Houthiland: a nightmare vision becoming reality

Summary: The Houthis profit from the war and have little interest in ending it while exploiting humanitarian aid and depriving the 70% of the Yemeni population under their control basic human rights.

We thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for nearly 15 years, and has written about the country’s political, social and economic issues. Helen works as a freelance rural development consultant. Her book “Yemen in Crisis: the Road to War”, published by Verso in 2019, is a seminal study of the current war and what lies behind it. Her recent Arab Digest podcast on the Yemen situation is available here.

The Houthis feature prominently in discussion of the Yemen war, usually focusing on their military progress, drone/missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and their current ascendancy in possible negotiations. The fact that they rule over 70% of Yemenis and control both the capital and the Red Sea ports are also well known. Far less attention is given to the nature of their rule.

Ansar Allah, the Houthi title for their movement, promotes a fundamentalist repressive Islamist ideology to control Yemenis living in the area it rules. There is little to choose between fundamentalism, whether Christian, Hindu or, within Islam, Sunni or Shi’i. They all uphold authoritarian world visions, justifying their rules by reference to ancient theological texts, have no respect for human rights and, among others, share a belief in male supremacy. These features are all evident in Ansar Allah’s ruling system: the targets of their wrath include any manifestation of independent thought, from journalists in particular and women in general. The regulations they impose strengthen their control but also are used to ensure financial benefit, either ‘legitimately’ or by forcing people to pay bribes to by-pass the rules.

Houthi troops near Maarib, Yemen in April 2021 [photocredit @Zaid83910006]
How the Houthis are worsening living conditions for Yemenis

The most significant impact on living conditions in Houthiland comes from the mechanisms they use to maximise income from imported and locally produced basic necessities. Their taxation system is effective, operates at checkpoints, wholesale and retail stores, as well as the collection of customs and other duties at sea ports and customs posts distributed throughout the country wherever goods enter either from abroad or from the areas out of their control.

One aspect of this situation which has come to international attention is Ansar Allah authorities’ fraught relationship with the international humanitarian aid sector. Houthi manipulations of beneficiary lists,  accusations of diversion of aid to their supporters, and hefty processing charges imposed on UN and other organisations created tensions which built up and reached crisis point. Following months of fruitless negotiations to introduce biometric identification for beneficiaries, the WFP finally ceased aid distributions in Sana’a in June 2019, but resumed them two months later as they had reached an agreement to implement an independent needs assessment and issue biometric beneficiary ID. Two years later, it is clear that the problem remains significant and very few biometric details have been collected but, facing other problems, the UN has not attempted to stop aid distributions again. The current deep drop in quantities of assistance available and the number of beneficiaries is the result of insufficient funding which stands at 35% of requirement in mid-May.

Among other moves to control the aid sector, in 2020, the Houthis attempted to impose a blanket 2% tax on all its activities: they gave up on this as a result of the collective response of UN and all humanitarian INGOs. However, systematic delays in issuing of visas and travel permits are daily routine for humanitarian agencies whether medical, nutritional or educational. The Houthis’ aim is not to starve the population but rather to maximise their hard currency income; hunger is a by-product which is of no concern to their leaders.

Human rights

Houthi treatment of women is a systematic denial of their rights: they closed coffee bars frequented by men and women under the excuse of ensuring gender segregation, they forbid women from working in public places like restaurants. In recent years, they have regularly raided clothes shops in Sana’a, removing ‘waisted’ abayas or ordering staff to remove abaya belts deemed to be too revealing. At different times they have ordered that women should not go out unaccompanied by a close male relative.

Women are arrested under any excuse, particularly if they express dissent from the regime. They are then ill-treated in detention and accused of prostitution which has serious social implications in the conservative Yemeni society. A recent such event came to international attention when they arrested and threatened a model with a ‘virginity test’ for not wearing a headscarf.

Journalists are another favourite target of the Houthis who are determined to control all media output. Not only are they harassed and prevented from carrying out their work, but they risk imprisonment and long prison sentences. The most blatant and outrageous case is that of four journalists who, after 5 years in prison, were sentenced to death a year ago; since then, national and international pressure has failed to have them pardoned and released. One reason no information is emerging about Covid-19 cases in Houthiland is that Ansar Allah have forbidden any reporting of the pandemic, thus the extent and risks associated with it are subject to nothing other than rumour and consequent fear.


Despite public statements about seeking to end the war, there is little evidence that the Houthi leadership is planning to negotiate; it publicised its conditions a year ago and since then intensified its offensive on the Marib front and elsewhere. While the UN negotiations process is fundamentally flawed by UNSC 2216 [see our postings of  22 February 21 and 22 December 20 most recently], there is another urgent issue on which the Houthis have demonstrated their complete disregard for both human life and all environmental aspects of the Red Sea coast.

The deteriorating Safer FSO (floating storage and offloading vessel) could lead to an extraordinary disaster for Yemen and the region. Moored 7km off the Red Sea coast, it has been deteriorating since 2015 and could sink or explode anytime (see our posting of July 20). Since 2018 UN attempts at negotiating an inspection mission with the Houthis have failed, twice at the last minute. There are many reasons why the Houthis are preventing action, including the income they imagine they might get from the sale of the 1.1 million barrels of oil still on the ship, ignoring scientific data pointing out that it is now worthless, having deteriorated over time.

As ever, the Yemeni people continue to suffer, both those under Houthi rule and others, due to leaderships lacking any human empathy.

This is a sample Arab Digest newsletter.

To start receiving complete daily newsletters, click on the link below for your Free 30-day Trial or Join Arab Digest now to receive full membership benefits.

Join TodayBack to Sample NewslettersFree 30-day Trial