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  • Syed Wadih Hussain

Yemen's Houthis: David against Goliath

By Syed Wadih Hussain



The Red Sea has become an unlikely centerstage for resistance as Yemen’s Houthi rebels

challenge global powers far beyond their borders. By threatening shipping through the strategic Bab el-Mandeb strait, the Houthis wield influence disproportionate to their limited resources. Their bold naval actions endanger a vital passage for oil shipments, wielding economic power while decrying Israel's ongoing genocide in Gaza.


Some call it a David vs Goliath tale. The Houthis have rapidly transformed from an obscure insurgent group to formidable Yemeni powerbrokers. Their capture of the capital Sanaa in 2014 signalled their meteoric rise. Yet their roots stretch back decades through founder Hussein al-Houthi, who battled Yemen’s authoritarian government in the 2000s.

The Houthis endanger shipping through Bab el-Mandeb, the world’s third-largest choke point for oil after the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca. Over six million barrels pass through this narrow strait daily, mainly heading to Europe. Maritime experts estimate the shorter Bab el-Mandeb route saves at least 15 percent in costs versus sailing around Africa.


By threatening this vital waterway, the Houthis' goals transcend military impact: they aim to champion Palestinian rights and expose the waning power of the US. Their missiles have highlighted America's inability to secure the Red Sea, despite failed attempts to build a naval coalition against them. 


The Houthis are no mere Iranian proxies as analysts emphasise. Their ideology, blending Zaidi Islam and Yemeni nationalism, drives their crusade for self-determination. Still, they are bolstered by Iran's axis of resistance against the Saudi-Western bloc, which provides weapons and support.


Russia’s support for the Houthis also alarms Washington, handing them a superpower patron. Yet direct foreign military intervention could worsen Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. UN data shows over 13 million Yemenis are near famine after years of war.


What is clear is that the Houthis have overcome heavy odds to force global recognition. According to Middle East experts, their actions in the Red Sea have supported the Palestinian cause by economically pressuring Israel by disrupting its global trade. The Houthis vow to continue attacks until “Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stops his genocide in Gaza.” This staunch support for Palestine uncovers rifts in the anti-Houthi coalition. Despite US pleas, key allies like France and Saudi Arabia refused to join a naval force against the rebels in late 2021 and 2023.


Houthi solidarity with Gaza also resonates on Arab streets, complicating the stance of Yemeni factions opposing them. In essence, the Houthis are reshaping strategic realities and narratives in the Middle East. Their struggle impacts events far beyond Yemen's borders. They have become symbols of steadfast resistance, a Yemeni David against towering Goliath powers. A stand against injustice and support for voiceless and innocent civilian Gazans being slaughtered by the Israeli war machine.


In April 2022, the Houthis seized a Saudi-flagged tugboat in the Red Sea, prompting a warning from the Saudi-led coalition. In July, they attacked an Israeli-linked tanker off the coast of Oman using an unmanned drone. Later that month, they seized the Emirati-flagged ship RWABEE in the Red Sea. In August, the Houthis attacked another ship in the Red Sea with alleged Israel connections, using a drone boat laden with explosives. These bold attacks on vessels linked to their rivals Israel and Saudi Arabia grab global attention while increasing shipping risks.


However, the Saudi-installed government in Yemen has designated the Houthis as a terrorist organisation, alongside the United States. The rebel group faces allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes. Although, one must also consider the utter devastation brought about by the western-backed Saudi carpet bombing of Yemen since 2014. This conflict has directly or indirectly killed over 400,000 civilians. According to UN reports, blockades and famine could take up to 1.3 million lives by 2030. In a world of such injustice, the lines of resistance and terror have become blurred.


The Houthis’ indigenous ideology and grassroots support fuel their crusade for Yemeni rights. Their saga will be immortalised as underdog militias staunchly defending Gaza's children amidst siege and genocide. Transcending mere military confrontation, their narrative is a poignant tale of faith and defiance contrasting international inaction. It powerfully awakens the world to forgotten struggles, challenging complacency, and kindling resistance. Their story is a clarion call to the world echoing a powerful message: even in the darkest hours, the light of steadfast courage and unyielding commitment to justice can illuminate paths towards triumph and vindication. 


The Houthi rebels, whether considered terrorists in the White House or protectors on the streets and under the rubble of Gaza and Sanaa, have become symbols of resistance across the turbulent Middle East—a David against towering Goliath power.


Image: Wikimedia Commons / Osmar Schindler

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