The 2011–2012 Yemeni revolution (Picture: Al-Jazeera/WikiCommons)

US and British missiles are pounding Yemen several times a day, with the launch of 420 airstrikes since January according to the Houthi movement.

But US officials recognise that this barrage has failed. Tim Lenderking, the US special envoy to Yemen, told a press conference on 3 April, “We know that there is no military solution.” This admission underlines the bitter experience of previous military interventions in Yemen by global and regional imperialist powers.

Data on the wretched conditions of life for the majority of Yemenis after nine years of regional and international military intervention should be a call to action. 

According to the government’s own reports, British aid is directly feeding at least 100,000 Yemenis a month. Even this is a tiny fraction of the tens of millions who need humanitarian assistance.

The grim spectacle of millions of pounds of expensive military machinery being deployed to attack one of the most impoverished countries in the world is not a new one.

Nor have such strategies worked well in past conflicts between regional and global powers and Yemeni forces.

The Houthi movement’s current relative success in maintaining military control and political power in Yemen is largely a result of the humiliating failure of a war which cost Saudi Arabia and UAE billions of pounds.

The price paid by ordinary Yemenis was incalculably higher. The UN estimated that between 2015 and 2021 the war killed 377,000 people, with at least 150,000 dying as the direct result of armed conflict. British-made and supplied weapons were responsible for much of this destruction.

News of the air strikes against the Houthi movement in Yemen by a Saudi and UAE-led military coalition in March 2015 was full of the same rhetoric which dominates reporting today. Saudi Arabia’s official press agency said the intervention was against the “aggression of the Houthi militias, which were and are still a tool in the hands of foreign powers”.

UAE’s foreign minister tweeted that “the strategic change in the region to Iran’s benefit, whose banner was carried by the Houthis, cannot be ignored”. 

Yet their overconfident predictions of a quick victory proved entirely false. The 150,000 troops, which Saudi news channels claimed at the time were being lined up for a ground offensive, were a mirage.

Instead, the coalition turned first to its airpower—supplied and supported by the US and Britain—pounding civilian infrastructure, slaughtering mourners at funerals and guests at weddings.

This failed to dislodge the Houthis from the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, where they had seized control in 2015. 

Saudi and Emirati generals then looked to their allies in Sudan to supply the missing troops. By 2016 up to 40,000 Sudanese soldiers were fighting in Yemen, drafted as mercenaries from regions such as Darfur, western Sudan, through a mixture of intimidation and economic coercion.  

The coalition’s intervention deepened, rather than healed, bitter divisions among the political and military forces backing the government of Abed Rabbo Mansur Hadi.

The Yemeni president spent most of the war in exile in Saudi Arabia while his Saudi patrons competed with their Emirati allies for influence over the fractious collection of pro-government militias, which dominated areas outside of Houthi control. 

The UAE supported Aydarous al-Zubaidi, a powerful leader with the Southern Movement, which has campaigned for the secession of south Yemen from the north since 2007. Al-Zubaidi took control of Aden in 2017, ousting Hadi’s government from power. 

Division among their opponents certainly helped the Houthis survive, but this is not the whole story. Perhaps the biggest mistake Saudi and Emiratis officials made was to believe their propaganda that the Houthis were simply Iranian puppets.

In fact, the movement’s leaders mobilised deep religious and social grievances behind their military campaigns, drawing on a decade of experience contesting the Yemeni state before their takeover in 2015. 

The politics of the Houthi movement are complex. Their religious ideas are drawn from the Zaydi branch of Shi’a Islam, which has been present in Yemen since the late 9th century.

Zaydi scholars have historically argued that political and religious authority should be exercised by descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

In contrast to the doctrines of Twelver Shi’ism, which is the state religion of Iran, Zaydism does not place ordinary believers under the leadership of a strict clerical hierarchy.

In many ways, the religious practices and beliefs of Zaydis in Yemen are very similar to those of Sunni Muslims from the Shafi’i denomination who form a slight majority of the Yemeni population. The two religious groups have co-existed in Yemen for centuries, even using the same mosques for prayer. 

It was the rise of new religious currents within Sunni Islam, and in particular the emergence of Salafism, which spurred the development of the Houthi movement. Salafism is a conservative trend promoted aggressively by the Saudi authorities.

Members of the Houthi family organised a religious youth movement during the 1990s in order to compete with the popularity of Salafi preachers. There was lots of reaction to their denigration of Zaydi customs and beliefs as ‘un-Islamic’.

The “Believing Youth” ran summer camps combining religious lectures with sports activities which attracted thousands of teenage boys and young men. The revival of Zaydi religious beliefs took place in a context shaped by growing social contradictions in a region of Yemen that had been relatively isolated until the early 1980s.

Until the construction of the first paved road in 1979, the city of Sa’da had been a ten-hour journey from the capital Sana’a.

Yet within a few years, nearly a quarter of northern Yemen’s adult male population had left the region to work in the Gulf.

While migrant workers were able to send money back home, and were exposed to new ideas and experience abroad, their situation was precarious.

The authoritarian monarchies of the Gulf were quick to punish Yemenis for their leaders’ supposed support for Saddam Hussein in Iraq during the war of 1990-1.

They forced hundreds of thousands of Yemenis to return while increasing competition over agricultural land and water. 

The Yemeni government at the time had emerged out of the unification of the Yemeni Arab

Republic and the Soviet-aligned People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1990. Its dominant figure was Ali Abdallah Saleh, himself from the same area of northern Yemen as the Houthi family.

Saleh’s alliance with the US was to play a crucial role in the transformation of the apolitical religious revival movement.

Initiated by the Houthi family it transformed into an armed insurgent group locked in bitter confrontation with the state. 

The US government’s “War on Terror” provided dictators like Saleh ample opportunities to acquire new weapons and dress up their dirty wars and internal repression as part of a global crusade against “Islamist terrorists”.

Meanwhile, many ordinary Yemenis were horrified to see US bombs raining down on Afghanistan and Iraq, and outraged by US support for Israeli attacks on the Palestinians.

When Husayn al-Houthi began to channel some of that anger in sermons and speeches during 2004, Saleh responded by sending troops to Sa’da, triggering an armed rebellion that persisted over the next seven years.

The Houthi movement also tapped into economic grievances to build a base, rallying support behind well-founded charges of corruption against Saleh and his regime. 

By 2011, Saleh’s rule was tottering. The Houthi insurgency had played a role, but it was only one part of a much wider picture of rising discontent.

Across the whole of Yemen, north and south, the majority were experiencing worsening poverty.

Rural communities had been hit by the collapse of agriculture, while urban professionals and workers battled to make ends meet with rising prices.

The revolution of 2011 was a struggle for dignity against an autocratic elite which connected rural and urban people in a mass movement for change. 

The hopes of dignity and justice would go unfulfilled. Yemenis got a new Western and Saudi-backed government which quickly became deeply unpopular.

The Houthi movement’s leaders joined forces with their former enemy, Saleh who still commanded a lot of support within the army.

For all their radical claims to be standing up against injustice, they were happy to do a deal with the former dictator. They did so in order to launch a military attack on the Saudi-backed government in late 2014. 

The Houthi alliance with Saleh wasn’t an accident but highlighted the movement’s limited vision of change to a top-down process of swapping one elite for another.

The 2011 revolution showed the promise of a very different road to liberation through struggle from below.

Anne Alexander is the author of Revolution Is The Choice Of The People: Crisis and Revolt in the Middle East & North Africa. Buy it from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, for £12. Phone 020 7637 1848


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