By William Hall
A recent article written by Syed Wadih-Hussein on the crisis in the Red Sea has taken the liberty of applying the famous David vs Goliath biblical story to the situation, seemingly unaware of the irony of comparing antisemitic terrorists to the greatest hero of the Israelites. In his article, Syed argues that the Houthi terrorists are on the right side of history fighting against the Goliath that is the Western world. However, if we choose to use biblical references in our writing, the tale of Eve and the Serpent is more apt to this situation. In this tale, the Serpent (Houthis) convinces Eve (the world) to question God (the Western World). Whilst the Serpents argument first appears logical, once the consequences of believing it are apparent it is shown to be built upon lies and deceptions. Then, as with the Houthis now, the Serpent was rightly punished for their transgressions.
Taking this biblical tit-for-tat further, let us examine some of the points Syed and the Houthis are trying to make to support their narrative. Firstly, Syed argues that the Houthis are David-esque underdogs because they are fighting a far superior force – the Western world and now their navies. Certainly, in the situation today the Houthis are comically under-equipped. Using Iranian surface-to-surface missiles comparable to US 1990s equivalents, crude-copies of Soviet Kh-55 cruise missiles, and rubber dinghies to assault battleships, there is a certain ridiculousness about comparative belligerent capabilities. However, it should be noted that the presence of Western warships in the Red Sea and the Bab-el-Mandeb strait is only a recent development. Prior to this, the Houthis were both the aggressors and the Goliaths – attacking undefended shipping and putting innocent lives at risk. The underdog metaphor doesn’t work as well when you are fighting someone even more defenceless than David was in the original story, does it? At least in that story David brought the biblical equivalent of a gun to a fist fight. In comparison, pitting the Houthis as the Serpent far more readily explains their willingness to scheme in the face of a superior power, the West, to drum up some public support.
In addition to an unreliable fighting narrative, Syed and the Houthis have attempted to link David’s reason for facing the giant Goliath and their reason for the Houthis' violation of the Law of the Sea. David faced down Goliath to show the strength of God, and the Houthis are supposedly facing down the West to support the Gazan people. Syed takes this comparison to some emotive lengths, saying the Houthis are “defending Gaza’s children amidst siege and genocide” in a “poignant tale of faith and defiance”. However, this comparison lacks a certain important quality – basic truth. Just since November 2023 the Houthis have attacked over two dozen ships in the Red Sea, and interestingly the vast majority of them seem to not be flying Israeli flags nor going to or from Israel. Syed seems to have cherry-picked incidents dating back as far as April 2022 in order to support the lie that the Houthis are only attacking Israeli-linked shipping. Tell that to the crew of the Maersk Hangzhou (Singaporean), of Galaxy Leader (Norwegian), of Al-Jasrah (Liberian), the list goes on. Innocents who were put in harm’s way simply because they happened to be supplying the world with vital goods at the wrong time. Again, the David v. Goliath analogy crumbles and Eve and the Serpent appears more applicable. For there is an ulterior motivation for the indiscriminate attacks, as there was with the Serpent. This being that the Houthis see an opportunity to claim some temporary and false moral high ground in their Iranian-led religious crusade against liberal democracy and the Western world.
With both an unreliable fighting and justification narrative, David appears to be losing the battle. This trend only continues when you consider the inherent hypocrisy of Houthi actions in the Red Sea. Syed highlights the Houthis aim to protect the innocents of Gaza, a noble enough cause by itself. However, from a utilitarian perspective their actions lack rationality. Firstly, by cutting off all shipping in the Bab-el-Mandeb strait the Houthis are not only cutting off oil shipments, as Syed is very quick to mention (oil being the easy-pickings when criticising Western interests), but rerouting all international trade around the Cape. Apart from breaking all sorts of international laws, this action will harm more people than the Houthis could ever hope to help. As the price of shipping dramatically increases, prices for consumers will increase exacerbating the worldwide cost-of-living crisis, medical equipment shipping will be delayed affecting the efficiency of hospitals, and even humanitarian aid to the Houthis' very own country will be limited (not that they care). This would and has led to an international response, further exacerbating regional tensions, and potentially worsening the situation in Yemen. If the Houthis are really David, they are going about it in an odd way.
Finally, even Syed acknowledges that the Houthis may not be God’s gift to humanity, referencing their “allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes”. However, he seeks to delegitimize these allegations by immediately flipping the responsibility of the dire situation in Yemen to the Saudis and the Western world – classic ‘whataboutism’ which helps no one. Yes, the Saudi intervention in Yemen is heavy-handed and should be reined in, but the Saudis did not start this conflict. Syed seems to think it just to attribute the humanitarian crisis to the Saudi forces and downplay the acts of the Houthis (“lines of resistance and terror have become blurred”). However, it was the Houthis who marched on Dammaj, Sanaa, Aden, and threatened to march on Mecca and Riyadh. Furthermore, Syed seeks to claim for the Houthis some sort of regional support as “symbols of resistance across the turbulent Middle East” – highlighting the Saudis alone as against the Houthi terrorists. This claim again lacks any real historical record. The “Saudi” intervention in Yemen to support the legitimate government was actually a combined intervention with support and volunteer forces from: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, the Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Not exactly the kind of response a would-be regional hero would have, is it?
If the Houthis are David and the West is Goliath millennia of bible-study and theology has just been turned on its head. The Houthis started this conflict by attacking innocent shipping on false ‘moral’ pretences. Now the innocents of the world, both Western and Yemeni, are dealing with the ill-thought-out consequences of a bunch of terrorists who could not look past their religious fundamentalism – and the world is convinced, as Syed is, that the Houthis are on the right side of history. The Houthis truly are the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, and their bile is the apple that too many people are willingly accepting.
Image: Wellcome Library / Walter Crane