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  • Andrea Thordarson

The Houthi Dilemma: From Regional Players to International Troublemakers

Andrea is a second-year ISPS student at UCL. Originally from Iceland, she has lived in both Sweden and the UK. She has a passion for all things diplomacy, developed through her study of international relations and Japanese.

The opinions expressed in this article reflect the opinions of its author(s). They do not represent the views of UCL's Diplomacy Society, Diplomacy Review nor The Diplomat.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Middle East has been at the centre of international attention since the attack by Hamas on Israel on October 7th, and the subsequent Israeli war on Gaza. With it we have seen the resurgence of old players and old tensions. If you have been reading the news recently you will have come across this name – the Houthis. But who are they, and what does it mean for them to be back in the international spotlight? 

In 1918 Yemen became a sovereign state and, following a military coup, was remade as the Yemen Arab Republic in 1962. The coup served to further divide the Zaydi (a subgroup of Shia) and Sunni populations and after an unsuccessful bout of Sunni promotion by both Saudi Arabia and Yemen in the 1980s, a peaceful Zaydi group forms. As unrest continued to grow, in 2001 the Houthis broke out as a subsect of this group. In 2004 they capitalised on citizens’ outrage over the Yemeni Government support of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and established themselves as a serious force in Yemen. The Houthis then regularly came in and out of conflicts with the government, culminating in 2014, when they successfully claimed the capital Sana’a. In 2015, civil war breaks out, with the Houthis backed by Iran, and the incumbent government, by Saudi Arabia. The war kills hundreds of thousands either directly in the conflict or due to the resulting humanitarian crisis, which in the past few years the has been regarded the worst in the world. Recently, there was hope for calm in 2022 after a ceasefire was declared. 

The Houthis are, for the moment, a regional force, as they don’t have the military capability or prowess to pose any real threat to Israel and the West – but they have been able to attack ships. Yemen has direct access to the Red Sea, one of the most important international shipping routes. The Red Sea leads to the Suez Canal which is crucial in shortening trade routes between Asia and Europe. They began their attacks late last year, stating the attacks were targeted at boats tied to Israel, as an act of solidarity with Palestine. And yet the attacks have been seemingly random, and few boats have had any direct links to Israel. Due to its international impact, the US could not tolerate the blockade and, as a result, a few days into the new year the US and the UK responded, and continue to respond, with airstrikes focused on taking out the Houthis’ military capabilities. So far, the airstrikes have been successful, but nowhere near disabling.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Houthis, though their power remains regional, have brought themselves firmly to international attention. In terms of military prowess, a once rag tag group has become a ‘nimble US foe’. They excel at irregular warfare – launching missiles from trucks and weaponizing commercial radar systems and are well-supplied as any destroyed weapons are quickly replaced by Iran. They have also been trained by the Iran-backed Hezbollah, which operates in Lebanon, in dynamic fighting. The US has recognised this efficiency by attempting to also weaponize commercial systems. The Marines have adapted a store bought radar (worth about $3000) that can be set up on any fishing boat

The fear is that, though the airstrikes remain minimally inflammatory, the Houthis are desperate for a direct war with either the US or Israel. A few lines of their slogan are: “Death to America, Death to Israel” and leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi has rejoiced at the attacks stating that the Houthis have always emerged from conflict stronger. The last thing the US wants is a prolonged war in Yemen, but the Houthis are adamant for more attention. The Biden administration has re-designated the Houthis as a terrorist group, but there are fears this will only further incentives them, and lead to bolder action. 

What is equally worrying is the Houthis’ prominence in the media. The Houthis have been capitalising on the international community’s outrage over Israel’s action in Gaza, calling out the aggression online. Subsequently individuals with large followings have been reposting pro-Houthi messages – without knowing the nature of the organisation due to its fall in relevance in the previous years. They are, in reality, a brutal militia who have no patience for dissidents. 

The Houthis are increasingly becoming a threatening regional power. Though they might not be the harbingers of a global war, their ability to disrupt trade and disseminate ideas threatens the international community and will further raise the stakes of the conflict rising in the Middle East. 

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