Yemen’s Houthi Leader Won’t Be Betrayed For 44 Pounds Of Gold

A televised speech by Abdul Malik al-Houthi is watched in Sana'a. — (REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah)
Apr 10, 2015 at 11:09 AM ET

Yemen’s rebel leader Abdel Malik al-Houthi, 32, has a bounty of 20 kilos (44lbs) of gold on his young head courtesy of al-Qaeda. But the shrewd leader of the Zaidi fighters whose grip on Yemen grows day by day is unlikely to be betrayed by those closest to him, say experts on the region.

The mysterious head of the Zaidi Shia rebels who overtook Yemen’s capital Sana’a six months ago, sending the Sunni president fleeing to neighboring Saudi Arabia, rarely gives press interviews. Yet his following among Yemen’s Shiites has steadily grown with a series of charismatic speeches, and was only bolstered further when al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, announced the bounty, worth $10 million.

It’s unlikely al-Houthi would ever be betrayed for the money by those closest to him, says Marieke Brandt of the Institute of Social Anthropology in Vienna, an expert on Yemen and the Zaidi Shia movement. Aside from his family lineage that dates back to a monarchy that ruled northern Yemen for a thousand years, she said the absence of other leaders makes an assassination the least favorable option for his supporters.

“No one has his credibility or his influence,” says Brandt. “He is a charismatic leader, who knows how to steer and lead his followers.”

The Houthis, she says, gained strength because of the Yemeni government’s neglect of Sadaah province, where a majority of Zaidi Shias live, as a radical brand of Islam called Sunni Salafism spread in the region with the backing of the Saudis. The Zaidis, on the other hand, have ties to Iran.

Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia over Yemen escalated over the last few days with Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei taking the unprecedented step of directly lashing out at the Saudi prince over continued airstrikes in north Yemen.

Ayatollah Khamenei said that Saudi Arabia had allowed “inexperienced youths” to take “over the affairs of the state and are replacing dignity with barbarity,” a clear attack on Prince Mohamed bin Salman, the 35-year-old son of King Salman.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also waded into the conflict by issuing the first explicit condemnation of Iran for arming the Houthis. Kerry told PBS News Hour that the U.S. has been tracking flights carrying supplies from Iran to the Houthis in Yemen.

“We are well aware of the support that Iran has been giving to Yemen,” Kerry said on Wednesday.

Despite Kerry’s warning, some experts believe that Iranian involvement in the Houthi movement has been exaggerated by the Iranians, who are accused of using the division between Zaidi Shia and Sunnis in Yemen as a wedge issue in the Arab world.

“The Iranians exploit that. That’s how they get into the Arab world, by pushing the line that the Shiite minority are being exploited by the Sunni regime,” says Charles Schmitz, a scholar affiliated with the Middle East Institute.

“It’s a complicated question and it’s an important question,” says Schmitz, who points out that the Zaidis have played a central role in Yemen’s politics historically. “They’re being described as Shiite rebels like they’re foreign elements. They are and have always been integral to Yemen’s politics.”

Among Western analysts, very little is known about al-Houthi, other than that he descends from a long line of religious scholars and has regularly appeared on state television, which he now controls, to alternately rail against Saudi and American meddling in Yemeni affairs, or to dispute rumors of his premature death.

The rebel movement was originally led by al-Houthi’s half-brother Hussain, who was killed in September 2004 during one of six wars with the Yemeni government. A band of Zaidi fighters, based in Saadah Province in northern Yemen along the border with Saudi Arabia, named their movement after him. The younger al-Houthi brother distinguished himself on the battlefield and took over leadership of the rebellion in 2005, says Brandt.

Most Yemen watchers were surprised when al-Houthi teamed up with former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who inflicted six wars on the Zaidi Shia rebels over a decade before being ousted from power during the Arab Spring in 2012.

“He fought them pretty much his entire term, that’s been one of the great ironies of this whole saga,” says Mohamad Bazzi, a journalism professor at New York University who is writing a book on the proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

But, as Bazzi points out, al-Houthi’s alliance with Saleh, who has strong ties to the military, has paid off. “It’s one of the reasons the Houthis have been advancing so quickly. He still has a lot of support with the military, he’s been playing behind the scenes, shifting alliances,” Bazzi says.

Bazzi assumes al-Houthi and Saleh have struck a deal that would ultimately place the former ruler back in the corridors of power, or perhaps installing his son Ahmed, who until nearly three years ago commanded Yemen’s Republican Guard. Both father and son have tremendous loyalty from the country’s military. Observers say units stood down at Saleh’s request to allow the Houthis to move in so quickly.

Saleh has other resources at the ready as well. Last month, the UN reported that during his 32-year-rule, he’d managed to amass between $32 billion and $60 billion in assets, hidden abroad under other names. In 2013 Yemen’s gross domestic product was almost $36 billion.

Yet, al-Houthi forged an alliance with Saleh to oust president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Much of that alliance appears to be about extricating Yemen from Saudi influence. “Part of al-Houthi’s anger at Hadi was he wasn’t included in the power-sharing agreement,” Bazzi says. “He felt the Houthis were a significant political force and Hadi was too much under the influence of the Saudis, and the Saudis have been scared of the Houthis this whole time because they’re on the Saudi border.”

“They didn’t see much of a future with Hadi,” Bazzi says. “This was a civil war, and the Saudis got involved.”

A further complication in the power struggle is the growing presence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP, who are responsible for the bounty on al-Houthi. The U.S. government has dramatically scaled down its attacks on al-Qaeda forces as Yemen has devolved into chaos. AQAP is poised to benefit the most from the unrest between al-Houthi’s fighters and forces loyal to the old Sunni government.

“The Houthis seem to be the only ones on the ground fighting al-Qaeda,” said Bazzi. “Other than the Americans.”