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A Cult Leader Who Is Changing Yemen’s Future
Declared dead more than once by the Yemeni government, Abdulmalek al-Houthi is, in 2015, more alive than ever, leading the Houthis, who are now the most powerful players in Yemen. Abdulmalek is young, charismatic and enigmatic. This makes him a cult leader for some, a terrorist for others, and a force to reckon with for all.
Born in 1982 in the northern province of Saada, Abdulmalek is the son of the fourth wife of Badr al-Din al-Houthi, an esteemed Zaydi (Shiite revivalist) scholar. Abdulmalek rose through the Houthi leadership ranks after his much older brother Husayn al-Houthi, founder of the Zaydi Houthi organization, was killed during the on-and-off war between the government and the Houthis that raged around Saada between 2004 and 2010.
Filling a power vacuum that remained after the forced resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011, Abdulmalek and his Houthi followers in 2014 seized the Yemeni capital Sana’a and the government, pushing further east and south for power, finding plenty of support along the way. According to Yemeni political analyst Abdulghani al-Iryani, “he is revered by his followers for religious reasons, which makes him more like a cult leader than a statesman”.
Cult leaders do not, however, usually seize capitals and governments, and there are many Yemenis who like him exactly for that, rather than for his religious views. They consider al-Houthi a saviour, who saved them from a dysfunctional and corrupt government. They feel he has given them more security and less government corruption, at least for the present.
And then there are some who worship him, not for religious reasons but for being the man of the day. “He always speaks with so much confidence and power, it makes me feel I want to be a mistress in his harem and leave this life behind,” said a young Yemeni woman, who asked to remain anonymous. “He will know what to do to keep me safe.”
Abdulmalek al-Houthi appears to know how to blend into a powerful cocktail his charisma, religious zeal and family history to gain support among a population that craves change. What he lacks, though, is experience. “He is an inexperienced young guerrilla fighter who believes that God has given him a special place as a descendant of the Prophet,” says al-Iryani, not giving al-Houthi much of a chance to achieve real political power.
His political inexperience may, however, be just what many Yemenis like about him. After decades of experienced politicians who led the country to the brink of disaster time and again, they feel a young untainted leader is just what they need. Abdulmalek al-Houthi feeds their expectations by telling them he is not after power, but only wants to restore order, eliminate corruption and lower fuel prices.
He may indeed not be after power, at least not in the traditional, governmental sense. “What he wants is not to be a president, he wants to rule but without being in government, that is what he said on more than one occasion,” says Nadwa Dawsari-Johnson, a US-based Yemen expert on tribal relations. “Houthis want power without accountability.” She believes al-Houthi instead keeps others in government positions, so they can be blamed if the situation in Yemen gets worse.
But who will these others be? Although there is no hard evidence for this, many think that Abdulmalek al-Houthi is not acting alone in Yemen’s current game of thrones. He is supposedly supported by Iran – which is thought to be seeking a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula in order to undermine its arch-enemy Saudi Arabia – and by ex-president (and former arch-enemy) Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saleh is still widely popular among Yemenis, including army officers. This, the narrative goes, would explain the ease with which Abdelmalek and his men conquered Sana’a. Saleh simply instructed the officers who remained loyal to him to surrender, thus paving the way for Abdulmalek to seize the city – but not the presidency. That position, the idea goes, would go to Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali.
If this is true, it would make Abdulmalek al-Houthi not only a charismatic zealot with guns but also a shrewd tactician. Saleh would get what he wants – restoration of his power – and Abdulmalek al-Houthi would get what he wants – the position of shadow leader, who can make promises to the Yemeni people without having to take the blame for not keeping them.
“A rebel without a clear cause,” the UAE-based newspaper The National called him a few years ago. Perhaps he is a rebel with a cause after all, but he is a rebel without a cell phone, afraid of being targeted. He does not give interviews, and nobody knows where he lives; he is believed to move from safe house to safe house. He never appears in public, a job indeed better left to the president.