The conflict between Yemen's Houthi movement and Saudi-backed pro-government forces has been ongoing since March 2015, but the Shia group's roots go far deeper than that.
Since March 2015, Yemen's conflict has seen the Shia Houthi movement pitted against central government forces backed by a Saudi-led international coalition, with almost daily reports of airstrikes and regular cross-border fire. However the Zaydi sect, active since the 1990s, has been expansionist since at least 2011.
The February 2015 Houthi coup deposing President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, and subsequent advances across much of western and southern Yemen, fit this pattern of Houthi expansionism. The coalition against the Houthis, led by Saudi Arabia and announced on 25 March 2015, represented the first significant international opposition to the group, which has been fighting in northern Yemen since 2004. It was not, however, the first time Saudi Arabia has intervened in the conflict, which spilled into Saudi territory in 2009.
The Zaydi (a Shia sect) Houthi movement (also Ansar Allah or Shabaab al-Mumanin), is a revivalist movement that emerged in the northern governorate of Saada in the 1990s, in response to growing Salafi influence in north Yemen. It was led by a Zaydi sayyid (descendant of the Prophet Mohammad) and member of parliament, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi.
Fifty-five per cent of the Yemeni population is Shia, the vast majority of whom are Zaydi, largely concentrated in the north and west, including the capital, Sanaa. A Zaydi Imamate ruled the country until 1962, when it was overthrown in a coup with Egyptian backing, sparking a civil war in which Saudi Arabia supported the imam's forces. Zaydism holds that the only legitimate Islamic government is rule by an imam, who must be a sayyid. In many practical respects, however, it is hardly distinguishable from the Shafi school of Sunni Islam, the predominant form practiced in Yemen.
The Houthi movement started as the 'Believing Youth,' or Shabaab al-Mumanin, a summer educational programme to promote Zaydi beliefs and culture. This effort may have had the tacit support of the then government as a means of balancing rising Salafi influence in the north of Yemen. Such influences had grown with the return of Yemeni mujahideen from Afghanistan. However, in a wider strategy of divide and rule (President Ali Abdullah Saleh once compared governing Yemen to "dancing on the heads of snakes"), it is likely that Salafi groups may have also had some government support. Around the same time, the regime encouraged the creation of al-Islah, an Islamist party that, at least in its early years, was at different times in coalition government or quiescent opposition.
Successive wars led to the displacement of 100,000 northern Yemenis.
The start of the War on Terror, which the Yemeni government officially supported, led to rising tensions between the Houthi movement and the regime. The movement's slogan, "God is Great; Death to America; Death to Israel; Damnation to the Jews; Victory to Islam," was seen as a criticism of the regime, which was supporting American operations against al-Qaeda, especially when the slogans were shouted in President Saleh's presence in Sanaa's Grand Mosque. This led to an effort to arrest al-Houthi, prompting the first Saada war and culminating in al-Houthi's death in September 2004. The operation led to the deaths of over 1,000 people.
On al-Houthi's death, his father, Badr al-Din al-Houthi, took over leadership of the movement. When he died, he was in turn replaced by al-Houthi's brother. The Houthi movement went through five further rounds of conflict with the Yemeni government between 2005 and 2010, with the 2009 fighting season leading to a Saudi intervention after Houthi forces crossed into Saudi territory, killing three soldiers. These successive wars led to the internal displacement of approximately 100,000 Yemenis from the northern governorates, and access for aid agencies and the media was severely constrained.
The Arab Spring and ensuing political instability in Yemen undermined the regime's fight against the Houthi movement. Following Saleh's departure under a controversial Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) plan that gave him amnesty for past actions and the right to return to Yemen, a 'National Dialogue Conference' (NDC) was instituted to propose reforms to Yemen's political system. The Houthi movement played no part in the GCC agreement, but did participate in the NDC, bolstering its political appeal beyond its traditional base. In the absence of effective government to prevent it, the movement reinforced its hold over the northern governorates. However, the Houthis opposed the NDC's main recommendation, that Yemen should be divided into six federal regions, fearing that it would diminish their territorial powerbase.
Through the summer of 2014, the movement advanced to the south, capturing the city of Amran in July. By early autumn, Houthi groups set up armed camps around the capital, conducting pro-Houthi demonstrations throughout the city, and in September they occupied it, prompting the resignation of the transitional government. The ensuing peace deals signed with President Hadi recognised his authority, but required the appointment of Houthi advisers to his government; further tensions, however, led to a growing war of words between Hadi and the Houthis.
Accusations of Iranian influence feed increasingly divisive and sectarian rhetoric.
After warnings from the Hadi government, the Houthis announced in February 2015 that they had dissolved parliament and were working to establish a transitional government to rule for two years. After escaping from a month-long house arrest in Sanaa and retracting his resignation, the president founded a rival capital in Yemen's city of Aden, which has come under increasing military pressure from Houthi forces. In March of that year, Hadi fled Aden to Saudi Arabia as the Houthis advanced on the south. He returned to the city in September 2015.
Since the start of its insurgency, the Houthi movement's Shia origins have raised suspicions that it is backed financially and militarily by Iran. Despite the Houthis coming from a different Shia sect from that dominant in Iran, such accusations feed increasingly divisive and sectarian rhetoric, accompanied in the case of Salafi-jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) by violence. There have long been accusations that the Houthi conflict in Yemen is part of a wider regional struggle between Saudi Arabia (which is known to support Salafi groups in Yemen) and Iran.
Both ISIS and AQAP have used the conflict between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition to forge resentment towards the Shia Houthis amongst Yemen's predominantly Sunni population. AQAP has been using the north-south divide to fuel sectarianism, while ISIS has launched a number of suicide attacks in the country. In August 2016, ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack on an army camp in Yemen, killing at least 54 people.
Ultimately, however, the Houthi movement's aims seem to be focused on Yemen, making common cause with the separatist Southern Movement. Their rhetoric began with a focus on government reforms; in a 2014 speech, the group's leader accused Hadi of being "at the forefront of the forces of corruption," however this characterisation is now used to justify Hadi's overthrow. The Houthis' detractors fear that they wish to revive the Zaydi Imamate, concerns bolstered by the fact that their leaders are sayyids. But whatever their motivations, the movement's past actions and apparently growing territorial ambitions indicate a desire, common to many groups in Yemen, for substantial autonomy from – or control of – the central government.
With rhetoric being framed in increasingly regional terms the country's political crisis shows no signs of abating. Attempts to broker a peace deal between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition have been unsuccessful, with the coalition unwilling to accept Houthi demands for greater power-sharing, and the Houthis unwilling to retreat to their northern stronghold. In July 2016, the Houthis dismissed a UN peace plan for the country, stating any agreement would need to be comprehensive and not postpone a resolution on major issues.
Many from Aden believe the power behind the Houthi campaign is former president Saleh, a fierce critic of Hadi, who was responsible for the previous fall of the city in 1994, crushing a southern secessionist uprising. Concern is also growing about the growth of sectarian sentiment in the country, something which groups like ISIS are keen to play upon.
This backgrounder was originally published on 28 December 2014 and first updated on 5 October 2015.
Yemen Situation Report
The Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' Situation Report on Yemen looks at the conflicts currently engulfing the country. The report explores the complex role religion plays in the situation, and examines the context of the violence. It can be found here.