Shiite Militants Take Yemeni Capital

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    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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Amidst the noise of U.S.-led coalition bombings against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria, one could easily ignore one other major development in the region. This time it is a Shiite militant group — the Houthi movement — based in Yemen, which has taken over the Yemeni capital in concert with Yemeni tribal fighters as well as the tacit support and encouragement of Yemen’s ousted president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The arrival of the Houthi militants in Saana coincided also with the resignation of Prime Minister Mohammed Basindawa. The move opened the way for negotiations between the militants and President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, as well as the possibility of the formation of a new government with representatives from the new rulers of Sanaa.

News of the Houthi takeover in Sanaa was reported by most regional dailies. According to a Kuwait News Agency report, “Houthi militants on Saturday seized the headquarters of the Yemeni government, the Army General Command and the official TV building in the center of the capital Sanaa, as the Prime Minister Mohammed Basindawa resigned. Member of the political council of the Ansar Allah Ali Al-Bekhiti, said that their fighters had spread in the vicinity of the government and the TV headquarters and controlled them amid no resistance from the army troops guarding both. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Bassindwa today announced his resignation, saying he wanted to give a chance for an agreement between President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Houthi Ansar Allah group.”

Considering the quick victory obtained by the Houthis as they marched toward the Yemeni capital, some have begun questioning the role of other actors besides the militants themselves. Yemen Times’  Maysaa Shuja Al-Deen makes the argument that the movement’s success relies to a large part on the tacit support of state institutions, including the military: “the Houthi movement has been ruling the Sa’ada governorate that borders Saudi Arabia for more than three years now. The group’s rule represents the worst and most oppressive model of governance, as it runs Sa’ada as a radical religious armed group that bans music, for instance. Pictures taken at Houthi sit-ins show that women are absent. Al-Monitor attended a sit-in on Aug. 30 next to the Interior Ministry, and asked the media officer of the Houthis why no women were present; the answer was that women should stay home….The Houthis do not only rely on weapons. What is more important is its presence in the state institutions and its broad infiltration in the army, which is divided between the pro- and anti-regime camp—a division that is related to the regional background of the Yemeni political elite.”

Indeed, initial reports from the Yemen Post indicate that many institutions put up little, if any, resistance to the advancing Houthi militants: “Interior Minister Abdo Hussein Al-Tarib on Sunday urged all policemen to cooperate with the Zaidi Ansar Allah militants who have been fighting the armed forces and have seized key public offices in the capital during the past five days. The ministry reported on its website that Al-Tarib to avoid conflicts with the militants in order to work together to boost security and peace and protect the public facilities in the capital. The minister was quoted as saying, ‘The militants are friends of the police’ while affirming that all should cooperate to protect the country. Separately, officers, soldiers and employees at the army’s information department declared their support to the popular revolution referring to the protests of the Houthi militants.”

Not everyone in the region has been mincing their words when it comes to the takeover of the Yemeni capital by the militants. In one of its editorials, the National questions the legitimacy and the right of the organization to rule in Yemen, pointing out also that this week’s show of force amounted to a coup: “The Houthis are not the only stakeholders in Yemen; indeed, they are not even the largest group. Hirak, the Southern movement that still holds out for a separate state, and the Islamist party, Islah, will both a play a role in the country’s future. Under the agreement signed this week, the Houthis and Hirak have three days to choose a prime minister for a government of national unity….Having previously refused the offer of a role in government, the Houthis have now essentially staged a coup, winning concessions including the scalp of a prime minister. And yet, they have failed to give any assurances about their intentions or their continued support, or otherwise, for the federal model. It is time for their leadership to declare, and to demonstrate, that they are prepared to act on behalf of all Yemenis to support the way of peace and political stability.”

It is clear to most observers, however, that the situation in Yemen resembles that of a multidimensional chess game, with movements taking place at the tribal, religious, and political level. Yemen Times Nadia al-Sakkaf presents a complex picture of inter-tribal animosity, and Machiavellian political alliances, none of which bode well for the country: “There is historical animosity between two of the strongest, if not the strongest, tribes in Yemen: Hashid and Bakil. Although they share borders, history, and origin, they don’t share fate….The two tribes have had their confrontations over the years….Another alliance between Bakil and the Houthis is being forged and now that they are standing at the edges of Sana’a side by side, they believe that it is ok to demand their turn in power, even if it means sharing some of it with the Houthis….Simultaneously, Saleh is playing another of his trademark games as he promises and delivers support to the Houthis, just to get back at members of his own tribe, including those from the Al-Ahmar family, for going against him in 2011….The Houthis know that they can’t rely on Saleh, his money, or his promises, so they seek old friends who have a similar goal. Bakil wants revenge. So do the Houthis, and this explains today’s dynamics.”

Much of the criticism over what is taking place in the country is reserved for Yemen’s former president, ousted two years ago. Mr. Saleh, argues Al Arabiya’s Abdulrahman al-Rashed, is playing a dangerous game that puts the country’s future in danger, just so that he can avenge himself for the events that led to his ousting: “Yemen’s capital Sanaa was attacked from the outside and backstabbed by insiders. The prime minister and the interior minister staged a coup against the state in favor of the assailants while Houthis shelled it from all sides….overthrowing Yemen’s long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh was not going to easily pass. Two years on, he has succeeded in disrupting the country’s domestic situation via remote control….Keeping silent over the Houthis’ takeover of Sanaa is similar to accepting the ISIS takeover of Iraq’s Mosul. The Houthi Ansar Allah is a religious extremist group which wants to impose its control and doctrine and eliminate most Yemenis. Its presence in Yemen will inevitably mean that disturbances will last for many years. “

But, warns Salman Aldossary in an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, despite Saleh’s dubious dealings with the Houthi militants, the ultimate responsibility rests with the Yemeni society and the country’s numerous tribes, with the latter opting to ally with the militants: “It is clear that Houthi leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi has forged an alliance with one of the major power brokers from the regime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, which has helped him and his movement take over the capital in such a short space of time. What is even clearer is that Houthi has exploited all the flaws in the country’s institutions and political system, flaws which are due to Saleh and his regime….Unfortunately, though, those who are truly betraying Yemen in this critical and dangerous period are Yemenis themselves. The country’s tribes, who have long held the nation together and fought the Houthis, have all of a sudden formed alliances with the Shi’ite group….Yes, there is a foreign enemy that has helped make Yemen a tool in the hands of the Houthis, but it is the Yemenis themselves who have really done this.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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