The Houthis were formed by Zaidite scholars, a Shia sect who have lived in Yemen for over a thousand years and also ruled the country for several centuries. Their rebellion against the Saudi-backed government began about a decade ago.
The present-day Houthi rebels have their roots in the northwest of Yemen. A mountainous border area next to Saudi Arabia, Sa’dah is a stronghold of the Shia Zaidites, who only exist in Yemen and differ to the Twelver Imam Shia. They make up around 25 percent of the population there.
With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, a Zaidi monarchy took power in northern Yemen, then called the Mutawakkilite Kingdom. The ruler, or Imam, was a spiritual leader, who upheld secular values. The Zaidis also enjoyed international recognition as the legitimate government in the region, with Sanaa as their capital. As northern and southern parts of Yemen united in 1990, Sanaa became the single capital of the entire country.
In the 1980s, the Zaidites felt increasingly marginalised by the growing influence of Saudi-financed Salafi institutes. The al Houthis, a family of Zaidite scholars, allied themselves with tribes in the region to form the Ansarullah militia.
The rebellion of the Houthis led to an armed conflict with the Yemeni army in 2004. The then President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is a Zaidi himself, branded the Houthis ‘terrorists’ and accused Iran of financing the rebels. By 2010, thousands had been killed and hundreds of thousands had fled the country.
The Houthis and the Arab Spring
When Arab Spring 2011 hit Yemen, Ansarullah joined the protest movement and President Saleh was forced out of office. Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi became the new president.
But the security and economic situation of the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula continues to deteriorate, so does support for the new government. This helped the Houthis tap into people's anger and disillusionment and present themselves as an alternative to the Hadi government. The rebel group even gained a following from supporters of Saleh, the former president and sworn enemy of the Houthi insurgents.
In September 2014, the Houthis took control of Sanaa unhindered by the military loyal to Saleh, and in January they captured the presidential palace. They dissolved parliament and expanded their influence in the west and centre of the country. President Hadi fled from the Houthis, first to the port city of Aden, then to Saudi Arabia. His exact location has been unknown ever since, though he still runs the government remotely.
The Iran factor
The Houthis have grown closer to Iran since the Arab Spring. After numerous Arab and Western countries closed their embassies in Sanaa in February, Iran helped the Houthis out of international isolation. A daily direct flight connection was established between Tehran and Sanaa and Tehran pledged oil and electricity supplies to support the ‘popular revolution’ in Yemen.
What are the Houthis’ goals?
Officially, the Houthis denounce the corruption of the displaced elite and want to confront Saudi-financed ‘Salafism’. Opponents see their goal in the re-establishment of a Zaidi imamate. The beginning of their uprising in the north still seemed to be about stronger influence in the political struggle for a new federal state order. But since then, they seem to be striving for control over the whole country.
Saudi Arabia and the Houthis
The rebels can provoke Saudi Arabia - for example, with skirmishes at the southern border. The Houthi fighters have already entered the neighbouring state in 2010.
However, Riyadh mobilised 150,000 men and 100 war planes for its counter mission. The official goal of the current air raids is to restore the ‘legitimacy’ of President Hadi. Many believe it is possible that the Houthis could be forced to negotiate a peaceful political transition.