Crown Center for Middle East Studies

The Houthis’ Red Sea Campaign and Yemen’s Political Future

A Conversation with Stacey Philbrick Yadav and Yazeed Al-Jeddawy

Organized and edited by Ramyar D. Rossoukh, Assistant Director for Research

January 31, 2024

On January 11, after months of Houthi attacks on commercial ships transiting the Red Sea in response to the Israel-Hamas War, the US and UK launched air strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen. As the cycle of attacks and retaliatory strikes stretches into its third week, we spoke with Yazeed Al-Jeddawy, research coordinator at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies in Yemen, and Stacey Philbrick Yadav, professor and chair of the International Relations department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and a non-resident fellow at the Crown Center, about what lies behind the conflict, the reaction inside Yemen, and its impact on the ongoing civil war and peace process. Their Crown Conversation offers fresh insights into how the Houthi campaign and the response to it will shape the role the Houthis play in Yemen's political future.

Why are the Houthis attacking commercial ships in the Red Sea?

Stacey Philbrick Yadav: The Houthis have different domestic and regional challenges, and the Red Sea campaign seems designed to address both at the same time. Domestically, Ansar Allah (as the movement prefers to be known) controls a considerable share of Yemen’s territory and these areas contain an even greater share of its population, but they are not uniformly popular or accepted. As a Zaydi sectarian movement, they have non-Zaydi detractors, of course, but even among Zaydi Muslims, some find their political objectives and many of their practices alienating and oppressive. Local human rights organizations have shown that Houthi forces violate Yemeni human rights routinely, and more than other conflict actors. Retaining power through repression, the Houthis have a legitimacy deficit they need to address.

Support for the Palestinian cause, by contrast, has wide support that cuts across the many divisions in Yemeni society and has been consistently reflected in policy. The Kingdom of Yemen (as the Northern regime was known before the 1962 revolution) was admitted to the UN only one month before the 1947 vote to partition Palestine and joined with twelve other member states to vote against partition. Yemeni regimes that followed—the Yemen Arab Republic in the North, People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the South, and after unification in 1990, the Republic of Yemen—have all expressed solidarity more materially, from social support for Palestinian refugees in Yemen to operational support for militant Palestinian organizations. All of this is to say that the Houthis would like their Red Sea campaign to be read not only as popular, but as part of this legacy of sovereign solidarity.

This performance, though, isn’t simply for a domestic audience. Regionally, the Houthis’ Red Sea campaign is also an effort to position the group in contrast to neighboring Gulf states’ recent moves toward normalization with Israel. Normalization was already unpopular before October 7, but in the wake of the cataclysmic violence in Gaza in the months since then, the idea is now politically radioactive. Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United Arab Emirates, both of which have a clear interest in keeping the Red Sea navigable, joined “Operation Prosperity Guardian,” the 10-state coalition put together in December by the United States to deter Houthi attacks. The Houthis understand that they are boxing in their regional rivals. And to be clear, they very much want to be understood as a rival to these neighboring states, as opposed to a rival to different Yemeni factions. This is reflected in their past efforts to negotiate directly with the Saudis, rather than with Yemen’s internationally-recognized government, which Saudi Arabia supports.

Yazeed Al-Jeddawy:
Houthis achieve several goals by attacking commercial ships and disrupting global maritime trade in the Red Sea. Domestically, it provides a breath of fresh air from their governance failures in the areas under their control. The pretext of supporting the Palestinians is the best card they can play to change the minds of people who refuse to accept them as legitimate rulers and position themselves as the popular and rightful group to rule Yemen. In turn, this gives the Houthis a better opportunity to consolidate their theocratic rule without having to answer for their brutal behavior. Over the past nine years, the Houthis have committed crimes and human rights abuses against Yemenis under the banner of “Death to America.” By attacking US ships and being attacked by the US, the Houthis ultimately hope to gain credibility by showing that this is not just a slogan; they mean what they say about fighting against the US.

Another important reason for the Houthi attacks has to do with the predicament they face engaging with the peace process, which is being led by the UN’s Office of the Special Envoy to the Secretary General for Yemen (OSESGY). After almost a year of negotiations with Saudi Arabia, the UN Special Envoy to Yemen announced in December 2023 that the Houthis and the Yemeni government had agreed to engage “in preparations for the resumption of an inclusive political process under UN auspices.” But the Houthis see any internationally supported power-sharing agreement as a losing proposition. They believe that they have won the war and can use their military advantage to take over areas controlled by forces under the Yemeni government’s umbrella. But they won’t be able to do this after they agree to a nationwide ceasefire and engage in the peace process. So, the Houthis are trying to create conditions that will allow them to mobilize forces and advance into areas held by their opponents.

There are also economic considerations behind the attacks that started on November 19. The Houthis bet on the weakness of the Biden administration and calculated that the US has limited military options to confront them. They also know the Biden administration does not want to contribute to a wider regional conflict or give the Houthis an excuse to resume a civil war that has already devastated the country. The escalation in the Red Sea and symbolic and tactical response of the US and its allies have emboldened the Houthis. They hope to negotiate future agreements with international and regional powers to collect fees from vessels that cross the Bab Al Mandab Strait and the Red Sea.

To what extent is it accurate to call the Houthis a proxy for Iran and part of their “Axis of Resistance”? Do they share the same ideological and political goals?

Philbrick Yadav: I think it makes sense to interpret Iran’s role here as enabling the Houthis’ military and political survival more than, say, directing Houthi priorities or specific actions. There is no question that material and operational support from Iran has helped the movement consolidate its control in parts of Yemen and has allowed it to survive almost a decade of asymmetric armed conflict against its domestic adversaries and the Saudi-led coalition. On a military level, the Houthis are Iranian allies and function as a part of this broader regional axis.

That said, the Houthi movement originated locally and continues to have ideological features that are distinctly—doctrinally, historically—Yemeni. While many Yemenis are not Zaydi and many Zaydis do not support the Houthi movement, Zaydism itself is inextricably linked to Yemeniness—Yemen is the only place where this religious tradition continues to exist and be widely practiced; it is where a distinct body of Zaydi law was developed, and Zaydi and non-Zaydi Yemenis were governed for centuries according to the principles of a Zaydi imamate. That imamate was replaced by a republican revolution and state-building project only in the latter half of the 20th century. The Houthi movement specifically grows out of an earlier Zaydi revivalist movement in the 1990s in which Zaydi religious leaders sought to reinterpret their tradition in relation to what they saw as the dual challenge of a republican state that had little institutional respect for internal hierarchies associated with Zaydism and a culturally hostile salafi evangelism that actively preached against those hierarchies. None of this has much in common with the ideological or doctrinal history of Twelver Shi’ism or the Islamic Republic of Iran, as I understand it.

Organizationally, though, Iran’s Islamic Republic does provide Ansar Allah with a kind of governing template for the fusion of republican state institutions and religious doctrine—even if that doctrine is not entirely the same. A substantial proportion of the pre-war bureaucracy has been absorbed by the Houthis in the near-decade since they first displaced Yemen’s internationally-recognized government in 2015. This has allowed for the gradual (and not-so-gradual) adoption of policies and practices under the guidance of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Some changes, like policies and curricula in Yemeni schools, are working to entrench the group’s influence over Yemen’s youth. Other changes, like controversial guardianship rules limiting women’s mobility, are seen as quite foreign to Yemen and have exacerbated the group’s legitimacy challenge.

Al-Jeddawy: The Houthis owe much to Iran. It has been nine years since the outbreak of the war with the Saudi-led coalition that sought to defeat the Houthis and restore power to the internationally-recognized Yemeni government. Without Iran’s support—and the international community’s miscalculation with the 2018 Stockholm Agreement that left the Houthis in control of most of the Hodeidah Governorate and its financially lucrative key ports just as they were on the verge of defeat—the Houthis would be in a much weaker position today. The Houthis’ attacks in the Red Sea also demonstrate that they are an integral part of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance.”

But to properly answer this question, we also need to make a distinction between the Houthi movement and the broader Zaydi sect in Yemen. The first is an offshoot of the latter. Zaydism has a deep belief in the supremacy of the descendants of the Prophet Mohammad and their divine right to rule Muslims. The Houthis are followers of the radical Jaroudi school of Zaydism and espouse a jihadist ideology of liberating the world from the Americans and Jews. The ties between the founders of the Houthi movement and Iran go back several decades. They sent scholars to Iran to study in Shi’i seminaries and have maintained contact and a close relationship ever since. Throughout the war, Iran has provided the Houthis with training, weapons, technology, and military tactics to confront the Saudi-led coalition and its Yemeni allies. This support has made the Houthis ready to act as Iran’s proxy. It's important to note, however, that the Houthis have mobilized large numbers of the Zaydi tribesmen in northern Yemen, who constitute the majority of Zaydis in Yemen, to claim that they have the popular support of all Zaydis. These tribesmen are more interested in making peace with neighboring Arab nations than serving Iran's agenda, which is contrary to the tendency and direction of the Houthi movement.

Within Yemen, what has been the reaction to the Houthi campaign in the Red Sea and US-led airstrikes on the Houthis?

Al-Jeddawy: The Houthis have sought to exploit the events in Gaza to gain popular support in the streets. Their propaganda machine publicizes the group’s attacks to gain plaudits among pro-Palestine Yemeni voices on the grassroots level. They have even received praise from their opponents in Yemen, such as prominent figures affiliated with the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Al-Islah) party. The majority of the population, however, is burdened by the catastrophic economic crisis and the everyday struggle to survive. Many who publicly speak highly of the Houthis’ actions on social media privately express frustration and fear about their repercussions and the possible shattering of an already collapsed economy that would make it impossible for Yemenis to cope with the situation.

As for the US-led airstrikes, there is a general sense in Yemen of doubt, fear, and rejection of foreign intervention, especially after the brutality and failure of the Saudi-led coalition to deter or weaken the Houthis. Many Yemenis also worry that the Houthis will exploit the economic situation and the fear of a US military intervention to radicalize youth and promote extremist and jihadist beliefs to recruit fighters in the north of Yemen.

Philbrick Yadav: It can be hard to fully gauge popular reactions in part because political and security conditions shape the context of “free assembly” in Yemen in significant ways. In Houthi-held areas, public support for the Red Sea campaign and opposition to the Israeli military’s actions in Gaza is allowed and even encouraged, whereas public gatherings around these issues are prohibited in areas under the control of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), the secessionist parastatal organization that exercises de facto control over Aden. The STC has close ties to the United Arab Emirates, which is navigating its own commercial interests and normalization plans in a climate of broad opposition to the Israeli campaign in Gaza. Conditions elsewhere fall somewhere between these poles. Altogether, this tells us more about the priorities of various local authorities than it does about popular reactions to the Houthis’ Red Sea campaign or the Israeli military campaign in Gaza that they argue they are disrupting. That said, the attacks by the US and UK won’t decrease support for Houthi “resistance.” If anything, the airstrikes are fodder for the Houthis’ established self-presentation as victims of foreign aggression and only reinforce their brand.

The type of scrutiny that UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has faced since the joint US-UK airstrikes began reflects these risks. In the US, however, I see either uncritical support for the airstrikes as a defense of US and Israeli interests or else a troubling mischaracterization of the Houthis’ Red Sea campaign as “Yemen” standing up to Israel. (I’m not even going to talk about the “Hot Houthi Pirate” TikTok nonsense.) None of this reckons realistically with the risk of bolstering the Houthis’ domestic and regional position in the context of Yemen’s protracted conflict.

Though events are still unfolding, how do you see the conflict impacting Yemen's war and the peace process?

Al-Jeddawy: Until recently, the US-led approach has refrained from engaging in significant military operations out of concern for regional spillover, the already fragile peace process, and the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and other international powers appear to share the same concerns. The Houthis understand that the approach of exercising maximum restraint has placed the US and its allies in a corner. Unsurprisingly, the Houthis today are not interested in an internationally supported peace process that may curtail their chances of taking control of all of Yemen. They believe that in the future they will be able to dictate their conditions and receive more concessions in return for engaging in the UN-led peace process.

There is also a widening gap and diverging interests among Yemeni actors about making a peace deal. This was manifested in the Yemeni government urging the international community to immediately designate the Houthis a terrorist group, which adds layers of complexity to the diplomatic efforts of the OSESGY. The listing of the Houthis as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group may prompt the Yemeni government to distance itself from the peace process and insist on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which has hindered OSESGY’s diplomatic efforts for several years. It is too soon to tell if the designation is flexible enough to allow all the actors to continue to actively engage in preparations for the resumption of an inclusive political process under UN auspices.

There is also a growing sense that the Houthis’ actions and behavior are not only an internal problem for Yemen but also a global one that poses risks to international maritime trade and the global economy. This has made the international community increasingly concerned about letting the Houthis reap the benefits of a peace process that recognizes their advantage on the ground and, thus, their right to be the dominant ruling power in Yemen. Even if we see de-escalation and the eventual stop of Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, I think the peace process will be a thorny path for many years to come.

Philbrick Yadav: I expect this will make international diplomacy much more challenging. The OSESGY has struggled to make meaningful progress toward a negotiated settlement in Yemen for many years. This is, in part, because the UN framework has been wedded to a 2015 Security Council resolution that understands the conflict as a two-party conflict between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels (which it arguably was, then). That structures almost everything the OSESGY can undertake. This framework also made it difficult—though ultimately not impossible—to broker direct negotiations between the Houthis and the Saudis, talks that are now frozen and will be difficult to restart.

In fact, it’s really difficult to imagine how those negotiations will restart now that the Houthis appear on the US list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists, only one step shy of Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation. Former President Trump’s FTO designation of Ansar Allah was removed by President Biden in February 2021, not because the behaviors of the group changed but because an international pressure campaign had made clear that the humanitarian implications for the millions of Yemenis living in areas under Houthi control were just too dire. The Biden administration’s decision to revisit the group’s status in response to recent events will make an inclusive political settlement more difficult. But Yemen’s failed 2012–2014 transitional process also shows that their exclusion from a power-sharing framework carries its own risks.

At the same time that I think the Houthis will need to be included in any future political settlement in Yemen, their Red Sea campaign and the US-UK military response is also unfortunately re-centering the Houthis and their priorities at the expense of other important conflict actors, particularly the STC and some local militias. This is a real setback, as is the way that escalating violence crowds out—as it always does—the importance of Yemen’s civil actors. In times of acute escalation, Yemeni individuals and groups who play important roles in everyday peacebuilding are overlooked or actively marginalized by negotiators attentive to the groups with the guns.

Most worrisome, the current escalation may also strengthen the position of those who would prefer a military solution over a negotiated political settlement. For example, Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, an STC leader in Aden who is now part of the internationally-recognized government’s Presidential Leadership Council, called the airstrikes “insufficient” and has asked for an increase in direct support to government forces fighting the Houthis. Though the Houthis have survived decades of asymmetric conflict against better-supplied adversaries (the Yemeni government from 2004–2010, the Saudi-led coalition since 2015), the desire to defeat them by force remains in some quarters. This seems no more realistic in 2024 than it did in 2014 or 2004.

For more Crown Center publications on topics covered in this Conversation, see: “Understanding Yemen: Before, During, and After Conflict,” and “Fragmentation and Localization in Yemen’s War: Challenges and Opportunities for Peace

The opinions and findings expressed in this Conversation belong to the authors exclusively and do not reflect those of the Crown Center or Brandeis University.