Red Sea attacks give Houthi rebels a long-sought regional role

High profile gained by threatening global trade could complicate an already fragile road map to peace in Yemen

A newly recruited Houthi fighter takes part in a ceremony to mark the end of his training, in Sanaa, Yemen, on January 11, 2024. Reuters
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Attacks on shipping in the Red Sea by Yemen's Houthi rebels with the aim of ending Israel's war in Gaza are slowly turning the group of mountain fighters into a prominent regional player, a recognition they have long sought to acquire, according to experts.

The threat they pose to global supply chains has attracted global attention, marking their transition from an Iran-backed local rebel group to an influential militia in the Middle East.

There are also growing fears that the Houthis could use this threat as leverage in any negotiations to end the war in Yemen after 10 years of fighting that has caused one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world.

"Before the war in Gaza, they were seen as a local group," Maysaa Shuja Al Deen, a Houthi expert and senior researcher at the Sanaa Centre for Strategic Studies, told The National.

"But the world has begun to see them as an Iran-backed faction ... part of the axis of resistance," she said.

The Houthi militia are from a tribe in the poor, mountainous Saada region of northern Yemen. Since 2014 they have controlled vast areas of the north, centre and west of the impoverished country, purging pro-government figures from the civil service and public life, establishing their own school curriculums, and indoctrinating thousands of young people at summer camps.

The Houthis began attacking ships in the Red Sea – one of the world's busiest shipping routes – in October after Israel launched its war in Gaza to eradicate Hamas, another Iran-backed group, and have vowed to continue until the war stops.

The attacks have led to the Pentagon forming an international mission to protect shipping in the waterway and threatening the rebels with imminent "consequences".

"The Houthis are definitely in a different position than they were in a couple of months ago. As a result, they have managed to gain global attention. And with it, they've gained global relevance," maritime security expert Ian Ralby told The National.

"It is both farcical and also extremely dangerous for the prospects of longer-term peace in Yemen, as the government of Yemen will never accept the Houthis using this situation as a way of gaining renewed legitimacy inside of Yemen's conflict," Mr Ralby said.

Days before the October 7 attacks by Hamas on Israel that triggered the Gaza war, the Houthis arrested people celebrating the anniversary of the creation of the Yemen Arab Republic in 1962, an event that the Houthis oppose.

The risky show of dissent reflected the group's increasing unpopularity among ordinary Yemenis as taxes go up and governance remains weak in Houthi-controlled territory.

But since they began the attacks on what they say are Israeli targets, the Houthis' image at home has been bolstered.

"So many people believe that within Yemen itself; the Houthis' involvement in the war on Gaza has helped them gain legitimacy in the areas they control – as if to paint them as defenders of Yemen from American and Israeli aggression during a time that Israel launches brutal attacks on Palestinians," Ms Shuja Al Deen explained.

Yemen's warring sides were slowly moving towards political peace agreement before the Gaza war began, but the Houthis' newfound status as an important member of Iran's regional proxies means they will be unlikely to accept any deal without major concessions from the internationally recognised government.

"They were essentially muddling along through the peace process, slowly moving towards being resigned to an outcome that they had not wanted. It wasn't what they had fought for, or what they'd risked their lives for over the last decade. They wanted control of all of Yemen," Mr Ralby said.

When the opportunity came to use their slogan of "death to Israel", the group took it as a chance to make a bigger name for themselves, he said, thereby threatening to complicate an already fragile roadmap to a lasting peace deal.

"The Houthis have very much used their attacks as a way to recruit internally and re-enliven people's willingness and lust for war," he said.

The Houthis' top negotiator, Mohammed Abdulsalam, sought to allay fears about the prospects for peace in remarks on Thursday.

The attacks in the Red Sea have no impact on the peace process under way with Saudi Arabia, with the mediation of Oman and the United Nations, he told Reuters.

"It has nothing to do with what is happening in the Gaza Strip, unless the Americans want to move other countries in the region to defend Israel, which is another matter," he said.

Updated: January 12, 2024, 12:55 PM