Nobody could have predicted that Abdel Malek al-Houthi would become the most powerful man in Yemen. He looked up to his father, Badreddin al-Houthi, a prominent religious cleric who challenged the expansion of ultra-conservative Sunni ideas. But it was his elder brother, Hossein al-Houthi, who founded Ansar al-Allah (‘supporters of God’). The religious-political armed group – more commonly known as the Houthis, after Hossein’s family name – is the most dominant force in Yemen today.
The Houthis were formed to protect and advance the interests of Zaydi Shiites, a minority sect that ruled Yemen for centuries until 1962. Most Zaydi Shiites live in the northern city of Saada, where the Houthis clashed with government forces for nearly a decade beginning in 2003.
Hossein was killed in battle in 2004. His father took brief control of the group before he was killed himself in 2005, leaving Abdel Malek in charge at the age of 25. By then, the young leader had already demonstrated that he was a clever field commander and a defiant figure.
In 2009, Abdel Malek al-Houthi appeared on al-Jazeera just days after the Yemeni government claimed that it had killed him. He accused former President Abdullah Saleh of colluding with the United States (US), an alliance, he said, that prioritized foreign interests over the lives of Yemenis.
Despite his nationalist rhetoric, al-Houthi did not gain much support outside of his stronghold in Saada. His anti-Semitism – the Houthi flag reads death to Israel and curse the Jews – and frequent rants about the acute perils of the US and Saudi Arabia made many Yemenis suspicious that the Houthis were following in the footsteps of the Iranian regime.
The dislike for Saudi Arabia was understandable, since the kingdom had long financed fundamentalists to attack the Houthis in Saada. But most Yemenis feared that the Houthis aspired to control the entire country, as Zaydi Shiites had done more than half a century earlier.
For some, the Houthi takeover of the capital Sanaa confirmed those suspicions. By October 2014, the group had firm control of the north. Months later, it succeeded in driving out acting President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi from the capital. That was the last straw for Saudi Arabia, which quickly organized a coalition to defeat the Houthis and reinstate their man Hadi as president.
By then, al-Houthi was already sharpening his rhetoric by speaking about issues that resonated with more Yemenis from various regions in the country.
“After the [Arab Spring], Abdel Malek began addressing the nation, talking about shared injustices, the price of fuel, drone strikes. He’s gained a lot of confidence. Nowadays he speaks clearly with purpose, he doesn’t beat around the bush,” Fernando Carvajal, a former Yemen-based NGO consultant who studied the Houthis, told Middle East Eye in late 2014.
“After decades of old men ruling, al-Houthi represents a new face in the Yemeni political scene,” added Yemeni analyst Abdul Ghani al-Iryani. “His politics are conservative and his campaigns are often violent, but he’s a fresh face. A young man matched with power and assertiveness.”
Al-Houthi is often compared to Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s Shiite militia Hezbollah. Like Nasrallah, al-Houthi brands himself as an anti-imperialist and gives fiery speeches. Yet he retains an air of mystery that Nasrallah lacks.
Not only does al-Houthi rarely appear in public, but he even keeps the identity of his closest aides – with the exception of one or two – secret out of fear that they could be targeted. He also appears to be a bit more pragmatic than Nasrallah, though both have shown a willingness to form alliances with former rivals as long as they do not relinquish power.
In al-Houthi’s case, he cooperated with Saleh’s forces to fight the Islamists and Salafists in 2014. Saleh once said that ruling Yemen was like dancing on the heads of snakes, implying that a ruler sometimes had to ally with rivals until it was opportunistic to change sides again.
The last time Saleh – who ruled the country for 35 years – tried to change sides by joining the coalition, the Houthis ambushed and killed him.
“Today is the day of the fall of the conspiracy of betrayal and treason,” said al-Houthi after news of Saleh’s death. “It’s a dark day for the forces of the [Saudi] coalition.”
“The [alliance] lasted this long only because of the Saudi-led military intervention. This alliance was never sustainable because Saleh and the Houthis are enemies and they never trusted each other,” Nadwa al-Dawsari, a senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, told The National just three months before Saleh was killed.
In March 2018, al-Houthi promised to join Nasrallah’s fighters against the Israeli army if a battle erupted in Palestine or Lebanon. Adopting Hezbollah’s ideological rhetoric, he said that the Israelis were the “true enemy” of all Arabs and Muslims.
“We will not be reluctant to send new fighters in a new war. Many of Yemen’s tribesmen are ambitious to fight against Israel, and they are looking for the day to participate along with the freemen,” he said in a televised speech.
However, Joost Hilterman and April Longley, Yemen experts at the non-profit International Crisis Group, warned that the Houthis are not Hezbollah despite their vocal support for the group and their growing ties to Iran. Those ties, the two experts wrote, have limits.
The group notably ignored advice from Tehran not to capture Sanaa back in 2014. Al-Houthi’s independence thus suggests that he is primarily driven by a domestic agenda rather than a desire to help Hezbollah and Iran exert control over the region. That could change, of course, if the Saudis leave him no choice but to increase his reliance on Iran.