The relationship between a small group of Houthis living in north Yemen and Iran began nearly two decades ago with the encouragement of the then president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This was part of the game to establish balance in the context of other religious denominations like the Salafis competing against each other in the region. After a few years, the Iranians turned the Houthis into a proxy group that was politically loyal to them, and they become a problem for the government of Saleh who linked them to religious groups in Iran and got them involved in five wars.
Saleh, whose presidency lasted nearly forty years, was ousted as a result of the uprising known as the Arab Spring in 2011 and the injuries that he sustained from an assassination attempt. After that, he allied himself with his opponents, the Houthis, and together they seized power. Today, they rule nearly half of Yemen. This is a summary of the Houthis’ story, and the group is now a party involved in the war in Yemen. This raises questions that cannot be underestimated during serious negotiations to find a solution to the war there.
Perhaps the most important question that should be asked is about the future of the Houthis because they are a dangerous team and are serving Iran’s interests in a large regional game. Iran is using its proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Palestine in this game.
On the ground, the Houthis are a strong military team that have advanced until they reached Aden in the south which is 800km from their centre in the province of Sa’da. The first thing they did after the coup was to seize the Yemeni army’s weapons cache and transport it to their region. Overnight they became the owners of a large military arsenal. It is clear that the Iranians had been preparing them for this day, and there are reports that confirm that Hezbollah trained about 3,000 Houthi fighters in the period that followed their war with Saudi Arabia in 2009.
It launched television stations and websites and helped them to manage their local areas. The Iranians are trying to manipulate the Houthis’ situation in Yemen so that they become like Hezbollah in Lebanon; a loyal military force that is managed from Tehran. The Houthis are an Iranian project in Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia. They are similar to Hezbollah which controls the Lebanese state and is used militarily by the Iranians against Israel for political purposes. This picture has become clear and is accepted by many of those who were sceptical about the authenticity of it at the beginning of the war in Yemen, just as they were sceptical about accounts of Iran’s military presence in Syria. Tehran later officially admitted its military presence there.
Despite this, the Houthi project is a failed one and the Houthis will not be like Hezbollah for a number of reasons. Tehran has done everything required to create similarities between the two organisations; it gave the Houthis’ armed organisation a similar name to Hezbollah (Ansar Allah) and taught them to use similar propaganda slogans like “Death to America, death to Israel”. Its religious curriculum was taught in Houthi schools, and it took over the training and selection of their leaders. It also provided them with military training and weapons.
Despite Iran’s persistence, the Iranians face a big obstacle, and that is the fact that Yemen is not like Lebanon, it is substantially different. Houthis are a small minority in a large society, and whether the war continues or there is peace in the coming years, it will not be easy for them to impose themselves as a dominant force. This is because they only account for five per cent of the total population and live in the province of Sa’da which is very far from the centre of the state. This will make their ability to play a central and dominant role in the country which has a difficult terrain an almost impossible task. Taking control will be almost impossible without fully seizing power in suitable circumstances. In addition to the fact that they are far away from the centre of Yemen and are a minority, they are part of a small sect that differs with Zaidi consensus, and most people follow Zaidism in northern Yemen.
The secret of Hezbollah’s influence is that Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon has given it justification and legitimacy to resist. This is not the case with the Houthis as Saudi Arabia is Yemen’s biggest supporter, both when it was a monarchy and also after it became a republic.
Millions of Yemenis do not have an alternative to their neighbour Saudi Arabia. All of this puts the Houthis in a different situation to that of Hezbollah’s in Lebanon. I am confident that stability in Yemen will make them weaker as the war is what gives them a role and value. By cooperating with Yemen’s political and religious leaders, it is possible to reduce their presence and tame them.