The War in Yemen

A true First: The Huthi movement addressing an international audience

On August 20 and 21, the Huthi-movement made itself heard for the first time to an international audience. A conference organized in London (brought together by the platform “Sheba for Democracy and Human Rights”) focused on what the organizers described as human rights violations and war crimes caused by the Saudi Arabian (led coalition) bombing campaign in Yemen.

According to the organizers, the Saudi air strikes have killed more than 13,000 persons. The Yemeni “Legal Center for Rights and Development”, also represented there, gave a count of 9,755 civilians, amongst them 2,260 children. For a long time, the UN had spread a figure which was extremely low and had not been adopted for long. At last, the UN coordinator for Humanitarian help in Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick, specified the total of killed civilians as at least 10.000 or even more. UNICEF’s August 2015 report counted (as “verified”) 398 children killed between March and early August 2015 – a figure which was definitely too low and of course by now is quite outdated.

On the ground, almost at the same time as the conference, a Saudi air strike killed 10 children in a school which the spokesperson for the Saudi coalition, General Ahmed al-Assiri, described as a training facility for child soldiers. UNICEF which visited the site said however that it was a Koranic school for children, with nothing indicating that there was any kind of military training. UN-Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the strike.

On August 19, the medical charity, MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres), decided to evacuate all its remaining staff from Yemen’s five northern provinces, after Saudi air strikes had destroyed a hospital cum maternity ward in Abs (Hajjah province), killing 19 people.


The Saudi led air campaign in Yemen claims to aim at re-instating Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who had been forced out of office by the Huthis and who’s term meanwhile had expired for long. Hadi, a Southern Yemeni military, served 17 years as Deputy to Yemen’s 34 years autocratic (and kleptomaniac) former ruler Ali Abdallah Saleh. When Saleh was forced to resign in 2012, as a result of the “Arab Spring” mass demonstrations, Hadi was elected interim president in February 2012 (as the only candidate carrying 99,80% of the votes) for a two year term. This term expired in February 2014 and was extended by the „National Dialogue Conference“ for another year. Since then, he is recognised as de facto president by Saudi Arabia, the Arab states, Western nations, the UN and thus by almost all states in the world..

National Dialogue Conference

Following the Yemeni Spring demonstrations and Saleh’s resignation, a Dialogue Conference was initiated in Sanaa, aiming at creating a framework for a new constitution and addressing the country’s structural problems.

The conference lasted for app. 1 year (2013/14); its main sponsors were Saudi Arabia, the USA and the UK. It was comprised of 565 (!) delegates, out of which 56% southerners (the former South Yemen has a population of ca. 9 million, out of a total of nearly 28 million). 28% of the participants were women, and 20% “youth”, a composition clearly not intended to represent those who hold power or influence in Yemen, but to please the Western donors. The Huthis who arguably represent the majority of the Zaydi population (which is estimated as between 30 to 40 % of the total population) had 35 representatives. The only real cause of Yemen’s troubles and the key to solving them – a powerful federalisation and decentralisation – was expressly used against the Huthis, creating a super federal state from Sanaa to Saada where the Huthis would again be a minority. This led to the military take over of most of the former North Yemen by the Huthis. Their sweeping victory – practically without resistance – was the result of widespread disillusion with both the former regime, with the so-called „Dialogue“ and President Hadi as well, who also had proved to be corrupt. Knowledgeable observers differ in estimating what percentage of the population is broadly supporting or sympathetic to the Huthi movement (but there is consensus that it is a large part of the people), but agree that Hadi and his government has almost no following left. It is said that even his own tribe is not fully behind him.

The Houthis

Contrary to much of the received wisdom, the Huthi take over was not entirely along religious lines: while the Zaydi doctrine is categorized as Shi‘a by Western orientalists, a Huthi tribesman would not be aware that he is following the “Shi‘a” lines of thought. Zaydism is closely related to the Sunni Shafa‘i doctrine followed by the majority of the people of Yemen.

The true reasons for the Huthis’ “rebellion” were the decades of economic and political marginalisation, the appropriation of their auqaf-revenues [waqf, religious endowment] by the Saleh government, the implantation of Wahhabi training camps in their northern regions, and the several wars waged against them by the Saleh regime.

The Zaydis are indeed farther away from Iranian Shi‘a than from Sunni Shafa‘ism. The widespread misconceptions about religious proximities repeat themselves in the rather formulaic allegation of Iranian military support, which in fact only is marginal because of the severe blockade. The American surveillance of Yemen’s coasts is total. Had the Yemenis access to modern weapons they would have downed some of the Saudi aircraft. Among the few boats allegedly containing weapon shipments from Iran one was concocted by the Saleh government (as revealed by Wikileaks’ US-embassy cables), another shipped Yemeni weapons intended to be smuggled to Somalia.

The London conference

The London conference also addressed the damage done to the cultural heritage of Yemen. Yemen is by far the richest country in Arabia in archaeological and historical sites: it may be poor, but it is the cultural home of the Arabs. It is home to a 3,000 year old splendid civilization, with the Queen of Saba (Sheba) as its most well known figure, commemorated in the holy books, both the Bible and the Koran. The great dam of Marib is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and described at length in the Koran: This majesty of human endeavour and civilisation, ennobled by God’s holy book, was bombed by the Saudis. The new museum of Dhamar was completely flattened, and with it several thousands of archaeological and Islamic artefacts that wrote the history of the Arabs. The museum also contained one of the greatest masterpieces of Islamic art, the 10th century AD (4th c. AH) minbar (pulpit) from the Great Mosque of Dhamar. It no longer exists.

The conference was thus mainly deploring the loss of human life and of Yemen’s and indeed Arabia’s cultural memory. The conference did unfortunately not address the political questions behind the bombing campaign (other than condemning it). A political solution will have to realize that Yemen cannot be defeated by a foreign power. Even the Ottomans, in the 16th century, at the height of their power, and again in the 19th century, were unable to hold the country. As for today’s politics, observers note that the bombing has considerably increased support for the Huthis from amongst hitherto indifferent or even hostile Yemenis.

A final statement

Dr. Riaz Karim, the Director and co-founder of the Yemeni-based charity Mona Relief Organization said in an emotional speech at the London conference:

„Our silence is Yemen’s tombstone. Today silence has become more than a war crime. Today silence has become more a manifestation of our egocentriscism and selfishness. Today I am hoping that silence will at last be broken. Yemen is not the forgotten war of our decade, it is the unspoken shame of our generation. Support the people of Yemen – End arms sales to Saudi Arabia.“

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