Riyadh and its allies have grossly underestimated the strength of the Houthis.
After four years of brutal fighting, which has led to what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, Yemen’s Houthis have shown the Saudi-led Gulf coalition and its ally, the US, that they are no pushovers.
Since 2014, Riyadh and its allies have done their best to defeat the Iran-backed Houthis through constant, heavy, and at times indiscriminate, bombing - including the country’s capital Sanaa, which is held by the Houthis.
Under its young and inexperienced leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Riyadh treated the Houthis as just a ragtag force.
But under Iranian backing, the Houthis have proven to be anything but.
The Houthis were not only able to claim much of northern Yemen, which has been their ancestral stronghold for centuries, but they have also hit Saudi targets with their missiles allegedly supplied or facilitated by Tehran. Saudi Arabia and Iran, have been engaged in proxy wars throughout the Middle East.
This September, the Houthis claimed to hit the kingdom’s biggest oil installations in eastern Saudi Arabia, disrupting half of its oil production for several days. While Washington believed that the real force behind the attacks was Tehran, the US did not follow up its tough rhetoric with any strikes despite initially saying it would. The US reluctance to get more heavily involved and the dialling back of the US ‘maximum pressure’ campaign seems to have forced the kingdom to try and reach a deal with the Houthis.
Recently, Riyadh not only released 200 Houthi prisoners of war in an apparent gesture to the group but also allowed flights to and from Sanaa for humanitarian purposes, apparently conceding the fact that the Houthis might be becoming the kingmakers in Yemen.
The Houthis, who claim their heritage from Zaidis, a unique Islamic sect, considered as an offshoot of Shia with no direct link to Iran’s Twelver branch of Shia Islam.
This heritage has strong roots of resistance historically.
For centuries, Zaidis have defended a moderate Shia version of Islam, descending from Zaid, one of the descendants of Prophet Mohammed.
“Back in 900s, the Zaidis established two great states, one is located in Tabaristan in south Caspian region and another is located in Yemen,” Mithat Rende, Turkey’s former ambassador to Qatar, who was the country’s permanent representative for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), told TRT World in an earlier interview.
“Despite the fact that nobody wants to talk about, the Zaidis or Houthis had led Yemen until 1962. It’s true that in the past the Ottomans defeated them, subduing their leadership, but they always come up with an imam [who would continue to fight for their cause],” Rende said.
Their latest imam was Hussein Badrettin al Houthi, which founded the movement in the 1990s, in a country, where they were a minority. The group derived its name from its founder, al Houthi, who was killed by the Yemeni government forces in 2004.
Under al Houthi’s leadership and since his death, the group has been turned into a resistance movement, fighting with the Yemeni government.
While they were marginalised under different governments following the 1962 civil war, with the Houthi movement, which used the Arab Spring as a good opportunity to overthrow the government, the Zaidis were able to unite once again.
In the face of the country’s complicated history, experts like Rende see no possibility that the Houthi leadership could be uprooted from Yemen.
“Even the Ottomans could not uproot them. The Saudis could never ever uproot them,” Rende said.
Riyadh’s Yemen war plans were apparently based on the assumption that the Houthis were not a real force anymore, so the Saudi expedition would be a walk in the park.
Saudi Arabia army has no real war experience unlike Tehran and mostly relied on mercenaries and Sunni Yemenis to do their fighting in Yemen, backing their attacks with deadly airstrikes.
But in Yemen, the political situation regarding Sunni Yemenis is also complicated because they are divided into two different camps.
The division also led to a split between the Saudis and the UAE, which supports the South Yemen faction based in Aden, the country’s important port city. The two groups clashed with each other ending in multiple casualties before they were able to reach a power-sharing agreement between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the UAE-supported separatist Southern Transition Council (STC).
Finally, hit by deadly drone attacks in September, the kingdom appeared to come around, bidding for peace talks with the Houthis, which were previously advised by the US.
Will talks work?
Like the failed US-led Afghan peace initiative, which included Taliban representatives but excluded the Afghan government, the current Saudi-Houthi talks have also been held in the absence of the Riyadh-backed Yemen government.
Washington reportedly demanded its Saudi counterparts try diplomacy to end the war, which has killed more than 100,000 peoplesince the Saudi-led intervention, bringing the country to the brink of famine and financial ruin.