What the Red Sea ship attacks are really about

From Vox.

What do Yemen’s Houthis want?

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After the Israel-Hamas war broke out on October 7, 2023, the Houthis, a Yemeni rebel group, began attacking ships passing through the Red Sea. The Houthis pledged to attack any ship in these waters that does business with Israel, to protest Israel’s war on Gaza and to show solidarity with Palestinians there. But as the attacks have continued, another motive for them has become apparent: strengthening the Houthis’ control of Yemen.

After a nine-year civil war, the Houthis today control a sizable area in Yemen, with over 70 percent of the Yemeni population within the group’s territory. The conflict has devastated the country, creating one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. More than 377,000 Yemenis have been killed — by airstrikes from a Saudi-led coalition; landmines and detonations planted by the Houthis; a lack of medical services; and scarcity of food and water due to a naval blockade. And both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis have been accused of committing war crimes against Yemenis.

Today, the Houthis are attempting to establish themselves as Yemen’s legitimate leaders in the eyes of Yemenis, though they’ve done little to improve the country’s humanitarian crisis. The Red Sea attacks, which appear to have significant support among the Yemeni people, might be a means to achieve that goal.

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00:00 The Red Sea attacks
1:09 Saleh and the Zaydis
3:19 The Arab Spring
4:24 Civil war
7:23 Ceasefire talks
8:23 Legitimacy

Sources and further reading:

Back in 2018, we produced a video on how the Saudi-led coalition uses weapons made by the United States to target Yemenis. You can watch that here for more context on Saudi Arabia’s and the United States’ involvement in this war:
How the Saudis ended up with so many American weapons
https://youtu.be/7DbdBIuFrIE?si=4WKeiY8kB2nGFZ8g

Here are a couple of analyses about the Houthis by the expert in our video, Fatima Abo Alasrar, that we found very useful:

“The perils of underestimating the Houthi threat”
https://www.mei.edu/publications/perils-underestimating-houthi-threat

“From Yemen to Palestine: The strategic depth of the Houthi-Iranian alliance”
https://www.mei.edu/publications/yemen-palestine-strategic-depth-houthi-iranian-alliance

“The Houthis’ war and Yemen’s future”
https://www.mei.edu/publications/houthis-war-and-yemens-future

These reports helped us understand the political dynamics of the Zaydis and the 1962 revolution in Yemen:

“The international history of the Yemen Civil War, 1962-1968”
https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/12269828/Orkaby_gsas.harvard_0084L_11420.pdf

“Yemen’s war-torn rivalries for religious education”
https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/06/07/yemen-s-war-torn-rivalries-for-religious-education-pub-84651

USIP Yemen country profile
https://www.usip.org/programs/religion-and-conflict-country-profiles/yemen

For our graphics, we relied on these maps:

Critical Threats and the New York Times for the Houthis’ expansion over time:
https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/al-houthi-areas-of-influence
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/03/26/world/middleeast/geography-of-chaos-in-yemen-maps.html

USIP for the Sunni-Shia breakdown:
https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/styles/image_with_caption/public/2023-09/demographic-distribution-yemen-map-project.jpg?itok=gAGiQZ7J

Institute for the Study of War for the Houthis’ current stronghold:
https://understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Houthi%20CoT%20in%20Yemen%20January%2019%2C%202024.png

To understand the Yemeni experience under Houthi control, we referred to reporting by Human Rights Watch:

“Yemen: Houthi landmines kill civilians, block aid”
https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/04/22/yemen-houthi-landmines-kill-civilians-block-aid

“Houthi and Yemeni Government Violations of the Right to Water in Taizz”
https://www.hrw.org/report/2023/12/11/death-more-merciful-life/houthi-and-yemeni-government-violations-right-water

And lastly, to understand the daily reality of the huge numbers of Yemenis still suffering from the effects of the civil war and humanitarian crises, we recommend the stories featured in the Yemen Listening Project:
https://yemenlisteningproject.thenewhumanitarian.org/stories/en/economic-war

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