Mis-framing the Houthis: The European Debate Focuses on Iran, And Eclipses Yemen

Eleonora Ardemagni, Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)

 

The way the public debate in Europe[1] has framed the Houthi movement since it began attacking Red Sea shipping in late 2023 is a case of mis-framing. The debate has produced an incomplete and thus fallacious framing which tends to disregard the agency of the Houthis while focusing on its assumed political dependency on Iran.[2] Since October 7th and the following opening of the Red Sea crisis by Yemen’s Houthis, the European public debate about the Zaydi Shi′a movement (also known as Ansar Allah) has centred on Iran’s interests and strategies, stressing the proxy-client relationship assumed to govern relations between the Houthis and Tehran. In my view – and that of many Yemen experts – the Houthis are partners, but not proxies, of Iran. They are an armed movement with a local genealogy and leadership, which first of all pursues to consolidate and expand its authoritarian rule in Yemen merging part of the Zaydi tradition with Khomeinism, in rejection of the central government’s authority, of the Saudi-backed rise of Salafism in Yemen and the way economic resources and religious affairs have been managed by the government since the 1990 unification. In this framework, the Houthis have gradually developed a partnership with Iran and its allies in the region, especially since Saudi Arabia has begun the military intervention in the country in 2015.[3]

What is more salient for my purposes than the proxy-partners dispute is that such an Iran-centred approach to the Houthi issue has eclipsed Yemen itself from the European debate, removing its civil war and the internal scenario that enabled the rise of the group led by Abdel Malek Al Houthi from the discussion. This phenomenon has been dominant in European media, and it has also affected most of Europe-based think tank productions in the context of the Red Sea crisis. In the majority of cases, journalists and experts have concentrated – especially in the early phase of the crisis – on how the offensive the Houthis conduct against international navigation in the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden fits into Iran’s regional strategy during the Gaza war, and the role Tehran plays in the maritime crisis, rather than on the Houthis’ own motivations and interests.

The Houthi maritime offensive should instead be seen within the broader context of the Yemen war, started in early 2015 after the Houthis’ coup in Sanaa, and current power balances in the country. The fact the European public debate about the Red Sea crisis is Iran-centred and overshadows Yemen disregards the Houthis’ agency as a political and military actor, thus offering an incomplete picture which risks negatively affect policymaking, since poor background and inaccurate framing are likely to led to misleading policy recommendations.

Against this backdrop, reframing the European debate about the Houthis on Yemen is a priority for knowledge production, which should both improve academic and analytical approaches to the crisis and also enable a more effective policy response to their violent attacks against freedom of navigation. This reframing effort can benefit from a closer look at the Houthi movement’s genealogy and group trajectory. Doing so, making sense of when the Houthi-Iran relationship has started, and how it has evolved, can be a very useful reframing exercise.

The European discovery of the Houthis`. Two dynamics, the same mis-framing

Two entrenched dynamics have contributed to mis-frame the Houthis in the European debate, maximizing the focus on Iran while eclipsing Yemen. The first dynamic relates to the widespread lack of knowledge about the Houthis, and Yemen more broadly. Before October 7th, European newspapers and TV channels did not publish in any depth about, or cover, the Yemen war, especially in my country, Italy. For too long, this conflict has been ´off the information radar`, as it was considered –in a short-sighted way- peripheral to European interests due to Yemen’s geographical position but also because of the absence of a ′migrant threat` to Europe (differently from Libya and Syria) and of the absence of Russia’s involvement in the country (differently from Syria and Libya, again).

European media and public opinion ´discovered` the Houthis only because of the impact on shipping caused by the Red Sea attacks since late 2023. At that point, the media then tended to oversimplify the issue mis-framing the Houthis as Iranian proxies executing Tehran’s orders. This helped to reduce the complexity and provide ´a label` to the unknown through a plausible but misleading heuristic scheme. Portraying the Houthis merely as Iran’s puppets was the easiest way to frame the Red Sea crisis exclusively as a direct fallout of the Israel-Hamas war, thus providing a linear, effortless narrative to the widely distracted European audience vis-à-vis international politics.

The second dynamic regards the research angle from which most of the Europe-based analysts and experts have conveyed perspectives about the Houthis to public opinion after October 7th. Most of the articles and analyses published by experts about the Red Sea crisis have focused on Iran’s role in Yemen, the typology and quantity of weapons Tehran provides to the Yemeni group, or the implications of maritime disruption on global economy and trade balances. More broadly, Houthis’ attacks have been analysed through the regional lens of the “escalation risk”, or the “enlargement risk” in the Middle East. Conversely, only a very small quantity of Europe-based think tank’s articles about the Red Sea crisis have investigated the history and the strategy of the Houthis as an armed movement, the goals they would pursue through the attacks, and current conflict balances in Yemen.[4]

The Iran-centred research angle followed by Europe-based experts can be partly explained by the limited number and media presence of Europe-based Yemen experts and the experts’ widespread incentive to focus on topics of media interest such as Tehran’s leverage in Yemen and the Israel-Gaza war. As a result, Iran’s role and goals in Yemen and in the Red Sea crisis have monopolized the European debate about the Houthis, with both media and experts widely mis-framing the armed political actor.

Observing the Houthis as armed political actors: A reframing attempt.

A 2020 Report on the Houthis by the American RAND Corporation acutely observed that “although we have learned much about the Houthis since 2015, many crucial questions remain unanswered. And absent this information, observers tend to fall back on old prejudices. But analysts should avoid falling into this trap. The Houthis, like Iran, are a strategic actor with clear interests. At their core the Houthis are focused on domestic issues and historic grievances”.[5]

To demonstrate this, it can be helpful to chart the political-military trajectory of the Houthi movement since its foundation trying to reframe the European debate about the Houthis from Iran to Yemen. This effort doesn’t aim to understate the decisive role Tehran played, and has been playing, in supporting the evolution of the Yemeni movement from a local guerrilla group to a regional actor with significant military capabilities. Rather, such a reframing can contribute instead to highlight the often-neglected agency of the Saada-based movement and its evolving relationship with power, putting Yemen again at the centre of the debate. Analyzing the Houthis first of all as an armed political actor also allows to better identify when and how the Iranian variable has intervened in shaping the group’s path.

1980s-2004: Resistance to power. The Iranian Khomeini as the Houthis’ inspiring model

At an early stage, the linkages between the embryonic Houthi movement and Iran were ideological, more than religious (both belong to the Shi′a confession of Islam, but the Houthis are Zaydis while the Iranians are Twelvers, so they follow different branches), as they shared a similar worldview. The topic of the “resistance” to the Yemeni government, the US and Israel was central in the Houthis’ formation. Husayn Al Houthi, the founder of the movement in early 2000s who had previous political experiences with Zaydi Shia political parties (Hizb al-Haqq) and formations (The Believing Youth), built much of his political discourse upon the opposition against “arrogance” and “corruption”.

At the very outset of the war on terror launched after 11 September 2001, Al Houthi condemned the security-oriented alliance the Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh established with the US against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This provided him with an effective argument to target both the internal (the government) and the international (the US) power. At that time, the Houthi slogan “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse upon the Jews, Victory to Islam” was shouted for the first time by Al Houthi’s supporters in Sanaa against Saleh. In his collection of lectures (“Malazim”), Husayn Al Houthi frequently mentioned the Ayatollah Khomeini as an inspiring leader not because he was an Iranian or a Shi′a, but because he “resisted” to the Western pressure.[6] The founder studied in Iran in the 1980s and had contacts with Shi′a religious seminaries abroad, comprised in the Shi′a holy city of Qom (Iran), but combined the anti-imperialist message of Khomeinism with the distinctive Zaydi religious traditions from which the movement emerged.

2004-10: Rebellion against the power. Iran starts limited weapons provisions.

According to the UN, Iran started to provide a limited number of weapons to the Houthis in 2009, as Saudi Arabia had military intervened in the Saada wars after the Houthis performed border raids crossing the kingdom’s territory. The six rounds of the Saada wars, fought in 2004-10 between the Houthis and Yemen’s army (supported by the Republican Guard and tribal Salafi militias), represented a watershed for the movement. Fighting started in Saada, the Houthis’ stronghold in the upper north, gradually expanding in two directions: down to Amran and northern Sanaa and up till the Saudi border. In 2004, Husayn Al Houthi was killed by Yemen’s army.

The Saada wars can be considered a rebellion against the central power: it turned into an attrition war that exhausted the Yemeni army and allied forces although the Houthis weren’t able to transform fighting groups into a coordinated and synchronized combat force. As of 2009, “the Huthi phenomenon is not yet an insurgency” since lacks a political agenda; also, it isn’t an organized entity, even though “it may develop in this direction”.[7]  With regard to Iran, a confidential UN report seen by AFP in 2013 suggested the existence of “a pattern of arms shipments to Yemen by sea that can be traced back to at least 2009,[8] the year in which Saudi Arabia reacted to the Houthis’ cross-border ambushes intervening with air power and artillery on the Yemeni territory.

2011-15: Revolution against the power. Iran systematically provides weapons.

Iran has begun to systematically provide weapons to the Houthis since 2015, in the context of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen following the Houthis’ coup in Sanaa. The Houthis joined popular protests against Saleh’s government in 2011, calling their movement Ansar Allah (Partisans of God) to reach a wider Yemeni audience. The Houthis didn’t start the revolution; however, they largely profited later from both popular and elite discontent. They derailed the institutional transition process (2012-14), forging an alliance of convenience with former president Saleh against the interim government, and then setting up camps in the capital to denounce government’s economic measures (mid-2014). In this way, the Houthis were able to take the power in early 2015: they seized institutional palaces in Sanaa, placed the interim president under house arrests, emanated a constitutional declaration and formed a revolutionary committee. Therefore, the Houthis upgraded their military capabilities first of all thanks to Saleh’s power bloc, and the support of the majority of the regular army which still sided with the former president, and, since 2015 onwards, due to the increasing provision of weapons by Iran.

2017-24: Capture of power in Yemen and maritime disruption. Iran steps up weapons provision and training.

The 2015 war, still formally ongoing, has allowed the Houthis to increase their military capabilities, structuring as a political organization and also as an economic actor in held territories. The Houthis have gradually captured the power in the northwest,[9] first placing supervisors alongside local officials and then taking over fully the state machine after they killed Saleh in late 2017. From that moment on, the Houthis have consolidated their de facto government. Differently from other Iranian-backed armed actors in the region, they are largely autonomous from Tehran’s money, relying upon taxes, customs duties, confiscation of properties/lands, revenues from fuel and telecommunication sectors, smuggling,[10] while receiving a limited financial support by Iran.

During the war, Iran has played a decisive role. The al-Qods force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and also Hezbollah have provided training to the Houthis, with military advisers also teaching how to internally assemble and build drones. In 2016-22, the Houthis targeted Saudi Arabia with missiles and drones and, to a lesser extent, the United Arab Emirates. In 2019, a medium-range ballistic missile was launched for the first time against Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have been partially integrated in the “axis of resistance” led by Tehran, for instance with the establishment of the Jihad Council in Yemen to further coordinate military strategy,[11] even though preserving a significant degree of autonomy in decision-making.

Since late 2023, maritime attacks against international navigation in the Red Sea, occurring also with Iran’s intelligence support, have allowed the group to gain in regional status and media visibility, disrupting a collective interest like freedom of navigation. In terms of political language, the Ayatollah Khomeini is missing in the speeches of the current leader Abdel Malek Al Houthi: when he mentions Iran, this is mostly related to the “resistance” against Israel, which therefore remains a key issue.[12]

Many Reasons for Reframing

A deeper look at the Houthi movement’s trajectory demystifies many of the oversimplifications the mis-framing of this armed political actor has spread, in times of heightened media attention. Although sharing a worldview, the Houthis weren’t created by Tehran, so they can’t be considered its puppets, but rather partners. The Houthis play with Iran’s ′team`, but they also have profited on the material (ex. weapons, training), and immaterial (ex. political support, media, political discourse) assistance coming from Tehran and the axis to advance their own goals in Yemen. The military and political rise of the Houthis as regional actors wouldn’t have been possible without the Iranian military support. Nevertheless, the Houthis are a Yemeni actor with their own agency. Observing the Houthis through these lenses sheds light on the local genealogy of the group and agenda, as well as on the incremental tightening of the relationship with Iran. Reframing the European debate about the Houthis from Iran to Yemen allows first of all to recalibrate the analytical and media representation of the group, in order to better grasp what’s going on.  Moreover, this effort can also benefit policymaking, favouring the elaboration of more effective tips and recommendations about the Red Sea crisis.

 

 

[1] This article focuses on the European countries and not on the US. In my view, the Western debate about the Houthis in the Red Sea crisis has been in fact more nuanced than the European one, especially since US think tanks’ analyses tended to provide more background, thus consistency, regarding the Yemen war and the relationship between the Houthis and Iran. This could be related to the stronger knowledge and attention by US think tanks to Yemen and the Houthis with respect to European ones, mainly because of: the US drone warfare campaign against AQAP and IS in Yemen (2002-ongoing), started after the 2000-2001 al-Qaeda’s attacks against American targets (USS Cole; 9/11); the intelligence and logistical support provided by the US to the Saudi-led Coalition intervening in Yemen since 2015 to defeat the Houthis.

[2] Framing refers to how individuals construct and organize meanings in everyday life. See the seminal work of Erving Goffman (1974). Frame analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, New York: Harper & Row. In this essay, misframing builds upon the term introduced by Nancy Fraser (2008) in her philosophical work on justice: Fraser defined misframing a typology of injustice occurring when a dominant frame wrongly denies to a group of people the chance to take part to distribution, recognition and ordinary-political representation. Nancy Fraser, “Abnormal Justice”, Critical Inquiry, 34:3, 2008, pp. 393-422.  Since the meaning I convey to this term in the essay builds upon Fraser’s conceptualization but presents differences, I refer to my version as mis-framing.

[3] See some of my previous publications about the Houthis and the Yemen war: “Beyond the Axis: The Houthis Now Are Selling Their Own “Brand”, in ISPI Dossier “A Global Gamble: Yemen’s Houthis After Gaza”, (edited by E. Ardemagni), Italian Institute for International Political Studies, February 15, 2024; “The Yemeni-Saudi Border: The Huthis and the Evolution of Hybrid Security Governance”, in A. Hamidaddin (ed.), The Huthi Movement in Yemen. Ideology, Ambition and Security in the Arab Gulf, KFCRIS Series, I.B. Tauris-Bloomsbury, 2022, pp. 259-272; “Yemen’s Defense Structure: Hybridity and Patronage After the State”, Journal of Arabian Studies, Vol. 10, Issue 1, 2020, pp. 72-89; “Beyond Yemen’s Militiadoms. Restarting from local agency”, The European Union Institute for Security Studies, EUISS Conflict Series Brief 8, April 2020; “Yemen’s nested conflict(s): Layers, geographies and feuds”, ORIENT-German Journal for Politics, Economics and Culture of the Middle East, No.2, 2019, pp. 35-41; “The Huthis: Adaptable Players in Yemen’s Multiple Geographies”, CRiSSMA-Catholic University of Milan, Educatt, N° 25, 2019; “Patchwork Security: The New Face of Yemen’s Hybridity”, in ISPI-Carnegie Dossier “Hybridizing Security: Armies and Militias in Fractured Arab States”, Italian Institute for International Political Studies and Carnegie Middle East Center (co-edited with Y. Sayigh), October, 30 2018.

[4] Some of the few examples are: Farea Al-Muslimi, “The Houthis won’t back down after US and UK strikes on Yemen”, Chatham House, January 12, 2024; Helen Lackner, “The Houthis in Yemen Gain the World’s Attention”, Orient XXI, January 10, 2024;  Baraa Shiban, “The Houthi Attacks Stem from a Failed Policy of Appeasement and Containment”, RUSI, December 20, 2023;

[5] Trevor Johnston et al., “Could the Houthis Be the Next Hizballah? Iranian Proxy Development in Yemen and the Future of the Houthi Movement”, RAND Corporation, 2020, p.7.

[6] M. Almahfali, “Transformation of dominant political themes from the founder to the current leader of the Huthi movement”, in A. Hamidaddin (ed.), The Huthi Movement in Yemen. Ideology, Ambition and Security in the Arab Gulf, Bloombsury-I.B. Tauris, 2022, pp. 37-55

[7] B. Salmoni, B. Loidolt, and M. Wells, “Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen: The Huthi Phenomenon”, RAND Corporation, 2010, p.234.

[8] Al Arabiya, “Iran arming Yemen’s Houthis since 2009: U.N.”, May 1, 2015.

[9] Michael Knights, “The Houthi War Machine: From Guerrilla War to State Capture”, CTS Sentinel,  11:8, September 2018.

[10] UN Panel of Experts on Yemen, Letter dated 21 February 2023 from the Panel of Experts on  Yemen addressed to the President of the Security Council, S/2023/130.

[11] The Council is headed by the leader Abdel Malek Al Houthi, with a jihad assistant from the al-Qods and a deputy jihad assistance from Hezbollah. See M. Knights, A. al-Gabarni, C. Coombs, “The Houthi Jihad Council: Command and Control in ′the Other Hezbollah`”, CTS Sentinel, 15:10, October 2022.

[12] M. Almahfali, op. cit.