The devastating war in Yemen has been raging for eight years, and with the recent expiry of a UN-brokered truce, conflict between the warring parties remains unlikely to end any time soon. This is all to the detriment of the Yemeni people.
The belligerents at the centre of this conflict are the Zaydi Shia Ansar Allah movement, known more generally as the Houthis. With the support of political and military allies, the movement succeeded in taking control of the capital Sanaa in 2014, a move referred to as the 21 September Revolution. The formation of an effective quasi-state would eventually trigger the Saudi-led coalition to intervene in an attempt to re-instate the ousted internationally-recognised Yemeni government, which has thus far failed to attain popular legitimacy or recognition on the ground.
As the Houthis have grown in power, having fought the coalition successfully to a stalemate, most published works concerning the group have understandably been “through the prisms of war and conflict”. According to the editor of The Huthi Movement in Yemen: Ideology, Ambition, and Security in the Arab Gulf, Abdullah Hamidaddin, this “has narrowed our understanding of the essence of the movement and limited out ability to grasp the specific ways the Huthis think and believe.” This also has an impact not only on Yemen, but also the wider region.
This book attempts to fill the many gaps by providing a holistic and comprehensive analysis of the Houthis and their important place in Yemen and “the Arab Gulf region”. Admittedly, upon noting that the volume was put together by Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRIS), I wasn’t too optimistic about its objectivity given Riyadh’s virulent opposition to the Houthis; yet reading The Huthi Movement… it was both surprising and refreshing to see a balanced and purely academic pursuit supported by the KFCRIS on a topic as sensitive as this to the kingdom’s security. As such, the centre should be commended.
The first section of the book sheds light on who the Houthis are in terms of ideology and beliefs. Bernard Haykel’s opening chapter provides the reader with a sturdy foundation about the group’s doctrinal evolution, highlighting how despite being primarily a religious revivalist movement, the Houthis have strayed from Zaydi tradition, instead offering “a highly politicised, revolutionary, and intentionally simplistic, even primitivist interpretation of the religion’s teachings.” The chapter stresses that the movement is best understood as having emerged as a reaction to the country’s dire economic and political conditions in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and a response by the Zaydi community to the “Salafisation” policy of both the Saudis and the compliant Yemeni government at the time headed by the late, long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Arguably the movement’s most important ideological reference is the Malazim (Fascicles) a series of transcribed teachings of their late founder Husayn Al-Houthi, brother of the current leader Abdulmalik Al-Houthi. According to Haykel, this body of work is akin to the works of Lenin or Mao and continues to serve as political and religious guidance for the movement and its followers.
Using contemporary digital tools analysing speeches and texts, an interesting contribution is made by Mohammed Almahfali, who looks at the transformation of the dominant political themes under the current and former Houthi leaders. We see a noticeable shift from the heavily-religious mobilisation and activism under Husayn to the more assertive and statesmanlike rhetoric under Abdulmalik, which the writer suggests is part of the movement’s “attempt to deal with the international community in order to present itself as an acceptable political alternative.”
I found the topic of Yemen’s Islamic history and its relevance to the Houthis in the country’s current social and political discourse especially insightful, as it pointed out an issue that I have overlooked in my own writings on the Houthis, namely that the Sayyid family after whom the movement is named, being descendants of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the ahlulbayt (his family), are seen by some as being “neither part of the Yemeni tribal society, which traces its ancestry back to Qahtan, nor of Yemen’s pre-Islamic history.” By being of Adnani, North Arabian stock, it meant that from a nationalist and republican perspective the ahlulbayt were seen as outsiders, if not invaders. As such, it was “difficult for the movement to portray itself as truly indigenous.”
It is within this context that one can understand the lingering opposition in parts of Yemen, particularly the non-Zaydi population centres of the south, against the Houthi takeover. Suspicions about attempts to re-instate the centuries-old institution of the Zaydi imamate which only came to an end in 1962 are credible. In its place, the newly established Yemen Arab Republic placed more emphasis on the genealogical heritage claims that Yemenis are the “original Arabs” with the “true Yemenis” being of South Arabian origin.
It was positive to read in his chapter dealing with Hybrid Warfare, that James Spencer chose to refer to the Houthis not merely as a “terrorist group”, but as I have also argued, a de-facto state. He points out they satisfy the Montevideo Criteria, in addition to possessing heavy weapons and advanced munitions.
The more that I delved into the book, the more that I realised how pragmatic the Houthis have become, especially as the core element of the de-facto government determined to consolidate their power and influence in the country. One example of this is the way that education is used to further the “Huthification”, as Shaker Lashuel puts it; the strategic use of education as a tool to “instil Huthi values and mobilise the youth to join the fight against the coalition forces.”
Social and mainstream media have also been utilised successfully by the Houthis, who even before their rise to power “excelled at media productions and outpaced even the central government in this regard.” The combination of the popular and celebrated art form of zamil poetry combined with distribution on social media has also served as a powerful, emotive propaganda tool.
With regard to the regional dynamics of the conflict in Yemen and the Houthis’ place therein, we learn that far from the simplified notion that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy, they actually operate interdependently and are, rather, “aligned” with Tehran. Maria-Louise Clausen argues that the Houthi-led National Salvation Government has its own foreign policy, which mainly revolves around seeking wider support for the struggle against foreign aggression in Yemen. Despite attempts to forge stronger international relations, severely limited as they are, the Houthis find themselves with little foreign policy space amid the overarching rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The Huthi Movement… has largely delivered in contributing a comprehensive study of the Houthis, beyond the reductionist mainstream takes on political violence. However, by the editor’s own admission, this study has been restricted due to the difficult situation on the ground. For now, though, the book serves as an authoritative body of work for those looking for a broad overview of who the Houthis are and why they will remain a key player in Yemen’s political and cultural scene for years to come.