The sustained attacks on international merchant shipping in the Red Sea by the Houthis of Yemen in support of Hamas in the Gaza war, could divert the attention of the West and its allies from the conflict in Gaza.

The Houthis’ attacks constitute a direct threat to the powers’ basic interest which is a smooth flow of world trade. Major merchant shipping lines are now avoiding the Red Sea and are going round Africa.

According to Al Jazeera, 12% of world trade; 12% of oil trade; and 8% of CNG trade pass through the Red Sea. And 8.8 million barrels of oil and 4.1 million cubic feet of LNG traverse it per day.

The United States has formed a 20-nation international force under a project entitled “Operation Prosperity Guardian” to combat the Houthis. The Indian Navy deployed Guided Missile Destroyers INS Mormugao, INS Kochi and INS Kolkata, and also long-range maritime reconnaissance P8I aircraft in the area after the merchant vessel MV Chem Pluto, with 21 Indian crew members, was struck by a drone about 217 nautical miles from Porbandar last Saturday.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince on Tuesday and the two leaders “agreed to work together for peace, security and stability” in the West Asia region.

In a post on X, Modi said, “Held a good conversation with my Brother HRH Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on the future of Strategic Partnership between India and Saudi Arabia. We exchanged views on the West Asia situation and shared concerns regarding terrorism, violence and the loss of civilian lives. Agreed to work together for peace, security and stability in the region.”

A statement by the Indian Prime Minister’s Office added that the two leaders emphasised “the need for maintaining maritime security and the freedom of navigation.”

According to the Western powers, the Houthis, being Shiites, are a proxy of Shiite Iran and that Iran has been supplying weapons to the Houthis to take on Israel and Arab nations like Saudi Arabia which are soft on Israel.

But Iran has flatly denied the charge and insists that the Houthis are acting on their own accord.

Nevertheless, the Houthis and Iran have common cause. One of them is to promote the Shiites vis-à-vis the Sunnis in the Islamic world’s power struggles. The other is that both have a deep grudge against the Americans, their allies in the Arab world and Israel.

Apart from these, the Houthis have their own reasons to take on the US, Israel and the West in general.

The Houthis’ raison d'etre is in the politics of Yemen essentially. The Houthi are a militant movement in northern Yemen. The movement was initiated by the , a Yemeni politician and political activist from the Zaydi sect of Shiite Islam.

The objective of the Houthi movement is to promote Zaydi revivalism. The movement calls itself Anṣar Allah (“Defenders of God”) but is popularly known as the “Houthi movement” acknowledging the role of its founder, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi. Since 2004 the Houthi movement has been in armed rebellion against Yemen’s internationally recognized government.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Zaydis have been one of Yemen’s main political constituencies. In 1962 the Imam of the Zaydis was overthrown and forced into exile. A military regime—the Yemen Arab Republic—was set up in place of the Imamate. This was met with fierce resistance from the Zaydis. The military regime kept thwarting the Zaydi elites’ political ambitions.

In the 1970s there was an injection of Wahhabism (i.e., a Saudi Sunni sect) that undermined the core of the Zaydi doctrine and challenged the authority of Zaydi elites. In retaliation, the Shiite Zaydis embraced Shiite symbols, fostered by Iran, openly, creating tension with the Yemeni Wahhabis who were inspired by the Saudis.

In 1990, the Yemen Arab Republic and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen to its south were united. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, unification offered a political opening for Zaydis and the Zaydi elites formed the Al-Ḥaqq Party.

But the Al Haqq party was in sharp conflict with the Wahhabist Al Iṣlaḥ (Reform) Party. The charismatic Al-Ḥaqq founder-leader, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, began fostering the “Believing Youth”, a network of Zaydi youths intended to challenge Wahhabi youth networks.

The “Believing Youth” initially received support from Yemen’s government, but its growing popularity and its criticism of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government led to State aid being cut off in 2000.

The conflict sharpened after President Saleh supported the US “War on Terror” in 2001 and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Saleh regime began cracking down on the Al Haqq. During the armed resistance, the Al Haqq leader, Hussein Houthi, was killed by Yemeni government forces. The leadership of the movement of Al Haqq passed on to his brother Abdul Malik al Houthi.

Al Haqq’s armed resistance to the Saleh government increased following popular dissatisfaction against it. After the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia and Egypt toppled their respective Presidents in early 2011, Yemenis called for the end of the Saleh regime. In November, Saleh signed an internationally mediated agreement to hand power to his Vice President, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. But Sleh was the power behind Hadi.

The Hadi Presidency gave more importance to the Wahhabi Al Iṣlaḥ Party, to Al Haqq’s chagrin.

In July 2014, Hadi’s administration cut fuel subsidies to address the widening budget deficit. Popular protests erupted. In September 2014, Yemeni security forces opened fire on protesters in the capital Sanaa, killing several. This escalated armed confrontation culminated in the Houthi takeover of parts of Sanaa. In late January 2015, Houthi fighters occupied the presidential palace, and Hadi was forced to resign.

But the following month, Hadi emerged in Aden and retracted his resignation. He also secured international military intervention to drive back the Houthi rebels from Sanaa.

A Saudi-led campaign against the Houthi rebels began in March 2015. Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia, where he set up a government in exile. The United Nations made efforts to mediate between the belligerents. But the negotiations failed.

In late 2017, Saleh announced his readiness to engage in dialogue on the demands of the Saudi-led coalition. But the Houthis ousted Saleh’s forces from Sanaa and, on December 4, killed Saleh.

The port city of Al-Ḥudaydah (Hodeidah) was the primary source of imports and revenue for the Houthi rebellion. In June 2018 the Saudi-led coalition advanced on Hodeidah. But, because the port was also a lifeline for humanitarian aid, the United Nations intervened and mediated a cease-fire that came into effect in December, the Encyclopaedia Britannia says.

The Houthi rebels were presenting an increasingly formidable challenge for the Saudi-led coalition. Not only did they gain ground against the coalition in Yemen, but struck Saudi territory with drones and missiles. The Houthis claimed responsibility for an attack in September 2019 on the oil-processing facilities in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia.

The Western powers said that Iran’s clandestine “Quds Force” was responsible for the growing sophistication of Houthi attacks. But Iran refuted this allegation.

The Gaza crisis which began on October 7 added another reason for the Houthis’ conflict with Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia. The Houthis put the Shiite-Sunni conflict on the backburner and openly expressed support for the Hamas which is a Sunni organization.

The Houthis’ struggle has many strands. They stand for the Zaydi community, Shiism, anti-Wahhabism, as well anti-Western imperialism, all in go. They seek to defeat Israel in Gaza. Their attacks against Western shipping in the Red Sea are an expression of their support to Hamas.

The Houthis are likely to carry on this fight regardless of the opposition from the world’s powers. Most recently, the Houthis staged a drone attack on the Israeli pott of Eilat, directly challenging Israel.

An end to the turmoil in the Middle East is therefore not in sight. On the contrary, an increase in it is on the cards.

Cover Photograph: A Houthi rebel at a devastated site in Yemen.