Who are the Houthis?
Seven books to read to get informed about the latest target for US bombs.
Last night, the US and UK launched a large-scale targeted bombing campaign against Houthi targets in Yemen. The attack came following another Houthi attack on Red Sea shipping in the face of an American ultimatum, as it struggles to reassure shipping companies and break the de facto blockade imposed by Houthi attacks on shipping with the avowed goal of demanding an Israeli ceasefire in Gaza. Few Yemen experts (or anyone else who knows the region) expects that the air strikes will have any serious impact on Houthi capabilities or its grip on power. It’s easy to see why the US felt it needed to act: the Houthi attacks have had a palpable effect on global shipping which the US has made clear it could not ignore. But it’s also easy to see that such a military strike is unlikely to achieve its goals. It strikes many observers as just another dangerous step down the path towards regional escalation which the Biden administration ostensibly wants to prevent — just, that is, as long as it doesn’t require actually stopping the Israeli war on Gaza which is its cause.
The US-UK airstrike itself was more symbolic than meant to actually degrade or destroy Houthi capabilities. The real question is what happens next: do the Houthis settle for a similarly demonstrative response in order to safe face while avoiding escalation, as Hezbollah has often done in response to Israeli attacks, or do they escalate the scale or target of their attacks? If the attacks on shipping don’t stop, will the US continue and expand its airstrikes? Will it, god forbid, decide to go all in and attempt to topple the Houthis through a military campaign - picking up the mantle of the failed Saudi led war which caused the humanitarian catastrophe that a very different, pre-Gaza Joe Biden once criticized so passionately? Yemenis suffered so much from the long years of war following the 2015 Saudi-led intervention; the shaky twenty month truce that has allowed for some humanitarian relief is one of the Biden administration’s quiet successes that its airstrikes now put at risk.
There will be much to say about the policy issues, the regional implications, and the metastasizing Gaza war soon. But for now, let’s take one of those patented MENA Academy steps back: what should you read if you want to understand who the Houthis are, how they came to power, and what they hope to achieve? There’s a lot of commentary and policy analysis out there, some outstanding (like Elisabeth Kendall’s outstanding primer just published the other day - start there if you’re new to Yemen) and a lot of flaming piles of trash. Here, I am going to focus on books: here’s seven great books to add to your library and dig into if you want to better understand Yemen, the Houthis, and the long-running American military campaign.
Mareike Brandt, Tribes and Politics in Yemen: A History of the Houthi Conflict (Hurst/Oxford 2017). The gold standard for deeply informed research on the Houthi movement. To quote from its abstract: Tribes and Politics in Yemen tells the story of the Houthi conflict in Sa'dah Province, Yemen, as seen through the eyes of the local tribes. In the West the Houthi conflict, which erupted in 2004, is often defined through the lenses of either the Iranian-Saudi proxy war or the Sunni-Shia divide. Yet, as experienced by locals, the Houthi conflict is much more deeply rooted in the recent history of Sa'dah Province. Its origins must be sought in the political, economic, social and sectarian transformations since the 1960s civil war and their repercussions on the local society, which is dominated by tribal norms. From the civil war to the Houthi conflict these transformations involve the same individuals, families and groups, and are driven by the same struggles over resources, prerogatives, and power. This book is based on years of anthropological fieldwork expertise both on the ground and through digital anthropological approaches. It offers a detailed account of the local complexities of the Houthi conflict and its historical background and underscores the absolute imperative of understanding the highly local, personal, and non-ideological nature of internal conflict in Yemen.
Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Yemen in the Shadow of Transition: Pursuing Justice Amid War (Oxford 2023). A careful reconstruction of the post-2011 failed transition based on some 17 years of fieldwork, putting Houthi grievances and offenses into a broader political context. You can read my review of it here. Highlight: “One of the first things which gripped me in Yadav’s book was her insistence on embedding the 2015 Saudi intervention into a much longer history of conflict and contestation. I’ve been working for several years on a project focused on Middle Eastern “warscapes” which attempts to theorize these long-running conflicts which have no clear beginnings or endings, where violence is intermittent and spatially diverse, and where conflict ecologies shape and reshape identities, economies, social norms, and political power. Yemen, Yadav reminds us, clearly fits within such a model. Claims that the war began in 2015 with the Saudi intervention, or even in 2014 with the Houthi takeover, tend to elide the violence of the post-2011 transition. They also tend to look past the six rounds of ever more violent war between the government of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis between 2004-2010, and the US drone campaign and counterinsurgent campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula over the same decade. From the lived perspective of the Yemeni warscape (my words, not Yadav’s), clearly demarcated starting points for the war make little sense. Neither do expectations that ceasefires or even a formal end to war will mean any real ending.”
Laurent Bonnefoy, Yemen and the World: Beyond Insecurity (Hurst/Oxford 2018). One of the leading French scholars of Yemen warned of the disastrous effects of international misperceptions and misconceptions of Yemen. The Saudi offensive launched in 2015 has made Yemen a victim of regional power struggles, while the global 'war on terror' has labelled it a threat to international security. From the abstract: “This perception has had disastrous effects without generating real interest in the country or its people. On the contrary, Yemen's complex political dynamics have been largely ignored by international observers--resulting in problematic, if not counterproductive, international policies.”
Bushra al-Maqtari, What Have You Left Behind? (Fitzcarrldo 2023). A remarkable, searing oral history of the Saudi war on Yemen. From the abstract: “Purposefully alternating between accounts from the victims of the Houthi militia and those of the Saudi-led coalition, al-Maqtari highlights the disillusionment and anguish felt by civilians trapped in a war outside of their own making. As difficult to read as it is to put down, Bushra al-Maqtari’s unvarnished chronicle of the conflict in Yemen serves as a vital reminder of the scale of the human tragedy behind the headlines, and offers a searing condemnation of the international community’s complicity in the war’s continuation.”
Gregory Johnsen, The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia (WW Norton 2012). This authoritative account of Yemen’s place in the Global War on Terror is a decade old, but still required reading on the long, long US military campaign in Yemen — which most assuredly did not start last night.
Helen Lackner, Yemen: Poverty and Conflict (Routledge 2022). A long-time Yemen scholar summarizes decades of research and analysis in this incisive analysis of the country’s persistent problems. She seeks to move beyond the headlines and the violence to focus on economic development, climate change, water, and the challenges of rural communities — and much more.
Lisa Wedeen, Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen (Chicago 2009). This intensely creative and brilliantly written book isn’t about the Houthis, but it can tell you a lot about the relationship between language and power, and about the nature of the public sphere within Yemen’s distinctive form of stateness.
If there’s interest, perhaps I’ll compile a reading list of articles over the weekend to complement these books which I’m sure you will have all devoured by then!
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