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Explained: Houthis and the war in Yemen, in which Indian lives have now been lost

🔴 The Houthi rebels of Yemen have claimed responsibility for the suspected drone attack in Abu Dhabi on Monday, which killed three people, including two Indians. Who are the Houthis, and why did they target the UAE?

Written by Krishn Kaushik , Rahel Philipose , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: January 20, 2022 8:24:26 am
People inspect the wreckage of buildings that were damaged by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, in Sanaa, Yemen, Tuesday. It said it also struck a drone operating base in Nabi Shuaib Mountain near Sanaa. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

Two Indians and a Pakistani were killed and six other people including two Indians were injured in an attack by suspected drones on three petroleum tankers at an oil facility in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Monday.

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The attack was claimed by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels of Yemen. Indians were not the target of the attack. Brig Gen Yahya Sare’e, the Houthi military spokesman, tweeted that the “UAE is an unsafe state as long as its aggressive escalation against Yemen continues”.

Yemen is located at the junction of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, its coastline commanding the strategic strait of Bab al-Mandab. The country has been wracked by civil war for more than seven years now, and the Houthis control the western part of the country, including the capital Sana’a.

The war involves several nations directly or indirectly, and the attack in Abu Dhabi spotlights the multiple conflicts that are playing out in Yemen and the wider region as a whole.

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Who are the Houthis, and why is there a war in Yemen?

The Houthis are a large clan belonging to the Zaidi Shia sect, with roots in Yemen’s northwestern Saada province. Zaidis make up around 35 per cent of Yemen’s population.

The Zaidis ruled over Yemen for over a thousand years until 1962, when they were overthrown and a civil war followed, which lasted until 1970. The Houthi clan began to revive the Zaidi tradition from the 1980s, resisting the increasing influence of the Salafists, who were funded by the state.

In 2004, the Houthis began an insurgent movement against the Yemeni government, naming themselves after the political, military, and religious leader Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, who was assassinated by Yemeni security forces in September of that year. Several years of conflict between the Houthis and Yemen’s Sunni majority government followed.

In 2012, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been Yemen’s president since 1990 (and before that, president of the pre-unification country of North Yemen from 1978 onward), was forced to step down in the wake of the Arab Spring protests. He was succeeded by his vice-president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

In 2015, Saleh aligned himself with the Houthis against Hadi, and the insurgency — which at the time had the support of many ordinary Yemenis including Sunnis — captured Sana’a. The president fled to Aden and subsequently to Saudi Arabia, where he continues to spend most of his time.

In 2017, however, Saleh broke his alliance with the Houthis, and crossed over to the side of their enemies — the Saudis, the UAE, and President Hadi. That December, Saleh was assassinated.

How did Saudi and UAE get involved in the war?

In March 2015, soon after Hadi was forced from power, a nine-nation coalition led by Saudi Arabia, which received logistic and intelligence support from the United States, began a bombing campaign against the Houthis. The air attacks were in support of Hadi’s forces, who were seeking to take back Sana’a from Houthi control.

At the heart of the intervention, however, lay the region’s fundamental power struggle — between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Riyadh and the west believe that the Houthis are backed militarily and financially by the regime in Tehran.

Saudi Arabia shares an over 1,300-km border with Yemen. In the beginning, Riyadh claimed that the war would be over in just a few months. However, the coalition has made only limited progress since then, the war is stalemated, the Houthis remain in power in Sana’a, and a humanitarian catastrophe has unfolded in Yemen.

Since 2015, the battle has constantly shifted shape, with the participants switching sides among the Saudi-backed forces known as Popular Resistance Committees, the Iran-backed groups, and various shades of Islamist militants including those linked with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Is that why the Houthis targeted the UAE?

Brig Gen Sare’e said Monday’s attack had been launched “deep in the UAE”, and warned the “countries of aggression that they will receive more painful and painful blows”.

He told the Houthi-controlled Al Masirah TV that five ballistic missiles and a large number of drones were used in “Operation Hurricane Yemen” that targeted the Dubai and Abu Dhabi airports, the Musaffah oil refinery in Abu Dhabi, and other facilities, CNN reported.

The UAE had since 2019 dialled down its involvement in directly attacking Houthi groups inside Yemen; however, in the past few months, some of the UAE-backed groups have launched an offensive against the Houthis.

The Houthis have sought to take credit for attacks inside UAE earlier too — the most recent of these claims was made in 2018. While the Emirati authorities had denied those earlier claims, the country’s foreign ministry blamed “the Houthi militia” for Monday’s “targeting of civilian areas and facilities on UAE soil”.

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More than the UAE, it is Saudi Arabia that has been in the crosshairs of the Houthis. Since 2015, they have repeatedly fired missiles and mortar at Saudi military and civilian facilities including airports and oil facilities, and killed many Saudi soldiers. Over the last year, the two sides have been engaged in a tense battle to capture the Marib province, which is the government’s only remaining stronghold in northern Yemen, and houses vast oil and gas infrastructure.

Following Monday’s attack, the Saudi coalition announced that it had launched air strikes targeting Sana’a and Marib, and killed hundreds of Houthi fighters.

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