritime transport through the Suez Canal. They partially achieved this goal by driving militants away from the strait. However, the Houthis still control a large stretch of the coastline to the north, allowing them to freely launch rocket and drone attacks across the entire waterway.
The city of Hodeidah, Yemen's second most important port, remains under Houthi control. It was there that they brought the vehicle carrier Galaxy Leader seized in the Red Sea on November 19.
A shot from the video recording of the seizure of the vehicle carrier Galaxy Leader
They declared this vessel Israeli, although the connection to Israel is indirect. The company that partially owns the vehicle carrier is owned by an Israeli businessman. However, very few ships, even as remotely related to Israel, pass through the Red Sea. Therefore, the Houthis soon expanded their criteria and started attacking any ships heading towards Israel, even if they were bound for Jordan or Egypt.
These two countries suffer even more from the Houthi blockade. For Egypt, navigation through the Suez Canal is a crucial source of national income. Jordan, in principle, has no other access to the sea. However, the Houthis do not take these countries into account, explains Ksenia Svetlova:
“From their point of view, Egypt and Jordan are allies of Israel and the United States. They don't openly say this, of course, but it's clear that they mean it. And the current crisis is part of the confrontation between the pro-American axis and the Russia-China-Iran axis. No wonder the Houthis announced that they would not shoot at Russian ships. And the largest Chinese shipping company hastened to announce that they would not be supplying anything to Israel right now. Saudi Arabia is suffering too, but not to such an extent as to resume the conflict with the Houthis or even Iran, with whom they have only recently reconciled.”
In December, the U.S. announced the start of Operation Prosperity Guardian and the formation of a maritime coalition to secure navigation in the Red Sea. However, only Bahrain from the Arab countries has joined it so far. Nevertheless, other Gulf countries may be gaining more confidence after the U.S. began its attack on the Houthis.
Jonathan Spyer explains that so far, Arab countries have been afraid of dealing with the problem on their own:
“The Egyptians are suffering more than anyone from what is happening. But, in my humble view, they are afraid that if they join the coalition, it will end with the Houthis or Iran also attacking tourist sites in Sharm El Sheikh and Taba, leaving Egypt without that income as well. If America starts retaliating against the Houthis, punishing them for ship attacks, if it shows that it is ready to act, it will be much easier to persuade Arab allies to join such coalitions.”
Not pirates at all
Certainly, the events strongly resemble the past crisis in the Red Sea caused by Somali pirates. Back then, an international group of warships was formed to protect navigation, and piracy gradually dwindled. As a matter of fact, the high risk area for piracy in the Indian Ocean was officially abolished only in January 2023.
However, Jonathan Spyer urges not to overuse parallels:
“Unlike the situation with Somali pirates, the current crisis is caused by by high-level geopolitics rather than small criminal groups. A strong country, Iran, is using sub-state entities for its purposes. While the Houthis are not a state, they are in power in a significant part of the country. And in this situation, it is not enough to just defend ships to solve the problem. Without retaliatory strikes against the Houthis, without punishment for coalition attacks, the coalition will not achieve its goal.”
Haim Koren understands what is happening even more broadly—as part of the conflict between Iran, Russia, and China on one side and the U.S. and its allies on the other:
“Since the beginning of the current war in the Middle East, the U.S. has many times failed to give a strong response to the shelling of its facilities by Shiite groups in Iraq and Syria. Against this background, the Houthis and Iran felt that they could continue, and no one was going to stop them. Now they are doing what they never dared to do before and are testing the reaction of the U.S. If you have power but do not demonstrate it, it does not work. This conflict has no diplomatic solution. If you accept and negotiate, you act in the interests of dictators: Russia, Iran, China.”
Haim Koren considers the drone attack on a tanker with an Indian crew off the coast of India on December 23 a crucial moment. This is a completely different sea, the Arabian Sea, on the opposite side of the Arabian Peninsula. It was reported that the ship is somehow linked to Israel. The Houthis did not claim responsibility for this attack. The U.S. accused Iran, but Iran rejected the allegations. Haim Koren has no doubt in the U.S. version:
“Iran's attack on an Indian ship pursues two goals: to demonstrate support for the Houthis and to punish India for its pro-Israeli position on Gaza. India is a significant power—how long will it wait and endure? What about the Far Eastern countries whose trade is suffering from the blockade of the Red Sea? The Houthis spit in the face of the entire world community.”
After the attack on the tanker, India sent three destroyers to patrol the Arabian Sea. Formally, they are not related to Operation Prosperity Guardian. Still, essentially, the presence of U.S. forces off the coast of Yemen may be sufficient. Involving various countries in the coalition is more of a political issue, explains Jonathan Spyer:
“From a military point of view, there is only one member in this coalition—the USA. Britain provided one ship, France too. All to say that it's not only the U.S. acting there. But it's not so much about the sheer power of the fleet as it is about what it is going to do.”
And this is not entirely clear. Spyer and Koren believe that retaliatory strikes against the Houthis in punishment for missile and drone launches may be sufficient. Ksenia Svetlova is confident that to resolve the crisis, someone opposing the Houthis must achieve victory in Yemen.