Profile: Who are Yemen’s Houthis?

Although considered a branch of Shiite Islam, the Zaydis are sometimes referred to as the Sunnis of the Shiites

Manuel Almeida
Manuel Almeida - Special to Al Arabiya News
Published: Updated:
Read Mode
100% Font Size
7 min read

Watched by Yemeni soldiers scattered around Sanaa’s Tahrir Square, a large crowd of Houthi rebels gathered on Sept. 23 to listen to Abdul Malik al-Houthi’s televised speech. “These great efforts created this great success – victory for all the people, forcing a response to popular demands," the Houthi leader said, two days after the rebels tightened their control over the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.

Until very recently, this would have been unthinkable: a rebel group once mostly confined to the Saada and Amran governorates now calling the shots in the capital and taking over key state institutions.

On Tuesday Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi appointed Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak (his office director) as the country’s new prime minister. Three weeks ago the Yemeni government and the Houthis signed a deal on the formation of a new national unity government. But the Houthis promptly rejected the Mubarak’s appointment. Amid this, more and more in Yemen and the region are asking about what the Houthis believe in and what their true objective is.

The Houthis (also known as Ansar Allah, or Partisans of God) belong to the Zaydi school of Shiite Islam, named after Imam Zaydi Ibn Ali, who led a revolt in the eighth century against the Umayyad Caliphs.

Although considered a branch of Shiite Islam, the Zaydis are sometimes referred to as the Sunnis of the Shiites. Why? Because there are substantial differences between the Shiite Twelver imamate doctrine that is dominant in Iran and Zaydism, whereas the doctrinal gap between Zaydism and mainstream Sunni Islam is relatively narrow.

The Zaydi Imams (Haashimites) ruled much of the north of Yemen for more than 1,000 years. But in 1962, the republicans overthrew the last Zaydi Imam, Mohammad al-Badr, in a move that led to the north Yemen civil war.

While all Houthis are Zaydis, not all Zaydis are Houthis. The history of the latter begins in the mid-1990s with the creation of a political and paramilitary group called the Believing Youth, established by Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi. Hussein al-Houthi was a member of parliament and of the Zaydi political party Al-Haqq (The Truth). When Al-Haqq supported the southern separatist ambitions led by the Yemeni Socialist Party, they became a target of the ire of the General People’s Congress of then President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Hussein al-Houthi fled, allegedly to Syria and then to Iran where he spent time in the holy Shiite city of Qom.

Upon his return from Yemen, Hussein al-Houthi broke with Al-Haqq. He thought the party was not radical enough in challenging the government. He moved on to create the Believing Youth party in 1997 and led a more aggressive form of Zaydi activism.

The resulting political and ideological split between traditional Zaydism and the revisionist Zaydism initially led by Hussein al-Houthi is what the Yemeni analyst Adel al-Ahmadi refers to as the “Flower and the Rock,” respectively the pro-establishment Zaydis and the revisionist Houthis. Some Zaydi tribal leaders and Saleh’s government often accused the Houthis of selling out to Iran’s interests, converting to Twelver Shiism and seeking to establish Shiite rule in the north of Yemen. The Houthis have long denied these accusations. In turn, they claim to counter the decaying of traditional Zaydi identity and fight against the expansion of Salafism in Yemen. The Houthis blamed Saleh for allowing the Salafists to infiltrate the Yemeni state and strongly criticized the government’s ties to the United States.

Tensions between the Houthis and the government increased considerably in the early 2000s, with massive anti-government demonstrations led by the Houthis. Between 2004 and the Arab uprisings that led to the downfall of Saleh, the government and the Houthis had fought six wars with terrible humanitarian consequences for the population of the north.

In 2004, Hussein al-Houthi’s followers were engaged in anti-government demonstrations and all sorts of disruptive activities including breaking into mosques. When the government issued a call for Hussein’s arrest, his followers, who then became known as the Houthis, responded by attacking government forces. In September of that year, during the first Saada conflict, Hussein was killed by security forces attempting to capture him.

Yet the Houthi family’s domination of the movement’s leadership did not abate with Hussein’s death. His father (a prominent Zaydi cleric, also called Hussein) assumed the spiritual leadership of the movement. By 2006, Hussein’s younger brother Abdul Malik al-Houthi became the new leader of the rebellion. Abdul’s other brothers, Yahia and Abdul-Karim, are also senior leaders of the group. Abdul’s brother-in-law, Youssef al-Midani, is the group’s deputy leader.

Saleh’s government repeatedly claimed Abdul Malik had been killed or seriously wounded but it is apparent now that he is alive and well and believed to be in a safe haven in the Houthis’ Saada stronghold.

According to April Longley Alley, a Yemen specialist with the International Crisis Group, "The Houthis are capitalizing on widespread frustration with the government and the recent rise in fuel prices to rally support and extract political concessions."

Alike Al-Hirak (Yemen’s southern separatist movement), the Houthis have been very critical of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference and the inclusion of Saada in the Azal region subordinated to Sanaa. The Houthis feel they were marginalized politically and economically by previous governments. They took advantage of the weakness of the Yemeni state to push for changes that could address their grievances.

But beyond that goal, the Houthis are also pursuing a strategy of punishing two of their arch-rivals, the Islamist Islah Party and the Salafists, who have long been in open confrontation with the Houthis.

Perhaps influenced by the thought that the Zaydis lost many of the privileges they had under the rule of the northern imams, the Houthis may become too emboldened and greedy with their recent advances. This can permanently undermine Yemen’s already fragile political transition process.

Top Content Trending