By: Nishikaa Kanakia & Riya Jhaveri, SVKM’s Pravin Gandhi College of Law

Edited by The Editorial Board of SAIL.


The Houthis are a resilient tribe from the northwest region of Saada in Yemen where the Zaydi type of Shiism is practiced. The Zaydi tribe had made it their agenda to fight against corruption. Ever since 2011, a conflict has been observed between the Houthis and the Republic of Yemen Government. This led to the death of Saleh by the Houthis and currently, they have captured the north of Yemen. In 2015, Saudi Arabia decided to meddle in the Yemini civil war and break the power of Houthis in Yemen. It has been observed by the gulf countries that Iran has been supporting the Houthis in their agenda. However, Iran has clearly denied this allegation. Due to the Yemeni civil war, there have been repercussions faced by India and other countries at large. This civil war has led to an immense loss of lives and property in Yemen and has affected the countries affiliated with it as well.


Yemen, a small nation on the Arabian Peninsula, has become the site of severe civilian suffering amid an intractable civil conflict. Many commentators think the battle has morphed into proxy war: Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who toppled the Yemeni government, are arrayed against a multinational coalition commanded by Saudi Arabia. Other fighters like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, together with opposing organizations, have been involved, making this picture complex.

While media coverage of the Saudi involvement depicted war as a binary battle (Saudi coalition vs. Houthis), there was a large number of fighters who had relatively flexible affiliations and allegiance. In the summer of 2019 in Southern Yemen, long-standing tensions broke out, resulting in open combat between the local Allies of Saudi-Arabia and the U.A.E., between the internationally recognized administration of Yemen and the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC). Periodic conflicts persisted throughout 2020, but towards the end of the year, the two parties eventually signed a deal to share power and created a coalition government.   

The Riyadh agreement, which confirms that groups would also share power in the Yemeni government after the conflict in November 2019, was signed by Hadi and the president of the STC. For a number of months in 2020, separatists reneged on the agreement but finally joined a unitary administration representing both North and South. The creation of a government marked some progress in bridging the internal differences in Yemen, but it quickly came into question when the Houthis were accused of a drone strike targeting the plane bringing the cabinet in December 2020; all the ministers were unharmed. As the UN labels the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen ‘the worst in the world’ and as international aid halted in the context of the COVID-19 epidemic and peace efforts delayed, the situation might get worse.


The Houthis come from the north-western region of Saada, Yemen. They exercise the Shia Zaydi form. Around 35% of Yemen’s population is Zaydis. A campaign to restore Zaydi traditions began in the 1980s, challenged by state-funded Salafist ministering in Houthi regions. For more than a decade, Houthi militants challenged the Yemeni government. The Houthi movement has developed over and above Zaydi origins since 2011, and become an anti-Prime Minister Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi movement. The militants have also started to call themselves Ansarullah, or “God’s Party.”

In 2003, The Houthis became politically active against Saleh for supporting the war of Iraq headed by the United States but then allying themselves with him after he resigned as President. Saleh’s followers opposed the UN-backed Hadi administration and were left out in the transitional process, seeking to restore a major position in Yemen. However, he was murdered by Houthi troops in 2017 when Saleh transferred his allegiance to the Saudi-led coalition.


When the Arab Spring in 2011 struck Yemen, Ansarullah joined the demonstration movement and President Saleh was pushed out. The next president was Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.  But, in addition to aid to the new administration, the security and economic condition of the poorest country in the Arab peninsula continued to deteriorate. This allowed the Houthis to tap into the wrath and disappointment of the people and portray themselves as an alternative to the Hadi administration. Saleh, the former president and avowed adversary of the Houthi militants even earned sympathy for the rebel organization from his followers and supporters.

The Houthis unimpeded their military loyalty to Saleh in September 2014 and conquered the Presidential Palace in January. The parliament was dissolved and its power extended in the west and centre of the country. President Hadi fled Sana’s presidential palace and fled to Aden. He resigned and subsequently, the Houthi took over a coup. Saleh split with the Houthis in December 2017 and urged his people to pick up their guns. Within two days, Saleh was murdered and his troops were defeated.

Houthi troops continued attacking the Republic of Yemen (ROYG) soldiers in Marib Governorate at the beginning of March 2021. The Governorate of Marib is ROYG’s final fortress to the north. Moreover, a year ago, the Houthis started offensive operations in Marib. After the latest implementation of the Riyadh Convention 2019, which brought the United Arab Emirates-backed South Yemen independence movement, the Southern Transition Council (STC), to the government in unity with the ROYG, the Houthis may also seek to strengthen their control over northern Yemen. Although it is unlikely that the STC would send forces to protect Marib, the Houthis may now advance the balance of power in Northern Yemen.


 The Houthis are a well-entrenched social and political phenomena on the Yemeni landscape and have an agenda aimed eventually at attaining local objectives such as diced dominance over other Yemenis. In March 2015 Saudi Arabia decided to engage the Yemeni civil war with a military alliance against the Houthi, with the objective of re-instituting the internationally accepted Yemeni regime. Saudi leaders could, however, not tolerate what they regarded as Iranian influence in their southern neighbour. Riyadh has no ground forces and has primarily engaged in air attacks for the Houthis because it knows in the past that Houthis have used ballistic missiles and unmanaged air vehicles to Saudi land. The battle on these rebels has been a cruel conflict in its seventh year, involving the siege of the ports and airports controlled by Houthi which has severely compounded the humanitarian catastrophe in this nation.

There was no way the Saudis, together with their Yemini ally, defeated the Houthis who now dominate much of Northern Yemen and control two-thirds of the people, despite overwhelming military superiority. One factor for the Houthis’ success is the division and struggle amongst the various Yemeni groups. The other is the Houthis’ stronger spirit of combat and ideological drive. The battle was framed against foreign dominance, calling for a strong feeling of nationalism from Yemen. Sooner or later, both the Saudis and their Yemeni friends must recognize that the Houthis remain here.

In February 2021 a Houthi drone assault on Abha Airport hit a passenger airplane in southern Saudi Arabia without any casualties. The Houthis also targeted vessels that cross the Red Sea or land in Saudi ports in addition to an aerial attack.  Although nobody was wounded during the attack, the damaged passage plane at Abha airport was a strong reminder of the risk posed by Houthi rebels to Saudi Arabia, which started a bombing war about 6 years ago that destroyed the poorest nation in the Arab world.


Increased backing from Iran definitely played a major role in assisting the Houthis to become stronger. Iran supplied increasingly modern and dangerous weaponry. In many situations, Iran employs sophisticated networks of smuggling and supply advanced technology components that subsequently the Houthis mix with locally acquired or created ones. This technique has now made it possible for the Houthis to produce short-and long-range drones and an increasingly diverse array of missiles that can strike deep into Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis are seen by many as Iranian representatives. But this is only part of the picture, as the Houthis also enhance their own goals through their links with Iran. They were attacked in conventional terms by a military force that was considered superior and only Iran was willing to assist them. This doesn’t, however, make them Iranian pawns.

The importance of the Houthi movement in this network of non-state entities supported by Iran has expanded Houthi foreign policy.  Houthi-Iran links have gained a special significance since both organizations cooperate more in areas like training and the smuggling of arms. Yemen is increasingly being used as a platform for Iran to deliver weapons to other armed groups. There is also evidence that in the immediate aftermath of recent missile and drone bombing assaults on Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iranian organizations are increasingly coordinating their propaganda operation.


The safety of over 5,000 nationals has been the major worry of India in Yemen. Operation Rahat, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Indian Navy, the Indian Air Force, and Air India were able to remove them. In this evacuation effort, prompt assistance from Saudi Arabia proved to be of tremendous importance. Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked to the King about Indian safety in Yemen and asked for aid in the course of a call. Recalling that the two nations had “strong and close connections,” the Saudi king guaranteed Modi full participation in the early and secure evacuation of Indians from Yemen.

As a result of its strategic position between the Red Seas and the Arabian Sea Yemen is of importance from India’s perspective. Yemen is an IOR-ARC member and has been a leading player in piracy in the Gulf of Aden.  Yemen was also a source of oil and gas during the same period. Yemen’s instability is not in the interests of India.


 The conflict in Yemen is seen by the widespread “profiting and controlling of the financial resources by people and institutions” according to the current UN panel of experts on Yemen report. The longer the de-facto power remains for the Houthis in northern Yemen, the more their rule is acknowledged, the more likely it is that such legitimacy may win greater international recognition. For Iran, its military assistance for the Houthis once again showed the successful approach to increase their regional influence and project force through proxy conflict.

Faced with credible harm to Yemen’s behavior by their troops, leaders in Saudi Arabia could feel driven to cut the military presence of the Kingdom in Yemen, for a number of reasons including expense, military personnel, and platforms under stress, and a chance of better ties with the US. However the Houthis are posing a significant danger to Saudi security, and military withdrawal appears to leave intact the Houthis Militia and North Yemen controls more especially to its allegedly increasing alliance with Iran. If the Houthis cannot be destroyed militarily, then Saudis might assess whether it legitimizes the authority of Houthi by removing its Yemen blockade and negotiating a suspension of fire. Saudi Arabia might also try, in the hope that one day a balance of power shifts to its favor, to continue to put pressure on the Houthis by funding its own Yemenis agents.


The challenge for the future looks to be the intricacies of the situation in Yemen’s internal and regional dynamics. While this is an internal dispute, it actually has a regional dimension and may possibly encircle the whole area. The Iran-Saudi Arabia stalemate provides a significant obstacle to the peaceful settlement of the war within Yemen, despite the United Nations’ attempt to find a political end to the conflict.

The ideal approach to the issue is first of all to make a settlement between warring groups acceptable to neutral players on both sides. Secondly, the long-standing internal complaints of the Houthis must also be addressed. Third, attempts must be made to restore a transitional government as soon as possible. Fourth, to find a peaceful political solution to the crisis in Yemen, the United Nations must bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiation table. 

Notes and References

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