Houthi fighters chant slogans at the end of their training in Sana’a, Yemen, on 11 January. Photograph: Osamah Yahya/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock
Attacks on Yemen by the UK and the US have fuelled tensions in a region riven by conflict and violence
Last summer, as Washington tried quietly to coax Saudi Arabia towards the grand bargain of normalisation of its relations with Israel, diplomats in Riyadh were much more focused on securing a different peace deal on its southern borders with one of the most successful insurgencies of modern times – the one led by the Houthi rebels of Yemen, also known as Ansar Allah, the supporters of God.
With an informal ceasefire holding inside Yemen, and after months of private talks mainly mediated in Oman, on 14 September a Houthi delegation flew to Riyadh, where they met Prince Khalid bin Salman, the defence minister and brother of the crown prince.
Major differences remained to be settled, but it seemed as if, after decades of various forms of fighting, peace was to come to the country, and largely on the terms dictated by a group that did not really exist as a political force inside Yemen until the early 2000s. Saudi Arabia was finally going to cut its losses on the disastrous offensive it launched in 2015 to push back the Houthis. Yet 23 days after the Riyadh meeting, Hamas broke through the border with Israel, massacring Israelis and sparking a chain of events that this week left Yemen exposed to a two-day attack mounted from US and British submarines and warships on the Red Sea.
The attacks on Houthi bases in Yemen, as well as ratcheting up the tension in a region already gripped by violence, took Yemen further away from elusive internal peace.
In a country of nuance, two factors are adding to the complexity of a region riven by conflict: the Houthis’ support for the Palestinian cause, and the way Yemen’s geography helps shape political dynamics. As the writer Iona Craig observes, Yemen is a quintessential example of geopolitics – the place where geography and politics come together.
Yemen itself may be relatively impoverished, but the often unprotected fruits of western globalisation temptingly pass by its shores day and night. Nearly 15% of goods imported into Europe, the Middle East and North Africa are shipped from Asia and the Gulf by sea. Nearly 21.5% of refined oil and more than 13% of crude oil go through the waterways. Asian imports and exports account for about a quarter of Israel’s total foreign trade and transit mainly via Red Sea routes.
Israel has long feared that the narrowness of the Bab al-Mandab strait represents a security vulnerability. For decades it has sought alliances with countries such as what is now Eritrea to fend off first Egyptian- and then Iranian-led efforts to close the waterways to Israeli traffic.
Indeed one motive for Israel to sign the “Abraham accords” with the United Arab Emirates in 2020 was the UAE’s own maritime security network, encompassing Djibouti, Eritrea, Somaliland, and Yemen’s Perim Island and Socotra archipelago.
The Houthis for their part have been experimenting with how to become a naval power. In October 2016 they started using the recently captured strategic port of Hodeidah on Yemen’s west coast as a base. They twice fired at the USS Mason as a form of counterattack for the US providing air support to the Saudis. In January 2017 Houthis switched from lobbing ballistic missiles and drones over the land border towards Riyadh, and instead sent three suicide boats. It also tried to mine the waterways.
“If the aggressors keep pushing toward Hodeidah, and if the political solution hits a wall, some strategic choices will be taken as a point of no return, including blocking the international navigation in the Red Sea,” said the Houthi political council chief, Saleh al Samad. “Ships pass by our waters while our people starve.”
Israel for its part realised that Iran, with its sophisticated navy, was starting to train Houthis in using boats, drones and missiles to disrupt Israeli-linked traffic, including by providing machinery that could detect a ship’s origins. As the Houthis chalked up more victories, Tehran’s patronage grew.
It was evident to Israeli eyes that by 2019 Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the Houthi leader, was increasingly directing his rhetoric against Israel and denying claims by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Iran had begun supplying precision missiles to Yemen.
He said: “Our people will not hesitate to declare jihad against the Israeli enemy and deliver the most severe blows against the enemy’s sensitive targets if he gets involved in stupid acts against our people. Our hostile position against Israel is principled, humane, moral and religious.”
Maysaa Shuja al-Deen from the Sana’a Centre for Strategic Studies says: “The Houthi threats to Israeli shipping are not an excuse or an attempt to divert attention from their own failings. It is deep in their ideology. They talk of cursing the Jews and death to America. Their founder, Hussein al-Houthi, started his lectures around the time of 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq, and it was very much about a clash of civilisations. It is Muslims v Christians, a religious conflict, not about Arab nationalism.”
Once the Gaza crisis exploded, the Houthis initially fired ineffectual missiles towards the Israel port town of Eilat, insisting they would only desist when Israel allowed humanitarian aid into Gaza. But taking advantage of the territory they had captured since 2014, their tactics quickly evolved into a campaign of surprise attacks on shipping that has spread mayhem through the world’s supply chains.
Since at least 12 November, according to the Sana’a Centre, “Houthi forces have been training recruits for amphibious assault teams, with exercises including mock missile launches targeting decoy naval ships and simulated ship raids. They have also gradually widened their targets from Israeli-flagged ships to ships trading with Israel.”
Al-Deen argues the positive domestic response will only embolden the Houthis: “Yemenis are pro-Palestinian, and that feeling has been growing to unprecedented levels over the last three months.” Where other groups have hesitated, the Houthis have shown daring, all the while producing propaganda videos such as a Palestinian flag-festooned helicopter landing on the deck of the Galaxy Leader, a cargo ship sailing in the Red Sea.
The Houthis were particularly proud when a BBC interviewer asked Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a member of the Houthi supreme council, why they saw fit to interfere in Palestine “miles and miles away”. He replied: “As for Biden, is he a neighbour of Netanyahu? Do they live in the same flat, and does the French president live on the same floor and the British prime minister in the same building?”
Abdulghani al-Iryani, also from the Sana’a Centre, claims: “The anti-Houthi camp inside Yemen is dumbfounded. The few statements made against the Houthis since the beginning of their operation in support of Palestine have been severely criticised by the Yemeni public. The sentiment is captured in a common phrase: ‘My brother and I are against our cousin, and my cousin and I are against the stranger.’ Citizens of all stripes have demanded that spokespeople of anti-Houthi groups ‘shut their mouths’.”
Indeed some Houthi leaders have already reached out to their long-term political opponents in the Islah party to see if they will make common cause against Israel.
Al-Deen insists the Houthis will not be deterred by western attacks but will see them as a gift, even a recruiting sergeant. “They have spent years fighting the Saudis, absorbing losses. They are not a classic army with static military bases. Militias change the rules of war, and with Iran’s help they now have the capacity and expertise to manufacture drones inside the country. The US and the UK gave very lengthy warnings that this was about to happen, so there was no element of surprise.”
She says if anything the last week “will make the Houthis believe they are no longer local players but regional players legitimised in their own right for directly confronting America”. She says she can see the Houthis even firing missiles towards Bahrain, the one Arab country that supported the air strikes in defence of freedom of navigation.
Farea al Muslimi, from the Chatham House middle east programme, warns: “The Houthis are far more savvy, prepared and well-equipped than many western commentators realise. Their recklessness and willingness to escalate in the face of a challenge are always underrated.”
They also know that the military naval alliance supporting America is thin. Egypt, despite seeing income from the Suez canal, refused to support the US air strikes. No Arab country, except possibly the UAE, has the nerve to challenge the Houthi framing of plucky Yemenis taking on US power. Saudi Arabia worries its exit ticket from Yemen is being torn up.
The missile assault may be seen by the west as the only option, but it is not cost free. Houthi drones are cheap. By contrast the French spend close to €1m on each Aster 15 missile used by the French and the British to fend off Houthi drones.
This has the potential to be a long and costly war, perhaps waged at different levels of intensity.