Shooting missiles toward Israel and attacking ships sailing through the Red Sea, Yemen’s Houthi militia has been gaining popularity across the Middle East and building regional clout that could help expand its power at home, analysts say.
The United States announced late Monday that a coalition of countries would seek to protect ships against the Iran-backed militia, hours after the energy giant BP said it had stopped sending tankers through the Red Sea, a vital shipping lane which has become an increasingly dangerous route because of Houthi drone and missile attacks.
Across the Middle East, where the war in Gaza has left citizens seething with anger at Israel and the United States — and in some cases, at their own American-backed governments — people have hailed the Houthis as one of the few regional forces willing to challenge Israel with more than harsh words.
“What they did has given us dignity, because they did this in a time when everyone was watching idly,” said Khalid Nujaim, who works at a medical supply company in Sana, the Yemeni capital, which is controlled by the Houthis.
How have the Houthis grown?
A once-scrappy tribal group, the Houthis have taken over much of northern Yemen since they stormed Sana in 2014, gradually increasing their military capabilities and effectively winning a war against a Saudi-led coalition that spent years trying to rout them.
Now that the most intense fighting in Yemen’s civil war has largely died down, the armed group has increasingly functioned as a de facto government.
They have described their recent attacks as a campaign in solidarity with the 2.2 million Palestinians living under Israel’s siege and bombardment of Gaza, which was launched in response to the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas.
That campaign has transformed the Houthis from a local and regional force into one with a global impact, said Yoel Guzansky, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
“At the end of the day, what they really want is a bigger stake in Yemen, and perhaps they want to do that through becoming a global problem,” said Mr. Guzansky, a former Israeli official.
With the Houthis on the verge of a peace deal with Saudi Arabia that would potentially recognize their control over northern Yemen, the war in Gaza is “a massive opportunity for them to get legitimacy in region,” said Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni research fellow at the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, the London-based research group. “Right now everyone who is in the region is confusing the Yemenis with the Houthis, and for the Houthis, that’s the best thing that can happen.”
Do the Houthis have regional support?
Iran has cultivated the Houthis for years, mirroring its efforts over the last three decades to build up other militias, including Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and extend its reach across the Middle East.
Seeking new ways to menace Saudi Arabia, its longtime rival, Iran integrated the Houthis into its network of militias, delivering military aid that helped transform the group during Yemen’s civil war, according to American and Middle Eastern officials and analysts. The Houthis’ arsenal now includes long-range drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles.
In statements announcing their attacks, the Houthis call themselves the “Yemen armed forces” — brushing aside the presence of an internationally recognized government and other armed groups based in the country’s south. Last week, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a senior member of the Houthi movement, posted a warning on social media outlining the risks of traveling in the Red Sea, telling ships not to travel to “occupied ports in Palestine” and to be prepared to respond to orders from “the Yemeni navy.”
These days, wherever he goes in the region, Ahmed Nagi, a senior Yemen analyst at the International Crisis Group, finds that people are thrilled to learn that he is from Yemen, and quickly begin “talking about the Houthis and how brave they are,” he said.
“This is a very deep reflection of public opinions across the Arab countries at this moment,” Mr. Nagi said. He expressed concern that people might increasingly believe that they cannot trust their state actors, and that nonstate actors like the Houthis are their only hope to challenge what they see as Western hegemony.
How do the Houthis relate to Palestinians?
Support for the Palestinian cause and hostility toward Israel have long been pillars of the Houthi narrative; “Death to America, death to Israel” is in the group’s slogan. Part of the way they frame themselves is in opposition to American-backed Arab leaders, whom they view as “just mercenaries for the West,” Mr. Nagi explained.
Arab governments that once went to war with Israel and led an oil embargo to punish its Western backers have mostly reacted to the war in Gaza with public condemnations, aid campaigns and diplomatic efforts to push for a cease-fire, reinforcing a sense of impotence among some of their citizens who would prefer to see them cut ties with Israel or take other, more forceful actions.
At a news briefing last week, Eylon Levy, an Israeli government spokesman, described the Houthis as Iranian proxies “with the self-awareness of cartoon villains,” calling their attacks “a clear threat not only to Israel, but also to international peace and security.”
Using military force against Israel also helps the Houthis evade challenges on the domestic front, Mr. Nagi said. As Yemen’s civil war moves to a new phase, they are facing pressure from people asking for basic public services or for their long-delayed salaries as civil servants to be paid, he said.
While it is not the only reason behind their attacks, “this is a way out from that dilemma,” Mr. Nagi said. Now the message is essentially: “Don’t speak about anything, because we are in a war,” he said.
Shuaib Almosawa contributed reporting from New Delhi, Talya Minsberg from Tel Aviv and Ephrat Livni from Washington, D.C.