On April 9, a group of senior Houthi figures appeared in a photo with Saudi Amb. Mohammed al-Jaber during negotiations over the “de-escalation roadmap” proposed by Saudi Arabia and Oman. In addition to the chief of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, Mahdi al-Mashat, five of the six other Houthi attendees were from Sa’adah governorate, while the sixth, Maj. Gen. Jalal al-Rowishan, was from Sana’a’s Khawlan al-Tyal tribe. Neither the de facto prime minister nor the minister of foreign affairs from the Sana’a-based General People’s Congress (GPC), which formed a marriage of convenience with the Iran-backed Houthis in 2014-15, were present. While they may have been excluded due to their perceived illegitimacy, their absence raises renewed questions about the Houthis’ political partnership model. Over the past two decades, the Houthis have used an array of political, civil, and tribal forces and amplified different causes to expand their base, fight mutual enemies, and consolidate power, but all of their partners eventually have been excluded from active participation, exiled, or eliminated altogether. The Houthis used them tactically at different stages to facilitate their rise and not one of them has remained an equal and effective partner.
With the international community viewing the latest “de-escalation roadmap” as paving the way for yet another transitional power-sharing agreement between various political parties and armed groups on the one hand and the Houthis on the other in an effort to “end” Yemen’s protracted conflict, it is useful to review how the Houthis have navigated past partnerships to understand how things may play out in the future.
A legacy of zero-sum politics?
Historically, Yemen’s political culture has been largely oriented around the victory of one party at the expense of another. This zero-sum approach has resulted in a cycle of multi-layered conflicts, deepening and broadening grievances across the country. By the late 1980s, political parties in the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) perceived partnership within the framework of a broader democratic process as the way forward, culminating in the country’s unification in May 1990. Political partnership and pluralism more broadly required certain conditions for success, chief among them recognizing the other, respecting their rights and ambitions, and cooperating in the public sphere to ensure the stability of the fragile new democracy.
Despite establishing the foundations for a democratic process in 1990, political partnerships were based on a zero-sum struggle between parties using divide and conquer tactics, as seen in the rise of the GPC after it aligned with Yemen’s largest Islamist party, al-Islah, against the Yemeni Socialist Party in the early 1990s. From the parliamentary elections in 1997 through 2011, the GPC dominated the political landscape while its former partner, al-Islah, became increasingly politically irrelevant. Operating within a political space that officially championed pluralism despite one-party dominance and within the context of a government that lacked effective checks and balances, the Houthis and other Yemeni actors developed by forging a series of tactical partnerships characterized by perpetual change.
From the periphery to the center: The road to Sana’a
The Houthis are an insurgent Zaydi-Hadawi Shi’ite movement that emerged out of the “Believing Youth” (al-Shabab al-Mo’men) religious group in the 1990s. The list of partnerships or marriages of convenience that they forged in their rise to power is lengthy and varied: between Hussein Badr al-Deen al-Houthi, the founder of the Houthi movement, and al-Shabab al-Mo’men in the 1990s; with the opposition’s Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), which had a shared enmity regarding the ruling GPC and elite; with the Southern Movement, a separatist political movement established in 2007, which, like the residents of Sa’adah, had grievances over political and economic marginalization; with Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in an effort to divide and conquer; and with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s GPC, to take revenge, storm the capital, and stage a comeback.
The Houthis’ elimination of rivals, both potential and perceived, began even before the movement militarized. After al-Shabab al-Mo’men was established in the 1990s, Hussein Badr al-Deen al-Houthi took over the group and removed its co-founder, Mohammed Azzan, chiefly because the latter did not believe in armed struggle against the state. Instead, Azzan presented an alternative theological approach, one that broke with Zaydism’s traditional concept of the Imamate, but he was subsequently expelled from the group.
The Houthi insurgency began in 2004 when President Saleh launched a counterinsurgency campaign against the group after fighting broke out between government and Houthi militia forces in Sa’adah’s Sahar district. This conflict, the first of the six Sa'adah wars from 2004-10, was based on a confrontation between the Yemeni Armed Forces and a theological-geographical resistance. To mobilize fighters, the Houthis framed the war as a common struggle, citing Saudi and American interference as well as economic underdevelopment, prompting some of Sa’adah's sheikhs and tribesmen to rally to defend their area under Houthi leadership. One of the most prominent fighters in the Houthis’ ranks at that time was the tribal figure Abdullah al-Rezami; however, Rezami was gradually sidelined by the leader of the Houthi movement as he sought to consolidate his grip on power.
The outbreak of the 2004 conflict prompted the JMP, an opposition coalition founded the previous year and including al-Islah, to stand in solidarity with the Houthis against the government. The JMP was a disparate ideological mix united by its opposition to the Saleh regime and included two parties perceived as political arms of sectarian groups: the al-Haq Party and the Union of Popular Forces, both of which emerged from the core of political Zaydism in 1990.
When the Houthis arrived in Sana’a after the six Sa’adah wars, politicians in the capital affiliated with political Zaydism were viewed as potential rivals and the Houthis sought to remove them using the perceived legitimacy they had gained on the battlefield. For example, the Houthis tried to replace the secretaries-general of the al-Haq and the Union of Popular Forces parties, Mohammed Abdul Malik al-Mutawakil and Hassan Zaid, with loyalists. That effort failed and the two leaders were later assassinated in Sana’a by “unknown gunmen.” When the Houthis stormed Sana'a in September 2014, many of the main figures in the political blocs close to Zaydism died or were mysteriously assassinated, most of whom had ties to the two parties.
With the Arab Spring, civil society got played too
The Arab Spring uprising in early 2011 significantly changed Yemen’s political map, loosening the center’s authority and control to the benefit of the periphery. In 2012, the Houthis established a political office and changed their name from the Houthi movement to Ansar Allah, defining their fight as a holy war in God’s name. At the time, the Houthis emerged from isolation in the mountains and caves of Sa’adah to forge a path toward gaining power in Sana’a by co-opting flexible political actors that inadvertently whitewashed the Houthis’ image as rebels even as they continued their military expansion around Sa’adah in al-Jawf, Amran, and Hajjah governorates. The Houthis subsequently focused on eliminating the rival leaders of Hashed tribes that allied with the regime (such as Sheikh Hussein bin Abdullah al-Ahmar, who previously led tribal mediation efforts with the Houthis) and countering the Salafi presence in Dammaj until their forces reached the gates of the capital in Amran in July 2014. As a result, various social groups, particularly Hashed tribes as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, found themselves at odds with the Houthis.
During the 2011-14 period the Houthis expanded from the periphery in Sa’adah governorate to the center in Sana'a, making them a partner in demands for regime change alongside revolutionary forces, albeit for narrow factional reasons. Focused on internal expansion and consolidation amid the upheaval of the Arab Spring and benefiting from growing Iranian support from Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force leader Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Houthis allowed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative, aimed at settling Yemen’s political crisis, to proceed through a political transitional process without publicly approving the initiative or joining the National Accord Government. Instead, they took advantage of the political vacuum resulting from the opposition’s absence following the formation of a power-sharing government and attempted to play the role of opposition themselves. For instance, when the government removed oil subsidies in the summer of 2014, the Houthis staged anti-government protests in Sana’a to appeal to the public while pursuing their own objectives.
As a condition for their participation in the U.N.-sponsored National Dialogue Conference (NDC), the Houthis sought and secured an apology from the government and political parties for the six Sa’adah wars — a move designed to change their image from rebels to victims. As a result, the Houthis found in the national dialogue a platform to harness existing partnerships and establish new ones, especially with the Southern Movement and some civil and secular forces. For example, the Houthi delegation within the NDC’s State-Building Working Group recognized grievances in the south of the country and negotiated the issue of state identity with civic factions. Although Houthi political representatives, driven by a shared perception of grievances, drew closer to civil and secular groups and the Southern Movement during the NDC in 2013-14, as soon as the Houthis were able to expand militarily and launch attacks on Aden, Lahj, and al-Dale in early 2015, they slowly began imposing sectarian rule. They introduced restrictions on women’s and human rights, imposed a discriminatory “one-fifth” tax law (al-khums), and established a strict code of workplace conduct in 2022, going against civil society and the understandings reached during the NDC.
But in the summer of 2014 after the completion of the NDC, which proposed a new federal structure and a constitutional reform to transform NDC outputs into a legal formula, the Houthis resumed mobilizing the popular masses in Sana'a after seizing Amran governorate with the help of their former rival, President Saleh. On the day they stormed Sana’a, Sept. 21, 2014, the Houthis signed an agreement, the National Peace and Partnership Agreement, that they imposed on President Hadi and the representatives of some political parties. Although the agreement, brokered by former U.N. Special Envoy Jamal bin Omar after talks with Abdul-Malek al-Houthi in Sa’adah, granted the Houthis a political partnership and the integration of their paramilitary groups into the ranks of the Defense and Interior ministries, the Houthis immediately deployed their forces into several governorates and by January 2015 had put members of the government under house arrest.
By February 2015, Houthi-Saleh forces had expanded from the northwest into Aden and the southern governorates. However, the Houthis’ temporary alliance with Saleh did not last and they later killed Saleh in a firefight that erupted in December 2017, enabling the Houthis to consolidate power after co-opting the GPC. This brief chapter shows how the Houthis have repeatedly used their partnerships as tactical measures designed to gain power.
The biggest reversal was only a matter of time
While the Houthis’ decision to eliminate President Saleh as revenge for the 2004 killing of Hussein Badr al-Deen al-Houthi by government forces was their most dramatic reversal to date, it was an ideological inevitability. It also brought the relationship full circle: President Saleh was once their most prominent enemy and had previously fought them in the six Sa’adah wars before later helping them to storm Sana’a in 2014. Had it not been for Saleh's facilitation and Hadi’s divide-and-conquer calculations, the Houthis would have not been able to infiltrate the provinces militarily and reach Sana'a. In 2016, the Houthis used Saleh again, by signing a public partnership with his GPC to gain political cover, before turning against him in 2017, based on an order from Tehran, because he demanded rapprochement with Saudi Arabia to put an end to the war in Yemen. This last reversal came amid growing GPC discontent with the increasing Houthi monopoly on power, as well as their refusal to have a full political partnership with the GPC in Sana'a. Despite their partnership agreement with the GPC, the Houthis did not honor the annual rotation of the presidency of the newly created Supreme Political Council (de facto) and since 2016 they have refused to hand over the role to anyone else.
As with Saleh and the GPC, the Houthis also demonstrated similarly dramatic reversals in their dealings with certain tribes. They entered into agreements with several tribal entities to ensure that the tribes would be neutralized as they marched on Sana'a. However, shortly after expanding their territorial control, the Houthis reversed course, imposed control over the tribes, and carried out calculated military offensives, as happened in Hamdan and Arhab in Sana’a, as well as Hajur in Hajjah. In December 2017, the Houthis reportedly bombed the house in Amran of Sheikh Mabkhout al-Mashriqi, who previously cooperated with their military offensives in 2014 against Sheikh Hussein bin Abdullah al-Ahmar. They also forced Jalidan Mahmoud Jalidan to step down from his de facto position as minister of transport that same month. In addition, they used a social mechanism known as the “tribal honor document” to subjugate Yemen’s tribes and ensure that their sons were recruited to serve as soldiers in the Houthi war machine in exchange for security and/or influence.
The Houthis’ use of partnerships has been wide-ranging, fluid, and tactical, transcending traditional religious, political, civil, and tribal considerations. Above all, however, their partnerships have been short term in nature and few, if any, have lasted for long. Many previous Houthi partners were used by the group as it navigated Yemen’s volatile political landscape, only to later end up under house arrest, displaced, exiled, or eliminated. Given the Houthis' track record with partnerships and their current capture of the state, build-up of counterbalancing institutions, and sizable paramilitary forces, as well as the country’s fragmentation and multiplicity of actors and ambitions, a central question arises: Is power-sharing with the Houthis always likely to end in failure or is a different path possible? While history is certainly indicative, that is a question only the Houthis can answer.
Mustafa Naji is a former Yemeni diplomat and a researcher in the field of social studies.
Ibrahim Jalal is a Yemeni security, conflict, and defense researcher; a Non-Resident Scholar at MEI; and a co-founding member of the Security Distillery Think Tank.
Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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