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Nagaraj Kanaganahalli asked: Who are Houthis? What role do they play in the Yemen war? How significant is Yemen in West Asian politics?

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  • Prasanta Kumar Pradhan replies: Houthis are an armed rebel group belonging to the Zaidi Shia sect fighting against the government of Yemen. Traditionally, the Houthis have been concentrated in the northwestern Saada Province of Yemen. In 2015, they captured capital Sanaa, thereby forcing President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia. Upon the request of President Hadi, a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia was formed to intervene in Yemen. The Houthis are thus in direct military conflict with the Yemeni government forces as well as the Saudi-led military coalition, both of which are trying to push them back to the Saada Province. The Houthis, however, continue to capture large swathes of territories in Yemen while facing the wrath of a mighty military coalition. The Houthis are reportedly supported by Iran which provides them with weapons and funding.

    Yemen is a poor country in the oil-rich neighbourhood. The conflict that began in 2015 has drawn the involvement of key regional powers in the country. Over the years, Yemen has become a theatre of an ongoing proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia as both these countries are deeply involved in the conflict. This has widened the gulf between the two regional powers, thus leading to further deterioration of the security environment in the volatile Gulf region.

    For Saudi Arabia, Houthis capturing Sanaa comes as a direct national security challenge. Iran’s support to the Houthis provides it with strategic leverage vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. Yemen’s geographical location along the narrow Bab El Mandeb Strait makes it an important country from the point of view of maritime security. Further, the continuing instability in Yemen has provided a conducive atmosphere to the al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to operate and further expand their activities, which is a key concern for the whole region. Though Yemen remains an impoverished, devastated and a polarised country, the continuing conflict has turned it into a crucial battleground that affects the regional politics and security in the Gulf.

    Posted on July 10, 2020

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.