At first sight, a visitor to Sa’ada could be forgiven for thinking that the province bows to the federal government, centered in the capital of Sana’a, yet in reality, complete control is in the hands of the Houthis. They oversee everything down to the smallest detail, which can complicate matters when the Houthis clash with other groups in the province. The religious composition of the Houthis places them at odds with the rest of the political and religious groups in the region, rendering the situation highly combustible.
The Houthis have taken to releasing statements hostile to the United States and Israel. Their growing incendiary rhetoric has been especially noticeable in the capital lately, sparking controversy as well as political and popular uproar.
Moreover, Houthi rhetoric seems to match that of the Iranians, prompting debate about Iran’s relationship with the Houthi movement. Some believe that the former provides funds and ordnance to the latter in a bid to expand its influence in a strategically important region in Yemen, located only a stone’s throw away from the Yemeni–Saudi Arabian border.
In addition to waging war against the Yemeni ruling regime—accused by the Houthis of human rights abuses and of discriminating against them—in past years, the Houthis have fought a series of battles against regional tribes and subjected many of them to their influence. They are also continuously at war against Sunni groups in Sa’ada, especially the Salafist groups based in Dammaj, near the city of Sa’ada. The Salafists accuse the Houthis of undermining their sectarian and political influence.
Recently, Asharq Al-Awsat visited the city of Sa’ada, the capital of Sa’ada province, accompanied by the UN envoy to Yemen, Jamal Bin Omar. During the visit, Bin Omar held talks with Houthi rebel leader Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi. The talks revealed that the Houthi movement has armed men positioned in every section and alleyway of the city. They control all aspects of life in the city, while the government departments and the military are merely window dressing.
A number of prominent Yemeni military leaders who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat underscored that they are confronting armed groups who have near-total control over the province and leave nothing to the Yemeni authorities. They said that Bin Omar’s visit restored some prestige to the state authorities in the city, allowing them to drive in military vehicles and wear military uniforms, something that had hitherto been forbidden for fear of being an easy target for Houthi militants.
Brig. Gen. Hassan Libuza, commander of the military in Sa’ada, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the army is trying to coexist with the status quo in the Sa’ada province . . . At times, the Yemenis fight and other times there is reconciliation,” he said, referring to the intermittent fighting between the army and the Houthis over past years.
The military commanders with whom Asharq Al-Awsat met give the impression that they are overmatched, despite their superiority in both in numbers and technology, due to the Houthis’ monopoly over the Sa’ada province’s levers of power. This has been the case since the Houthis took to the streets demanding the overthrow of the Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh in early 2011. The crucial factor in this equation is that the armed group known as ‘Victorious’ dominates all aspects of life in Sa’ada. Some have said that the state does not exist in Sa’ada as it does in other Yemeni provinces in the north, claiming that power in Sa’ada belongs to the Houthis alone.
The governor of Sa’ada, Sheikh Fares Manaa, who also happens to be an internationally recognized arms dealer, was unable to meet with Asharq Al-Awsat because he was traveling outside of the province. However, it was telling that when the UN envoy met the Houthi leader at an underground location at Sa’ada’s Executive Office, all security measures were overseen exclusively by members of the Houthi movement.
In the city of Sa’ada, which has been called ‘the city of peace,’ the Houthi presence is ubiquitous: posters depict the movement’s founder, Hussein Badreddin Al-Houthi and banners lambast US and Israeli policy while others bear Iranian slogans, something previously unseen in Yemeni history. Furthermore, the Yemeni authorities accuse Tehran of supplying the Houthi movement with arms.
The UN Security Council has commissioned investigations and formed committees to look into these allegations. It is also noteworthy that the presence of armored vehicles in Sa’ada surpasses even that found in Sana’a and, what is more, these armored cars are new models and are equipped with modern weaponry.
Brigadier General Libuza said that security in Sa’ada is divided into two parts: when the Houthi group hosts events or gatherings, they provide the security, and when there are state gatherings, official state security is on duty. However, one of the leaders of the Salafist parties in Yemen asserted that the government presence in Sa’ada province is a formality and nothing more.
In a discussion with Asharq Al-Awsat, Mohammad Musa Al-Ameri, the leader of the Salafist Rashad Party, said: “There is a group that maintains militias and participates in the political process. It holds sway over a portion of the Republic of Yemen, in the Sa’ada region for instance. All of the power is in their hands, from the local authorities, the banks and district attorneys to the management of prisons, religious sites and school curricula.”
According to Ameri, “The people of Yemen find this unacceptable, insofar as it cleaves off a section of the Republic of Yemen in a manner that is incompatible with the peaceful political process. It is unacceptable that a person can simultaneously take part in the peaceful political process and maintain illegal armed groups.”
Ameri believes the Houthis have the right to exercise their religion. However, “It becomes problematic when any sectarian or non-sectarian group resorts to operating outside of the law; this will lead to discord between the various components that makeup the Yemeni people,” he said.
Ameri added that “it is incumbent upon the Houthi movement, or any other group for that matter, to throw down their arms and forsake maintaining militias and subject itself to the authority of the state and allow the state control over all areas within its borders.”
Regarding the possibility of dialogue between the Houthis and Salafists, Ameri told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We are now conducting the conference for the National Dialogue. We are letting our stance be known, just as they and the rest of the political forces are doing. We have no particular problem with the Houthi movement. It is they who have a problem with the Republic of Yemen in general. The problem is not the concern of a particular political party; it is a concern of all Yemen.”
The Salafist leader believes that “Sa’ada province has been hijacked and now exists outside the framework of the Republic of Yemen; the state’s presence there is only a formality. The strange thing is that the central government in Sana’a finances the activities of the local authority in Sa’ada despite the fact that it has no influence there. This is cause for wonder. It could possibly be the only place the world where a state allocates funds to an area over which it has no influence.”
The rebellious and militarized Houthi group of Northern Yemen has transformed into a political group, calling itself “Ansar Allah.” It is taking part in the National Dialogue conference with representatives of its own, while at the same time playing the role of the opposition to the Yemeni Government of National Reconciliation and President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. In addition, it publicly opposes the Gulf Initiative, which is also a part of the National Dialogue.
Houthi propaganda in Sana’a has become more rampant than what is found in the Sa’ada province, the movement’s stronghold. It is also evident that the Houthi militants are highly trained, feeding speculation that they receive military training in Iran and Lebanon.
In the past, the Houthis had been limited to the Sa’ada province. But after the fall of the regime, they spread to the rest of Yemen’s provinces, recruiting politicians from different groups who are well known in the Yemeni political sphere. Sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that “in many Yemeni provinces, Iranian money plays a role in attracting supporters to the Houthis. They have ties with some factions of the Southern Movement, foremost the faction led by former South Yemen vice president Ali Salem. Mr. Salem now resides in Beirut under the protection of Hezbollah, after his close association with Tehran was revealed.”
The Houthis are alleged to be training a number of young Yemenis in Beirut in media and military practices and then sending them to areas in southern Yemen. Reports also indicate that Houthis have been fighting in the ongoing war in Syria alongside the Syrian regime forces with Iranian and Hezbollah support, especially in the city of Al-Qusayr.
There are rumors that Iran is providing further support to some of the groups in Yemen, particularly the Houthis, by smuggling arms. Yemeni authorities have presented evidence of this allegation, and the United Nations launched a direct investigation after the interception of an Iranian ship carrying weapons in Yemeni waters with members of the Houthi movement aboard.
Retired general turned military analyst Mohsen Khasrov told Asharq Al-Awsat that the ongoing political process in Yemen is “the primary target of the weapons smuggling by Iranian and Turkish companies and everyone else involved who wish to destabilize Yemen. These actors have political ambitions and arms dealers are exploiting Yemen’s current circumstances. They are located in the Sa’ada province, Jahana Buni Matr, and Al-Heima in Sana’a province.”
Khasrov underscored that the new arms deals in Yemen for the Houthis and other radical groups include “a grade of new weapons that are smuggled into Yemen: weapons used in assassinations, sniper equipment and armor previously unavailable in the Yemeni arms market, weapons with night vision, and pistols equipped with silencers.”
The activities of these groups will ensure that Yemen continues to teeter on the brink of the abyss. State sovereignty will continue to erode in the Yemeni province of Sa’ada and in other areas under rebel control in Amran, Hajjah, Al-Jawf and elsewhere. The conflict will rage unchecked, fueled by the Houthis’ control over financial resources and their imposition of Zakat (Islamic tax) or, as they call it, “Khamas.”
At a time when questions surrounding the future of Yemen abound, the current tensions and violence surrounding the Houthis’ increasingly assertive actions impacts not only the country’s northern areas, but the entire Yemen and the wider region.