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Tribes and politics in Yemen: A history of the Houthi conflict

February 16, 2018 at 2:11 pm

  • Book Author(s): Marieke Brandt
  • Published Date: October 2017
  • Publisher: C. Hurst & Co Publishers
  • Hardback: 256 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-1849046466

Since the beginning of the Saudi-led “Operation Decisive Storm” in March 2015, information regarding Yemen has proven to be scarce. Most of the voices on Yemen are provided by researchers, journalists or political activists put forward as “authority” figures who hold “strong” political sentiments on the conflict. This reality, broadcasted on international media, lacks neutrality which is an important principle when commenting on conflict, security and political analysis.

Of all the parties to the conflict, the Houthi armed group’s political and local dynamics have not been properly aired nor debated to the world. With “Tribes and Politics in Yemen: A History of the Houthi Conflict”, Marieke Brandt disbars the simplistic view of the Yemen conflict equated as Saudi Arabia versus Iranian proxies and puts forward a deeper understanding of the aggravation of the Houthi group. The Yemen civil war is indeed riddled with a cob-web of actors, regional powers, dynamics and armed groups on the ground from northern Saada to southern Aden. Brandt’s book shifts the focus on the Houthis, otherwise known as Ansar Allah – Partisans of God, looking at their history, sect, local politics and social dynamics. It investigates Saudi Arabia’s influence in northern stronghold Saada governorate through an anthropological lens.

Not many would be in a position to write a detailed account of the Houthi history. Yet, Brandt’s book provides a fascinating and compelling first-hand experience based on a five-year sojourn worthy of digesting. She continues to work on Yemen, as a researcher at the Institute for Social Anthropology (ISA) of the Austrian Academy of Science in Vienna.

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It was Brandt’s aim to explore the conflict in Yemen through the local political complexities. The locals, indeed, did not shape the national debates but did make up the tribal, political and sectarian practice and implemented it on the ground. Today, the same locals are part of the Houthi group’s fight which has seen a three year stalemate only moving on territorial lines from January this year.

“Are the petty squabbles of barnyard notables really what we mean by politics? Are mud huts and goat-skin tents really where the action is? The answer is yes,” she writes.

Brandt captures the history of the Houthi conflict beginning with the Saada wars between 2004 and 2010. The book presents a picture of struggles and tribal dynamics which assists understanding the Houthi group’s cause in a detailed fashion. Not much is known about the Houthi group, its ideology and religious thought during this crucial time period.

Part one of the book looks at the “legacies of the past”, displaying historical research on the structure of local power in northern Yemen just after the 1960’s civil war and before the outbreak of the six Saada wars. As there were no real ethnographical or anthropological studies between 1970 and mid-1980, the book puts forward an in-depth coverage of society’s complexities.

In the volatile situation of political and social discontent over the equal distribution of resources, Brandt moves on to the revival of the Houthi-Zaydi identity due to marginalisation by a majority Sunni Yemen. This is the most appealing and interesting section, particularly when considering the current civil conflict which erupted in September 2014. Brandt argues that the majority of the tension was triggered by Saudi Arabia supporting religious institutions in northern Yemen, and by extension the Yemen government at certain points in history.  With the “influx of radical Sunnism” in the region in the late 1980’s, the Houthis resorted to creating “The Believing Youth” movement.

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This period in history is walked through with an in-depth lens, which is difficult to flaw. However, although Brandt explains that the founder of the Houthi movement, Hussein Badreddin Al-Houthi’s father, Badreddin a well-known Zaydi scholar, extensively wrote against Saudi Arabia’s religious narratives back in the 1970s, the manuscript does not delve into this notion which may have been an important influence in Hussein’s life. Rather, Brandt discusses how Hussein was subject to scrutiny for alleged Iranian views when he came back to Yemen from his travels in Iran and Sudan – where he indulged in religious education.

Hussein wanted to steer the group away from focusing on just the “inner religiosity” to a more political activism outlook. Brandt explains that the shift in focus triggered an internal rift, as Hussein received strong opposition from senior members and Zaydi scholars in northern Saada. The Houthis went through a process in the late 90’s whereby “The Believing Youth” fragmented to morph into the “Ashab Al-Shi’ar”, which translates as the “followers of the slogan”. They took up the chant: “God is great, Death to America, Death to Israel, A curse upon the Jews”.

Some followed Muhammad Azzan, a leading scholar of the Houthi movement in the late 1990s, with the majority followed Hussein’s political activism approach.

Having interviewed the Houthi armed group on a number of occasions for my own research, I found the sections detailing the historical identity of the group particularly interesting and accurate and I continue to use them as a reference.

There is little exploration of the Houthi group’s aims, objectives, history and the means through which it arrived in the Yemen civil war today. “Tribes and Politics in Yemen” fills this gap; it gives an understanding of how a religious movement focused on spirituality evolved into one of the major opposition armed groups in Yemen with plans for statehood.