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Napoleon Bonaparte once famously said that a man will fight harder for his interests than for his rights. In Yemen, the Houthis, also known as Ansarullah, have gained control of most of North Yemen in a civil war against the regime forces of Mansur Al-Hadi, backed by the Saudis and the Emirates. The UN brokered a ceasefire between the Iran-backed Houthis and the Saudi-backed STC (Southern Transition Council). About 80% of the Yemeni population resides in the Houthi-controlled Northern provinces, while the southern provinces, which are rich in oil and gas, are under the control of Saudi and Emirati-backed regime forces.

Ansarullah claims that in 2022 alone, the Saudi and Emirati-backed regimes sold $1.5 billion worth of oil and gas. The pipelines that supply oil and gas to the capital city of Sanaa and Northern Yemen are blocked. The STC, based in Riyadh, is vouching for an independent South Yemeni state, which is unacceptable for the Houthis. While Ansarullah has shown unwavering support for the Palestinian cause, their adventures in the Red Sea have other geopolitical reasons. One of them is to increase their international legitimacy, and the second is to take control of Yemen’s hydrocarbon treasures.

Houthi-controlled North Yemen has become the first Arab country since 1973 to declare war against Israel officially.

Houthis have fired ballistic missiles and drones towards the Israeli port of Elat multiple times since the start of the conflict between Hamas and Israel. The launched missiles were intercepted by the Saudi Air defense system and were shot down before landing in Israel. Saudi Arabia does not want to become a party to this conflict and is trying hard to achieve a ceasefire to prevent the conflict from spreading. Houthis have been targeting Israel-bound commercial ships in the Red Sea for two months.

Where primarily targeting ships owned by Israel or en route to Israel with cruise missiles, drones, and anti-ship ballistic missiles. These attacks occurred in the southern Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, the Gulf of Aden, and even the Arabian Sea. The U.S. announced the formation of a new maritime force to protect the vessels after multiple shipping companies ordered their fleet to halt transiting Bab el-Mandeb Strait or circumvent Africa, creating a global trade crisis.

On January 12, the US and UK conducted joint airstrikes on the military sites of Houthi-controlled regions. The locations that were targeted by airstrikes include the Sanaa airport, Taiz City, and a naval base at the port of Hodeida. “These targeted strikes are a clear message that the United States and our partners will not tolerate attacks on our personnel or allow hostile actors to imperil freedom of navigation,” U.S. President Joe Biden said. In response to President Biden, the Yemeni supreme political council member Mohammed Ali al-Houthi said, “Your strikes on Yemen are terrorism, “The United States is the Devil.”

Houthis have survived thousands of airstrikes in their war with Saudi coalition forces since 2015. Houthis are not new to the airstrikes; neither does it affect their morale nor their capabilities. On the surface, they may appear to be a rag-tag militia with very limited resources. Still, they derive their strength from the mass support they have in Yemen and Iranian military support.

Iran has a covert policy of supporting and arming underdogs throughout the region to resist the big powers and, in return, use those marginalized groups as their pressure tools.

The Houthis have made a strategic move by declaring the Red Sea and Bab Al-Mandeb as a new conflict zone. This decision has been well thought out, as the US and its allies in the region are already trying hard to contain the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas and cannot afford to open new fronts. Moreover, the US is currently dealing with the Russia-Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas conflict. With the presidential elections coming up in November 2024, the Houthis know that it would be challenging for the US to take any definitive military action against Yemen. Donald Trump, who has a significant following in the United States, is against US extraterritorial military engagements, and a military invasion of Yemen could cost President Biden and the Democrats the popular vote.

Furthermore, since the Houthis started attacking the Israeli-bound commercial ships in the Red Sea, their popularity among the masses has surged significantly, generally in the Muslim world and specifically in the Arab countries. Oman, which houses the US bases, has officially denounced the airstrikes on Yemen and has closed its airspace for any future air raids. Houthis have successfully gotten the Western media limelight, although the reporting has been mainly against the Houthis, but it serves their purpose. Houthis want to be seen as an important regional player and main stakeholder in Yemen’s political future. They have very intelligently tied their geopolitical aims to the Palestinian cause.

The control of Yemen’s hydrocarbon resources is the key factor in the current situation. These resources are currently held by the Emerati-supported regime forces and the Political Leadership Council (PLC) led by Rashid al-Alimi. Most of the oil and gas-producing sites are located in the Southern provinces of Yemen, along the Gulf of Aden. Marib has oil and gas fields, with a pipeline towards North Yemen and the capital, Sanaa. The southern province of Shabwa has oil wells and a pipeline that reaches the Gulf of Aden.

The Yemeni province of Hadhramaut is known for its multiple oil wells and pipelines and is governed by the PLC. However, the ports in Hadhramaut are controlled by the Saudi-backed STC. Reports from the PLC suggest that Yemeni oil exports surged from 6.672 million barrels annually in 2016 to 25.442 million in 2021.

The Yemeni economy depends on the export of oil, gas, and other mineral resources, and it is essential for Houthis survival to take back control of those oil and gas fields and the pipelines.

Houthis would have sympathies for their Palestinian brothers and sisters surviving the Israeli onslaught since October 7. But it is important to note that Houthis themselves have been fighting for their survival since 2015. People living in the Houthi-controlled North Yemen are malnourished, and millions are on the brink of starvation due to the blockade, according to the UN. Houthis want their share in the Yemeni oil and gas revenues and want to leverage their negotiating position for dialogue on the political future of Yemen.

Publication Link:https://stratheia.com/geopolitics-behind-the-houthis-adventurism-in-the-red-sea/

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