Yemen is at crossroads between two possible futures: a theocracy dominated by the Houthis, or a modern state for all Yemenis. For now, unfortunately, the balance seems tilted towards the first outcome.
Seven years after the onset of the civil war in Yemen, the country is at crossroads between two possible futures: a theocracy dominated by the Houthis, or a modern state for all Yemenis. For now, unfortunately, the balance seems tilted towards the first outcome. The recent Saudi initiative to solve the war in Yemen has been welcomed by most regional and international players. Only one group has loudly dissented to the proposal: the Houthi rebels, who began the war in 2015 by capturing Sana’a and invading the country’s south. The Houthis have won a string of crucial battles in recent years, and perceive that they are winning the war; for this reason, they have been reluctant to commit to a peace initiative that is intended to be the first step toward ending it.
The initiative put out by Saudi Arabia is not the first initiative to end the war that the Houthis have rejected, for reasons related to their belief that the continuation of the war is the only way for the group to survive, and that any cessation of hostilities mean the end of its project. The Iranians, who support the Houthis and view them as an extension of the Islamic Republic—the Yemeni equivalent, approximately, of existing groups in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon—are likewise opposed to a peace deal. For this reason, peace must be in the hands of the Yemenis themselves, who must make clear their support for the peace process and their opposition to a Houthi-Iranian theocracy obtained through violence.
In its media outlets, the Houthi faction uses vocabulary that misleads its viewers—and parrots concepts that, unfortunately, some Arabic-speaking media organizations have repeated. It refers to the Houthi government as the “Sanaa government” or the “national government” to imply that it is the legitimate Yemeni government and those who oppose it are unpatriotic or disloyal.
The biggest misleading statement is that the ongoing war is between the “Yemenis” and the “Arab Coalition.” This is, of course, untrue; the war is between one Yemeni faction, the Houthis, and several other Yemeni factions which are seeking to form a modern civil state. The struggle is between two parties: the Houthis, a component that wants to continue its domination on Yemen, and the dominated components, the rest of the Yemenis who want to participate in the rule of the country.
The assumption that Iran is helping the Houthis to establish an independent state in Yemen is an illusion that only exists in the minds of the Houthi leaders. In reality, Iran only wants to establish a government in Yemen that it continues to control through individuals they planted in Sana’a for that reason. If this plan does not succeed, the other option is to control Yemen through the Houthis’ armed militia, similar to the situations in Lebanon, where the Iran-backed Hezbollah is challenging the Lebanese government, and Iraq, where Iran-aligned armed factions have consistently undermined Baghdad’s authority. This dystopian vision for Yemen is supported by all Iran-backed forces and countries in the region, which have provided the Houthis with support and training.
The Tehran-Sana’a Connection
The ideology of the state that the Houthis want for Yemen is structurally very similar to that of the government in Tehran. The Houthis’ incendiary slogan, “Death to America, Death to Israel” originated in Iran, where it was popularized by Ayatollah Khomeini during and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In spite of the slogan’s spirit, the Biden Administration dropped the Houthis from the FTO designation and only named a few leaders of the group as terrorists, with hopes to reach a deal with the group to end the war in the country.
In reality, to end the war in the country, the Americans need to reach a deal with the Houthis’ backer, Iran. It is becoming more clear that the decision of the Houthis is in the hands of Iran after rejecting the Saudi ceasefire initiative. A few weeks ago, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths went to Tehran to reach a deal with the Iranian government regarding Yemen, but he returned empty-handed. Given Tehran’s behavior, it seems that as long as they have a loyal faction in the country that they can continue supporting, they have no interest in helping to end the conflict. Meanwhile, the international community will continue to talk about the country’s famine without addressing the elephant in the room—the fact that the Houthis have been responsible for the overwhelming majority of the carnage in Yemen, and, moreover, have stolen humanitarian aid and extensively recruited child soldiers.
Yemen in the Dark Ages
The conflict in Yemen was originally a conflict between forces supporting a modern civil state that has clear development plans, and the Houthis, who want to send Yemen back to the times of theocracy. The ideological model that the Houthis want for Yemen is clear: it is similar to that in Iran and other Arab countries dominated by Tehran. These models stand as an obstacle to progress and development that all the communities and people of the region are seeking to achieve, including Yemenis of all backgrounds and faiths. The people who have sacrificed the most to stop the Houthis’ model in Yemen are the Yemenis themselves.
In spite of the Houthis’ battlefield victories, their ruling model—that is, marrying the state and religion—is not acceptable to most Yemenis, who abolished the rule of the Imamate decades ago and have no intention of bringing it back. Most Yemenis want a state that cares for the development of individuals and society through education, civil liberties, and healthcare, and above all a state that accommodates and respects principles of internationally recognized human rights. Yemenis understand that these principles are the only things that will enable the country to be part of the international order and accepted by the international community.
Dr. Mohammad Al-Rumaihi is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Kuwait. He has been an Editor-in-Chief for prominent newspapers and magazines in Kuwait and other Arab Gulf states and was Secretary-General of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Literature 1998-2002.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.