Event Report: SDGT vs. FTO: The Houthi Designation’s Impact on Yemen & Red Sea Security

Pictured from left to right: Marwa Ghumrawi, HE Ambassador Mohammed Al-Hadhrami, Fatima Abo Alasrar, Abdulsamad Elfgeeh

SDGT vs. FTO: The Houthi Designation’s Impact on Yemen & Red Sea Security 

March 22, 2024



  •  H.E. Mohammed Al-Hadhrami, Ambassador of Yemen to the United States
  • Fatima Abo Alasrar, Leading expert on Yemen and Non-resident scholar at Middle East Institute
  • Abdulsamad Elfgeeh, President of WCYS.


Moderated by Marwa Ghumrawi, Director of Operations and Communications

Hosted by Representative Joe Wilson on Capitol Hill


Key Takeaways:


SDGT a “Cushioned Strategy”

  • SDGT: A Soft Approach? Ambassador Al-Hadhrami viewed the SDGT (Specially Designated Global Terrorist) designation as too lenient and insufficient and called for a stronger FTO (Foreign Terrorist Organization) designation. He believed the SDGT provided the Houthis an easy path to escape accountability by allowing them to change their behavior within 30 days and be removed from the list.
  • Need for Stronger Pressure: H.E. stressed the need for a more forceful approach to pushing the Houthis toward a meaningful peace agreement. This could potentially involve harsher sanctions, an FTO designation, and more direct support for the Yemeni government.


Humanitarian Crisis vs. Political Goals: 

  • Participants highlighted the tension between the humanitarian crisis and the need for decisive action against the Houthis. Ambassador Al-Hadhrami argued that Houthi attacks, like those on Red Sea shipping, worsened the humanitarian situation and hindered peace efforts.


Houthis’ Opportunism

  • Abo Alasrar’s Prediction: Abo Alasrar emphasized the Houthis’ willingness to exploit any advantage to gain complete control in Yemen in pursuit of their ideological goal to re-establish an imamate under their rule. She highlighted how Red Sea attacks helped them domestically and among the broader regional “Axis of Resistance.”
  • Red Sea Attacks’ Impact: Attacks on Red Sea shipping not only worsened the humanitarian situation but also strengthened the Houthi’s narrative by framing themselves as defenders against the perceived threats of the US and Israel, which bolstered their position within the Yemeni and broader regional public discourse.


FTO & Yemeni Army

  • Yemeni Government’s Position: Ambassador Al-Hadhrami advocated for a harsher FTO designation to apply maximum pressure on the Houthis. He emphasized the need for leadership bounties targeting key Houthi figures to disrupt their chain of command.
  • Strengthening Internal Defense: He further stressed the importance of directly empowering the Yemeni government to fight against the Houthis and reclaim territories. He emphasized the Houthis internal security threat that the Yemen military must counter.


Axis of Resistance

  • Ideological Drivers: Abo Alasrar characterized the Houthis as a central player in the regional “axis of resistance,” a group of states and non-state actors with shared anti-US and anti-Israeli stances. The Houthi’s firmly held ideology drives this affiliation to re-establish an immate rule in Yemen.
  • Strategic Outlook: She contended that the attacks would continue as the Houthis sought to leverage their power and achieve their aims. Therefore, the US needs a nuanced, multifaceted strategy in response.


Gaza Factor

  • Peace Derailed: The Ambassador stressed that a peace deal in Yemen was within reach until the escalation of violence in Gaza. This event forced the Yemeni government to compromise, weakening their negotiating position; however, limiting Houthi’s fighting power would have allowed for more leverage in negotiations with the Yemeni leadership. 
  • Capacity Building: He argued that lasting peace depends on strengthening the Yemeni government, making them better equipped to handle internal conflicts and resist future pressure from the Houthis.


Gaza Ceasefire Concerns

  • Abo Alasrar’s Analysis: Fatima Abo Alasrar feared a ceasefire in Gaza or relaxation of the SDGT designation could refocus Houthi aggression on the Yemeni people. 
  • Lack of Clear US Strategy: She underscored the need for a well-defined, long-term strategy for US involvement in Yemen. This lack of clarity and consistency makes predicting or effectively influencing the Houthis’ actions difficult.


Democratic Ideal

  • Nuanced Stance: The Ambassador indicated openness to Houthi civic participation if they renounced violence and were chosen by the Yemeni people through civic due process if they renounce violence.
  • Primary Goal: However, he reiterated that the immediate priority is reclaiming Yemeni territories under Houthi control and debilitting their fighting ability.


Humanitarian Considerations

  • Counter-Argument: The Ambassador argued that the humanitarian crisis is worsened by Houthi actions like the Red Sea attacks, which disrupt aid supply lines. He likely points out that alternative, though less efficient, aid corridors exist.
  • Shifting Blame: He shifted the responsibility for the humanitarian crisis away from the potential consequences of an FTO designation and squarely onto the shoulders of the Houthis. 


Hodeidah Example

  • Historical Context Ambassador Al-Hadhrami recalled that the 2018 Hodeidah ceasefire was brokered with significant US involvement, motivated by the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Yemen. The Ambassador used this example to illustrate how boxing the concerns with the humanitarian crisis complicated the political and military landscape and deterred impact.


Ambassador’s Highlights Houthi Brutality in Taiz

  • Building on his condemnation of the Houthis’ actions, Ambassador Al-Hadhrami specifically highlighted the brutal siege of Taiz. He described it as a deliberate strategy of collective punishment inflicted upon the city’s residents for their refusal to accept Houthi leadership. 
  • The Ambassador detailed the dire humanitarian situation in Taiz, where four million residents have faced severe food and water shortages, as well as restricted access to medical care – all a direct consequence of the siege. This example showcases a specific instance of their ruthless tactics and disregard for civilian well-being.



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