Media CenterPreportsThe historical course of the conflict between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia

4 September، 2021by Mohammed Al-Alai0

Hostility to Saudi Arabia and its political and military presence in northern Yemen since 2015 has been a foundational value of the Houthi group, along with its mission of carrying out a Zaidi revival and its attempts to take the form of a state. This core stance against Saudi Arabia will always be a hindrance against any diplomatic effort trying to ease the war in Yemen.


Mohammed Al-Alai

Understanding the history and psychological differences between the Houthis – the modern extension of political Zaidism (the Imamate) in Upper Yemen – and Saudi Arabia is crucial to analyzing the ongoing conflict in Yemen, a large and complex country in the south of the Arabian Peninsula. In this new political era in Yemen, there is a pattern of thinking that distinguishes Yemeni rulers and actors in how they respond to and interact with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, this large geopolitical entity with its multiple effects on the surrounding countries.

Hostility to Saudi Arabia and its political and military presence in northern Yemen since 2015 has been a foundational value of the Houthi group, along with its mission of carrying out a Zaidi revival and its attempts to take the form of a state. This core stance against Saudi Arabia will always be a hindrance against any diplomatic effort trying to ease the war in Yemen.

While the public discourse of the Houthis, not least of all its basic slogan which was inspired by the Iranian Islamic Revolution, has hostility against America and Israel at its heart; in reality, it has not been possible to turn this hostility into a living practice in Yemen. Instead, Saudi Arabia has become a symbol in which both America and Israel have common ground, so the Kingdom has become, in the Houthis’ ideological system, an embodiment of both countries. Hostility against Saudi Arabia as the core value for the Houthis is similar to how Hezbollah in Lebanon took hostility against Israel as the base for their political and military existence.

Nevertheless, that does not mean that Lebanon and Yemen share the same destiny, considering the differences between Yemen and Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and the Houthis and Hezbollah. Hostility toward Saudi Arabia is a value that is regionalist and sectarian, and cannot sustainably be the basis for a state covering all of Yemen.

In November 2009, the first military conflict took place between Houthis and Saudi Arabia. At the time, the central government of Yemen was implementing its sixth military campaign against the Houthi rebellion, which originally started in 2004.

From the beginning, indications suggested a certain connection between Houthis and the Islamic Republic of Iran, considering its radical revolutionary tendencies and imperial ambitions. Consequently, Saudi Arabia found itself concerned with monitoring and evaluating what was happening in Yemen on its southern borders since 2004. Ending the Houthi rebellion in Saada, the Yemeni governorate, became a common interest of both the central government in Sana’a and the Saudi government.

It was rumored at that time that the Sana’a regime was fighting in Saada to serve a Saudi agenda, following greed for Saudi money. These rumors were popular in the Yemeni press in opposition to the authority of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, which contributed to blurring the legitimacy and legality of the military campaigns against the armed rebellion in Saada. Subsequently, government rhetoric accompanying the war lost a large part of its credibility and mobilizing influence.

For their part, the Houthis did not send any friendly signals toward Saudi Arabia. Suspicion of ideological and logistical ties to the Iranian regime was sufficient to push them as an enemy in relation to Saudi Arabia. Riyadh had no choice but to understand every step from the Houthis as a threatening message, with Iran standing behind it.

In such an atmosphere, and in the context of the sixth round of the war between Yemeni government forces and Houthi militants in Saada since August 2009, the Houthis decided, in November of the same year, to penetrate nearby Saudi territory and kill two border guards. They aimed to pressure Riyadh – as was said at the time – to end its support for the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was accused by Houthi propaganda of subordination to Saudi Arabia, America, and Israel. In their statements to the media, the Houthis claimed that their incursion into Saudi borders would not have happened if the Yemeni army had not been using it as a starting point to attack them.

Responding to the bold move of the Houthis, the Saudi army moved quickly in coordination with the Yemeni government and launched an attack with warplanes of both countries, during which Houthi sites in Saada and the Saudi regions they had infiltrated were targeted.

The airstrikes were painful for the Houthis, but the ground battles were a difficult test for the Saudi army. The military attack did not lead to the eradication of the Houthis as planned, instead giving them a new story for mythical employment in their narrative that explained the facts with a metaphysical logic: we miraculously survived a great war in which we faced two armies and two states.

After five years of confrontation, specifically on September 21, 2014, Riyadh woke up to the news of the Houthi takeover of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. Immediately, an Iranian official stated that his country had seized the fourth Arab capital after Damascus, Baghdad, and Beirut. On March 13, 2015, the Houthis announced that they had conducted what they called a “military maneuver” in the border areas with Saudi Arabia. This was a clear message from their new position as the dominant force in the capital of Yemen to provoke the Kingdom.

On March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia, along with a coalition that included several other Arab countries, launched a military intervention in Yemen to frustrate the progress made by the Houthis toward southern Yemen and restore the internationally recognized President of the Republic, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to power.

The Houthis refused to accept the Saudi justifications for its military intervention, which they considered external aggression on Yemen. Since they took over Sana’a, they stopped complaining as a group in their speeches, speaking instead in the name of Yemen as a state and saying that Yemeni sovereignty and dignity had been infringed by Saudi dominance. Moreover, they claimed that the previous Yemeni rulers had neglected it over the past decades. The Houthi narrative of the conflict with Saudi Arabia combines the religious (Zaidi) and the patriotic; for example, it evokes the activities of Saudi-funded Salafi centers and bodies, which were widespread throughout Yemen, and depicts them as hostile acts targeting the Zaidi sect in its historical core, and against Yemen as a whole.

Salafi activity did not flourish in Yemen in general, or in the “Zaidi region” in particular, until many years after the fall of the political pillar of Zaidism represented by the Imamate. Thus, the Zaidi sect, under the new republican regime, lost its privilege as the core of the state and a base for its legitimacy. Nevertheless, it retained its right to remain side by side with the other Islamic sects present in the country.

Historical Conflicts Between the Zaidis and External Actors

Before the end of the Ottoman Empire, the conflict between the Zaidi Imamate and Sunni Ottomans became radical and existential. On the two occasions in which the Ottomans came to Yemen, their military attempts ended with taking control of Sanaa and installing a Turkish “wali” to rule the country in the name of the Sultan, or Caliph, in Istanbul. Both times, the Zaidi Imamate was in a state of hibernation for a while, and then began and resurrect as an organizational tool for revolution and rebellion against the Turks.

During the so-called “first Saudi state”, at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, Saudi-Wahhabi influence reached positions near Sana’a but soon began to decline, not least because of the unpopular commitment made by the imam of Sana’a to the Wahhabis to demolish graves and shrines that were considered by Wahhabis to be manifestations of polytheism and deviation from the correct belief. Furthermore, the Egyptian/Ottoman campaign led by Muhammad Ali Pasha against the Wahhabis in the Arabian Peninsula, which started in 1811 was instrumental in saving the Zaidi imam of Sanaa.

Historical sources indicate that the Zaidi imam at that time sought the help of Muhammad Ali Pasha. However, saving the authority of the imam was certainly not the goal of the campaign, which sought to impose influence on the coasts and ports of Yemen. The Zaidi Imam in Yemen was Al-Mutawakkil Ala Allah Ahmed bin Al-Mansour Ali bin Abbas (1756–1816), who assumed the Imamate from 1809 to 1816, after whom the Zaidi Imamate moved to his son, Al-Mahdi Abdullah bin Al-Mutawakkil Ala Allah Ahmed bin Al-Mansour Ali (born in 1793 and died on November 28, 1835), who remained imam until 1835.

The Egyptian-Ottoman campaign, led by Muhammad Ali Pasha and Ibrahim Pasha, succeeded in defeating the Wahhabis/Saudis and entered Diriyah, the capital of their first state, in 1818. After the arrest of Abdullah bin Saud, he was taken to Istanbul where he was tried and executed. The authorities then ordered that his head was placed into the barrel of a cannon and fired almost into the Bosporus. Consequently, the Zaidi imam in Sana’a was saved from the first Saudi-Wahhabi threat.

Imam Al-Mahdi Abdullah sent his delegates to the several Yemeni areas that the Ottoman/Egyptian armies liberated from the Wahhabis, in a step similar to the process of Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din’s receipt of the northern Yemen region from the last Ottoman governor, one century later.

There was no major alienation between that Zaidi state and the third Saudi state, which was still in its founding stages at the time. The war that broke out between the two sides in 1934, was the result of a kind of geopolitical rivalry between two traditional leaders, Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din and King Abdulaziz Al Saud, as each was trying to extend his authority over the border regions of Asir, Najran, and Jizan, large areas that became, as a result of the war, part of Saudi Arabia. Historically, however, the regions were subjected to raiding on the part of Yemeni leaders, who claimed a historical right over the area.

Although the 1934 war did not involve entirely sectarian ideological slogans, both parties resorted to exploiting sectarian religious sentiments in the conflict. Nevertheless, the sectarian element was not essential to these events. Militarily, the 1934 war was resolved in favor of Ibn Saud and ended with the signing of the Taif Treaty between the Mutawakkilie Kingdom of Yemen on one side, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on the other. After that, the relationship between the two neighboring kingdoms was regularized, without the sectarian difference between the Zaidi (Shi’a) ruling authority in Sana’a and the Wahhabi (Sunni) ruling authority in Riyadh playing a significant role in deciding attitudes and policies.

In his conflict with King Abdulaziz Al Saud, Imam Yahya was in the position of a recognized state entity, due to the absence of an alternative, unlike the Houthis, who do not have a similar legal status. Moreover, in the current conflict, Saudi Arabia entered the war at the invitation of the internationally recognized Yemeni government, which has a legal foundation under international law.

Although Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din had taken the title of “Commander of the Faithful”, the documents of that period do not include any evidence that the man was promising his supporters the conquest of Mecca as one of the goals of his struggle with Ibn Saud, as was the case with the Houthis in the past years.

Considering the Houthis, at least in part, as heirs to the traditions of the Zaidi Imamate, the conflict historically between the “Wahhabi” Saudi state, since its first inception in the eighteenth century, and the Zaidi Imamate state that was largely present in the heights of Yemen from the end of the ninth century to 1962, was not existential and radical.

Indeed, recent history records that Saudi Arabia moved with all its energy in the 1960s to save the last ruling Zaidi dynasty against the republican liberation revolution that overthrew it in Sana’a. Many leaders of the Houthi group come from families that enjoyed Saudi financial sponsorship in return for their participation in the failed counter-revolution to restore the Zaidi throne.

Salafi (Wahhabi) activity was not the moral and spiritual driving force in the revolutionary action that overthrew the Zaidi Imamate in 1962. On the contrary, the republican revolutionaries embraced a unique mixture of national liberation ideas and convictions, Nasserist, Baathist and, Marxist, as well as reformist religious styles. The ruling dynasty that requested help from Saudi Arabia in 1962 was the direct extension of the Zaidi Imamate that was formed in northern Yemen following the departure of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.

In the 1960s, Wahhabi Saudi Arabia failed to save the throne of the Zaidi Imamate from the danger of the Egyptian Nasserist tide, which saw thousands of Egyptian soldiers participating in a military campaign in northern Yemen to support the revolution. The Egyptian military intervention succeeded in stabilizing the Yemeni republican regime, which was influenced politically and ideologically by the Arab nationalist center in Cairo led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Once again, Saudi Arabia failed in its intervention in Yemen, this time being unable to rescue the deposed Zaidi Imam Muhammad al-Badr and restore him to his throne.

Reading about these incidents and comparing them in retrospect, we can say – in a way that is of course not without simplification and reduction – that we have two Egyptian successes in Yemen and two Saudi failures. In the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Egyptians succeeded in rescuing a Zaidi imam, while the Nasserist Egyptians succeeded in the overthrow of another Zaidi imam in the twentieth century. Conversely, in the nineteenth century, the Saudis failed to overthrow a Zaidi imam, and in the twentieth century, the Saudis failed to rescue another Zaidi imam. It should be noted that the criterion for success and failure here is to control Sana’a, and effectively choose the authority that is stationed there.

The Present Conflict in Historical Perspective

The current conflict in Yemen is rooted in a different ideological and geopolitical context than the previous interventions by Saudi forces, not least of all because of the nature of the Houthis as a non-state entity, which is nevertheless the bearer of the torch of the Zaidi Imamate.

In the current conflict with Saudi Arabia, the Houthis have relied on two discursive elements to mobilize support for their war:

  • Doctrinal/sectarian (stemming from a Shi’a sectarian grounding, linked to the Iran-led “axis of resistance”).
  • Fighting in the name of a specific aspect of Yemeni nationalism, related to rejecting foreign interference in Yemeni affairs.

In other words, the Houthis mobilize two main sentiments and feelings against Saudi Arabia:

  • A general Yemeni patriotism addressing nationalist fervor against the “foreign intruder”.
  • A specifically sectarian message, through which the Houthis belong to a global, Shi’a-linked struggle in which the Islamic Republic of Iran is the leader.

Behind these explicit positions of the Houthis toward Saudi Arabia, however, there is a third, invisible “dynastic” incentive, based on the idea that the leadership class in the Houthi group belongs to the family of the Prophet Muhammad, which means believing not only in their right to rule Yemen, but also the right to supervise the Islamic holy sites in Mecca and Medina. This marks a clear difference with the conflicts of the past, in which the Zaidi Imamate sought only to preserve itself and not to expand northwards through Saudi territory.

Thus the Houthis present two faces. First, they appear as a group trying to become the political heir to the central national state, taking advantage of their control of the capital. Second, they appear as an ideological and military organization with a sectarian character in relation to the pluralistic sectarian composition of Yemen.

Without a realistic approach to a future relationship with Saudi Arabia, the Houthis face continued negative consequences resulting from the state of radical hostility with a much great neighbor that uses its oil wealth to derive great influence throughout the world, as well as to build a well-equipped, modern army.

Nevertheless, the conflict with Saudi Arabia has so far acquired indispensable importance for the internal identity and legitimacy of the Houthis, as an original pillar in the group’s political identity without which it will not recognize itself. However, as long as Saudi Arabia, with its current form and system, its wealth, and its regional and international weight, remains a reality, it is not possible to prevent political developments in Yemen from being affected by its neighbor.

Yemen has witnessed many fateful developments and transitions over previous centuries, regardless of Riyadh’s will and against its desires, such as the republican revolutions in North and South Yemen in the 1960s, and the Yemeni Unity Agreement in 1990. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia has managed to deal with the consequences of these developments and pursue an active engagement and intervention in Yemeni affairs.

The course of the conflict in Yemen is inextricable from the presence and influence of its larger neighbor to the north. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia too is impacted by the disintegration of the Yemeni state, and as history has shown, events at the south of the Arabian Peninsula have the potential to impact the affairs of the entire region.

Mohammed Al-Alai

Mohammed is a researcher at the Arabia Felix Center for Studies. His research focuses on political transformations, their intellectual dimensions, and their historical backgrounds. He is the author of the book “The Collapsed Republic ... A Memorandum on the Collapse and War in Yemen” published in 2021 by Dar Al-Farabi-Beirut.

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