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Red Sea attacks pay dividends for Yemen's Houthis

Jennifer Holleis | Safia Mahdi
May 1, 2024

The Iran-backed rebel group has begun to extend its power locally and regionally. However, its policies are exacerbating Yemen's humanitarian situation and economic crisis.

A Houthi fighter mans a mounted gun
The Houthis have started to leverage notoriety gained in Red Sea shipping attacks to expand their clout in Yemen and with Saudi ArabiaImage: Osamah Yahya/dpa/picture alliance

A two-week lull in attacks by Yemen's Houthi rebels have ended with the resumption of missile strikes targeting Red Sea ships linked to Israel, the United States or nations supporting the international anti-Houthi naval coalition in those waters.

The attacks, which the Houthis have been carrying out since November 2023, are a bid to show solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.

However, while the Iran-backed group has not managed to influence the course of the war between Israel and Hamas, its ongoing attacks have increased the group's popularity to an unprecedented level.

And now, some five months into the attacks, the Houthis are starting to leverage this power boost across Yemen. 

A Sea Viper missile is launched from HMS Diamond to shoot down a missile fired by the Iranian-backed Houthis
The US-led international naval coalition has been downing Houthi drones and missiles in a bid to increase safety for Red Sea cargo vesselsImage: LPhot Chris Sellars/MoD Crown copyright/AP/picture alliance

Houthis are 'capitalizing on popularity'

Yemen is split into Houthi-controlled areas in the north and west, with its capital Sanaa, and areas under the control of Yemen's internationally recognized Presidential Council, which has its capital in Aden.

The two de facto governments are the result of a civil war that began in 2014 when the Houthis overthrew the Yemeni government.

A year later, the conflict escalated further when a Saudi Arabia-led international coalition came to the aid of the internationally recognized government.

Years of war have killed hundreds of thousands of people and have led to one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, according to the United Nations.

Following a United Nations-brokered peace deal between the two rival governments in April 2022, the Houthis became increasingly unpopular "because of their mismanagement, corruption, repression and the fact that the economy was in tatters," Hisham al-Omeisy, conflict analyst and former Information Resources Center director for Yemen at the US State Department, told DW. 

But now, after five months of attacking cargo ships on the Red Sea in support of the Palestinians, "the Houthis are basically riding high on the popularity that they've gotten locally and regionally, pitching themselves as the vanguard of Muslim and Arab nations," al-Omeisy added. "And they're capitalizing on that popularity to expand their control, but also to solidify their rule inside the Yemeni territories where they've launched a massive recruitment drive under the guise of supporting Gaza." 

A flag-waving protester in Taiz holds a sign that reads "Break Taiz Siege" in both Arabic and English
Taiz, Yemen's third-largest city has been under a Houthi siege since 2015, exacerbating the problems faced by the city's 940,600 residentsImage: Abdulnasser Alseddik/AA/picture alliance

No good governance for Yemenis

The increased Houthi popularity has not translated into good governance across the war-torn country.

"The way they are treating Yemenis under their governance is in contradiction with that apparently humanitarian or moral stance that they claim to be taking on the Palestinian issue," Thomas Juneau, a Middle East analyst and professor at Canada's University of Ottawa, told DW.

This is particularly true for Taiz, Yemen's third largest city, and its around 940,600 residents.

Taiz has been under siege for some eight years, and the Houthis continue to block main roads leading into the Aden-government-controlled city.

Water and staple goods also remain scarce.

"We have not had any concessions or seen any initiatives to alleviate the suffering of people in Taiz since the Houthis launched their support of the Palestinians," said Fatima, a 20-year-old mother of three children who lives in Taiz and asked that her last name not be published for fear of retribution.

Yemeni coins stand upright upon the bills that they are meant to replace
New coins issued by the Houthi-run Central Bank were decried as fake by the Central Bank controlled by the Yemeni government Image: JANUSZ PIENKOWSKI/Zoonar/picture alliance

New Yemeni coinage

In the near future, the economic divide and, in turn, the humanitarian situation will likely deteriorate further, not only in Taiz but across all government-held areas.

In April, the Houthi-run Central Bank in Sanaa issued a new denomination of the local currency, a 100 Yemeni riyal coin.

The Houthi-run Central Bank said in a statement that the new coins would replace damaged paper banknotes of the same denomination.

However, the government-affiliated Central Bank in Aden immediately decried the new coins as "fake." 

Economic volatility is already on the rise. 

According to Yemen's Press Agency, in Aden this week, $1 cost 1,683 Yemeni riyals, while the exchange rate for $1 remained fixed at 530 Yemeni riyals in the Houthi-held capital Sanaa.

"Knowing that the majority of Yemenis live in areas under their control and the fact they have a stronger hold than the opposing camp, the Houthis are flexing their muscles and are telling the Yemeni government that they are basically handling fiscal and monetary policies from here on," analyst al-Omeisy said. 

Yemeni security forces standing guard
Yemen's internationally recognized government is a "house of cards" and not able to curb the Houthi's growing influence across the country, observers say. Image: Abdulnasser Alseddik/AA/picture alliance

Houthi goals remain unchanged

Thomas Juneau agrees. "The Houthis' main domestic goal is to emerge as the governing and legitimate authority in Yemen," he said, adding that "due to what they are doing in the Red Sea, they feel that they are in the position to extract more concessions from their domestic rivals, especially the internationally recognized government, but also from their regional rivals, especially Saudi Arabia."

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been open about his wish to exit the costly war in Yemen, but talks have stalled in light of the war in Gaza.

However, experts believe that sooner or later, exiting the war in Yemen will come at the price of accepting the Houthis as Yemen's main authority, despite years of backing the internationally recognized government.

Hisham al-Omeisy is skeptical that the Yemeni government can curb the Houthis' ascendancy. 

"Unfortunately, the Yemeni government and anti-Houthi movement haven't really properly coalesced around a unified national message or plan of action beyond simply opposing the Houthis," he said. "If we are honest, it is a house of cards, and they would need to get their act together to have a solid front that can actually curb Houthi enthusiasm and ambitions of expansion."

Houthis vow attacks until Israel ends war in Gaza

Edited by: Jon Shelton

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa