In 2023, the international community hoped that the combination of an Iran-Saudi de-escalation agreement and Saudi-Houthi peace talks were positive signs that the conflict in Yemen was heading towards resolution, but since the summer of 2023 there has been writing on the wall to indicate otherwise. In the past few months, the Houthis have amassed tens of thousands of troops along the key Yemeni battlefront of Marib, targeted coalition forces along the Saudi border killing several Saudis and Bahrainis, presented their new long-range precision weaponry in a September 2023 parade in Sanaa, targeted Israel with long range munitions, and attacked international shipping in the Red Sea. They are escalating on all fronts.
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Yemen’s Houthis have spent the past decade building up their military capabilities, with a notable acceleration in the second half of it. For years, as Riyadh found itself faced with an enemy that was well-armed, well-trained, and infused with radical Shia ideology, it was primarily framed as a Saudi problem. With the Saudi-Houthi war winding down over the past two years, the Houthi regime has directed its attacks elsewhere, and caught the world unprepared.
In 2015, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) rallied an Arab coalition and launched a military campaign in Yemen to restore the country’s legitimate government, which had been deposed by an alliance of Iran-backed Houthis and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Saudi-led coalition pushed back on the Houthi-Saleh alliance for several years, rolling them back from the southern port city of Aden, and into northern Yemen, where the alliance originated. By 2018, it became apparent that the Saudi-led coalition had fought to a stalemate — and the optics of the conflict were extremely damaging for Saudi Arabia’s international image and disruptive to its efforts to diversify the Saudi economy.
In addition, fissures had appeared in the Saudi-led anti-Houthi coalition, when, in 2017, Emirati-backed forces established the Southern Transition Council (STC) which seeks to promote the goal of southern secession and the re-establishment of South Yemen (or “South Arabia” as STC officials call it). There is irreconcilable tension between the more politically powerful government of Yemen, which advocates for a unified Yemen, and the more militarily powerful STC, which calls for Yemen’s partition. At times, this friction has even resulted in firefights between the respective forces, though both have remained members of the anti-Houthi coalition. The mechanism instituted by the Saudis to manage the conflict between the STC and the government of Yemen is the Presidential Leadership Council, which includes officials from both parties, but it is plagued by severe dysfunction, even by standards of Yemeni governance.
During the first two years of war between the Houthi-Saleh alliance and the Saudi-led coalition, the former managed to use capabilities commandeered from the Yemeni military effectively. This was due in large part to their alliance with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been deposed during the Arab Spring, and then brought many of his loyalists from the government, including military professionals, into a coalition with the Houthis. One notable demonstration of the crude but effective tactics of the Houthi-Saleh forces was when they fired an unguided Soviet Tochka missile at a military base in Marib, targeting an unprotected but densely populated section, killing over 50 Emirati troops.
After the Houthis killed former president Saleh in 2017, when he tried to defect, Iran’s Quds Force and Hezbollah took on a greater role in training and arming Houthis. This enabled the group to make a quantum leap in their military capabilities. For example, in 2019, the Houthis almost wiped out the entire Yemeni cabinet by launching precision guided missiles at the Aden airport, just as an airplane carrying senior officials landed — the missiles missed by a small margin. In more recent years, there are many examples of the Houthis combining their advanced arsenal, supplied by Iran, with real-time high quality intelligence to launch attempts on the lives of senior Yemeni officials. Even when these attempts did not succeed, for example in the case of the numerous assassination attempts on the chief of staff of Yemen’s armed forces, their sophistication provided clear indications that the Houthis are no longer the ragtag rebels from the Yemeni backwater of Saadah.
Stuck in a stalemate with problematic coalition partners and increasingly effective Houthi adversaries, since 2020, the Saudis sought to extricate themselves from Yemen and refocus their resources on internal economic development in accordance with MBS’s Vision 2030. They initiated a unilateral ceasefire which has been somewhat reciprocated by the Houthis, and sporadic attempts at negotiation have followed. The Houthis are seeking massive financial compensation from Saudi Arabia, the withdrawal of all coalition forces from Yemen, and the removal of all restrictions placed on air and maritime traffic to and from Houthi-controlled areas. Sensing Saudi Arabia’s desperation to extricate itself from the Yemen mess, the Houthis have increased their demands as negotiations proceeded and sporadically escalated in order to show that they are in no rush to sign a deal. If a Saudi-Houthi agreement is eventually reached, it would likely be on very favorable terms to the Houthis and foreshadow a new and dangerous reality in which anti-Houthi forces in Yemen would be left to fend for themselves without outside support.
While Houthi escalation and targeting of Israel has many long-term causes, one of its immediate triggers is the search for sources of legitimacy and prestige abroad as its popularity wanes at home. In recent months, the teachers’ union and other powerful actors in the Yemeni political landscape have become more openly confrontational with the regime due to the failure to pay public sector employees. One of the Houthis’ key talking points was that Yemen’s dismal economic state was the result of bombardment by the Saudi-led coalition, yet its economy continued to implode despite the ongoing Saudi-Houthi ceasefire. It is likely that the Houthis engaged in their latest attacks on Israel and international shipping to show their public that despite the Yemen’s economic collapse, they are making the country into an international player with that cannot be bullied or ignored.
The challenges of devising an effective response to the Houthis are the result of a fundamental difficulty in influencing the decisions of an actor that is guided by a radical and paranoid ideology, possesses military capabilities that provide significant leverage, and has little to lose. The US-led international task force to combat Houthi disruption of shipping through Bab al-Mandeb may deal with the immediate symptom of Houthi attacks, but it will hardly address the incentives for Houthi aggression. The Houthis may even find international forces’ entanglement with them, despite its costs, to be a badge of honor that will play well among their domestic audience.
Taking steps which target the Houthis’ soft underbelly of public opinion, perhaps as a complementary arm to counter-piracy efforts, may stand a better chance of yielding a deterrent effect. If the Houthis are searching for international prestige, the best way to convince them to stop doing so in destructive and dangerous ways is to create consequences that make them look foolish. For example, it might be well-advised to respond to Houthi attacks by launching airstrikes in Sanaa – but instead of hitting Houthi targets, aiming for Palestinian terror groups present in Yemen. In addition to creating a sense of embarrassment among the Houthis, who would be exposed as unable to protect their Palestinian “guests” in Sanaa, the absence of a direct strike on the group itself may reduce the risk of stumbling up the escalation ladder.
The Houthis appear poised to maintain some form of perpetual friction with external entities, as peacetime would prove a more challenging environment to justify their misrule over 20 million Yemenis than war has been. While there is no silver bullet for managing the Houthi issue, it is necessary to think asymmetrically about how to deter an adversary with long-range missiles, an extremist worldview, and a $700 GDP per capita.