1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Yemen's Houthis benefit from escalation of Red Sea tensions

January 16, 2024

The Houthi rebels are already winners in the current confrontation with US forces, observers say. It has boosted their legitimacy in Yemen and further afield, and could spell a change in regional power dynamics.

Weapons mounted on trucks with men who look into the camera in Sanaa, Yemen. Next to the trucks, a group of people have gathered with their backs to them
Yemen's Houthis say they support the Palestinian cause, but this conflict is also helping advance their own domestic agendaImage: Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu/picture alliance

The current escalation between Yemen's Houthi militia and the US-led naval coalition in the Red Sea serves the Iran-backed militants in several ways. In fact, it is even welcomed, according to some analysts.

"The Houthis have been looking for an opportunity for confrontation with the United States," said Hisham al-Omeisy, Yemen conflict analyst and former director of Washington's Information Research Center for Yemen.

"For the past eight years, they've been telling their followers that they are at war with the US and with Israel, so this is a golden opportunity for them that they need to capitalize on," al-Omeisy added.

There's been a civil war raging in Yemen since 2014, when the Iran-backed Houthi group began fighting a Saudi-backed government. Nine years of fighting have left Yemen divided into the Houthi-controlled north and west of the country, including the Bab el-Mandeb Strait that leads to the Red Sea, and the south controlled by the internationally recognized government and its domestic allies. Local tribes dominate the east.

Yemen's infrastructure has been badly damaged and the conflict has plunged the population into one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, according to the United Nations.

Meanwhile, the Houthis — officially called Ansar Allah — are in talks with Saudi Arabia over a long-term cease-fire. Later in January, US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking is expected to finalize a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis.

"By forcing the Saudis to accept them [as the national government of Yemen], the Houthis hope that the rest of the world will follow and grant them international legitimacy," al-Omeisy said.

Up until now, only Iran has recognized the Houthis as the legitimate government of Yemen, said Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa in Canada and a Middle East analyst.

"They want to force the international community to deal with them by hijacking ships, by sending missiles, by negotiating with Saudi Arabia, and they want to be seen as having established themselves as a key member in the Iran-led 'Axis of Resistance,'" he said, referring to the network of Iran-backed groups across the region that are opposed to the United States and Israel.

A large field surrounded by a group of people, some of whom have their arms raised in Sanaa, Yemen
Yemen remains divided after years of fighting, but the Houthis seek legitimacy as the country's national governmentImage: Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu/picture alliance

Houthis have already 'won'

The Houthi attacks on cargo vessels in the Red Sea have massively disrupted a vital international shipping route and come, the militia has said, as a response to the Israeli military retaliation in Gaza.

"The Houthi attacks scare me as they threaten our fragile stability," Manar S., a 20-year-old local woman based in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, told DW. "Yemen has not witnessed real peace and stability in nine years."

In her view,  Palestinians in Gaza should be supported, but ideally in ways that don't involve "sacrificing the situation in Yemen again."

Um A., a mother of five in Sanaa, said she is also willing to support the Palestinians "in every possible way. However, hopefully without harming our own country."

"The public is widely behind the Houthis as Yemenis are very passionate about the Palestinian cause," Abdulghani al-Iryani, a senior researcher at Yemeni think tank, the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, said.

He has observed a change in attitude toward the Houthis over the past weeks. 

"The Houthis have finally gained broad popular support after being hated for years, for being very harsh with the people under their control, for their corruption, oppression and supremacist ideology," al-Iryani said.

The Houthis "won this confrontation the day they fired the first missile," he added.

A gathering of men seen in the foreground. In the background a man is handling a large weapon mounted on a truck.
Yemen's Houthis use cheap drones and locally built speed boats while the US-led naval coalition strikes with bombs worth millions of dollars. Image: Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu/picture alliance

Military victory not necessarily the objective

Mohammed al-Iriani, a research fellow at the Yemen Policy Center, said that so far, this fight has not been about a military victory for the Houthis. As it is, the US-led naval coalition against the Houthis hasn't achieved military victory either.

"This gives the Houthis room to provoke further, and their strategy appears to hinge on the expectation that the US, which is currently preoccupied with domestic electoral politics, may be limited in its capacity to respond effectively," al-Iriani said .

Furthermore, this appears to be a low-cost conflict for the Iranian-backed Houthis. A drone strike on a cargo vessel in the Red Sea costs around $1,200 (€1,100), whereas for the US-led alliance, the costs are significantly higher at around $1.5 million (€1.38 million) per bomb, al-Omeisy noted. 

Even a ground offensive would benefit the Houthis, he warned.

"Boots on the ground would bolster the Houthis' legitimacy not only in Yemen but also regionally.

"We've seen a trend over the past few weeks where even anti-Houthi people are now sympathizing with the Houthis," al-Omeisy said, adding that the Houthis have also used the war in Gaza to launch a massive recruitment drive.

"You have to remember, this is a country where 80% of the population is in need of aid and many people are impoverished. So if this situation is going to provide an opportunity for them to put bread on the table, via employment in the army or one of the other factions, they will take it," al-Omeisy concluded. "Yemenis don't want a war, but if it's forced upon them, they're pretty good fighters, as they've demonstrated over the past eight years." 

Strikes against Houthis are only strengthening them: Ian Ralby, Center for Maritime Strategy

Safia Mahdi contributed to this article from Yemen.

Edited by: Cathrin Schaer

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa