The Al-Houthi Movement in Yemen. A Social Movement Approach

Bachelor Thesis, 2017

46 Pages, Grade: 1.3


1. Introduction ... 4
2. Social Movement Theoretical Framework ... 5
3. The Al-Houthi Movement: Origin and Development ... 6
3.1. Zaydi History, Culture and Identity 893­1962 ... 6
3.2. Early Zaydi Social Movements 1980s­1990s ... 7
3.3. Zaydi Radicalization 1986­2004 ... 8
4. The Course of the Houthi Conflict in Yemen ... 9
4.1. Six Sa'ada Wars 2004­2010 ... 9
4.2. From Arab Spring to Civil War 2011­present ... 10
5. The Al-Houthi Movement in the light of SMT ... 11
5.1. Resource and Mobilizing Structures ... 11
5.1.1. Educational Networks ... 11
5.1.2. Social and Organizational Networks ... 12
5.1.3. Financial and Political Resources ... 12
5.1.4. Rituals and Culture ... 13
5.1.5. Propaganda and Publicity ... 13
5.1.6. Military Hardware ... 13
5.2. Framing Processes ... 14
5.2.1. Main Governmental Narratives ... 14
5.2.2. Main Zaydi Revivalist and Houthi Narratives ... 15
5.3. Opportunities and Constraints ... 16
6. Conclusion and Outlook ... 17
7. List of Acronyms and Abbreviations ... 19
8. List of References ... 20
Appendix ... 26
Table of Content

A.1. Food Insecurity Status in Yemen by February 2017 ... 26
A.2. Comparative Analyses of Contentious Collective Action ... 27
A.3. Historical Division of Republic of Yemen 1967­1990 ... 28
A.4. Federal Division of the Republic of Yemen since 1990 ... 29
A.5. Religious Division in the Republic of Yemen ... 30
A.6. Tribal Division in the Republic of Yemen ... 31
A.7. US Military Aid to Yemen 2001­2006 (in USD)... 32
A.8. Presence of Al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) ... 32
A.9. Houthi Expansion 2012­2015 ... 33
A.10. Military Coalition Decisive Storm ... 34
A.11. Frontline Status by February 2017 ... 34
A.12. Historical Evolution of the Houthi Movement since 1962 ... 35
A.13. Al-Houthi Family Structure... 36
A.14. Partial Al-Houthi Family Picture of 1996 ... 37
A.15. Organizational Structure of the Houthi Movement ... 38
A.16. Oil and Gas Fields in Yemen with Houthi-Expansion ... 39
A.17. Houthi Supporters at Eid al-Ghadir in 2014 ... 40
A.18. Commemoration of Houthi Martyrs ... 41
A.19. Al-Houthi Websites and Forums ... 42
A.20. Development of Houthi Media Resources during Sa'ada War... 43
A.21. Qabyala and the Culture of Weapons ... 44
A.22. Arms markets in Amran province and Suq al-Talh ... 45
A.23. Captured Military Gear from GoY and Saudi-led intervention ... 46

"Ruling Yemen is like
dancing on the heads of snakes."
­ Ali Abdullah Saleh, former president
of the Republic of Yemen (Clark 2010: 3)
1. Introduction
A 13 years lasting conflict which spiralled into a bloody civil war with more than 10.000 deaths
and more than 3 million refugees and IDPs, massive economic, political and security challenges with
Al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Daesh taking ground, extreme poverty, severe food-
insecurity (A.1), a lack of access to water and medication, in short: a situation "beyond any humanita-
rian catastrophe" (UNHCR 2017). Although Yemen's situation is ranked worse than the current Syri-
an crisis (FSI 2016), it has been overshadowed and was largely ignored by western media, thus ma-
king the conflict a forgotten war. A short exception was the urgent alarm sounded by the UN recently
due to the increasing food crisis which affects two-third of the entire population (UNICEF 2017;
Madhok & Al Sharafi 2017). Besides that, the country is typically seen as a backyard for international
terrorism and the ongoing conflict is predominantly addressed as a sectarian proxy-war with rivaling
Shia and Sunni groups supported by Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in their fight for
supremacy in the Middle East.
However, the situation on the ground shows a greater complexity. When analyzing the antagonists
involved, the so-called "al-Houthi movement" from northern Yemen appears to play a central role.
Surprisingly, the movement has transitioned from a peaceful social movement through a violent mo-
vement against President Saleh's regime, to a movement supporting the uprisings during the "Arab
Spring", holding national political power and seeking to create a coalition government in Yemen --
and this largely unaffected by the Saudi-led military intervention or ongoing US drone strikes. Taking
into account their major role in the country's history, presence and possibly Yemen's future setup, my
paper aims to go beyond the conventional explanations. It "deorientalizes" the movement and sheds
light on the Houthis as a social movement with particular aims, resources and constraints that are sub-
ject to change.
This suggests the following research questions: Which terms and conditions enable(d) the
emergence and radicalization of the al-Houthi in Yemen? In line with the social movement theory
(SMT), the essay assumes that the movement's growth was due to their effective use of structural re-
sources and framing techniques and was accelerated by changes in opportunity structures. Therefore,
the shift towards a more radical approach is also due to the changes of opportunity structures and fra-
ming. To answer the research question, Chapter 2 introduces SMT as the theoretical foundation.
Chapter 3 traces the movements roots, developments and splits. Chapter 4 provides an overview
about the course of the Houthi conflict including the Six Sa'ada wars and the time after the Arab

Spring up to 2017. Subsequently, Chapter 5 provides a more detailed analysis of the movement in the
light of the theoretical framework in order to provide the findings in Chapter 6 with a conclusion and
2. Social Movement Theoretical Framework
In order to explain contentious collective action, SMT concentrates on groups as the main
level of analysis rather than on individual behavior, such as rational choice theories do, or on
states and the international system, as in structural theories (Robinson 2004: 115) (A.2). Alt-
hough the effort to agree upon an exact definition of social movements has often been
described as a "theoretical nightmare" (Barker 2014: 47), some characteristics seem com-
mon to every social movement: they have a "common cause", "a distinct collective identity",
"a visible membership base", "engage in collective action" and are in "conflictual relations
with clearly defined opponents" (De la Porta & Diani 2006: 20). Usually, social movements
are perceived as a complex entity, which is therefore distinguished from the more formal
"social movement organization" (SMO).
For long, SMT focused on movements in Western Europe and the US and modeled Is-
lamic activism as something distinct. In contrast, Wiktorowicz contested this "exceptionalism"
of Islamic activism by stating that it is no phenomenon "sui generis" (Wiktorowicz 2004: 3),
but has elements in common with all social movements (Singerman 2004: 145). Hence, it is
well analyzable in terms of factors, such as "resource availability, framing resources and
shifts in opportunity structures" (ibid: 4).
According to the resource mobilization theory (RMT), a movement can be studied in re-
gard to its ability to mobilize followers for their cause with the help of strategic resources,
ranging from material ones -- such as "jobs, income, savings, right to specific goods and
services -- to non-tangible resources, like authority, leadership, moral commitment, trust,
friendship, skills and habits of industry" (Van Stekelenburg & Klandermans 2009: 24). In ad-
dition, they can be formal, informal or even illegal (Robinson 2004: 116). Resources that are
more commonly employed by Islamic movements are mosques or charity organizations such
as hospitals, schools or cultural centers (Wiktorowicz 2004: 10f; Kurzman 1994). Additionally,
professional or student associations (Wickham 1997; Fahmy 1998), informal institutions and
social networks (Wiktorowicz 2001) and even parties can be included (Wiktorowicz 2004:
11f). Even though power-seeking parties need to be differentiated from social movements,
the latter can "share some of their features, or even transform into one" (ibid: 18-20), but will
always remain only one resource among others.
Framing resources refer to the intersubjective production, articulation and dissemination of
meaning and include important ideational and cultural components of contention, referring to
symbolism, language, cultural history and identity issues (ibid: 25; Morris & Mueller 1992;

Laraña et al. 1994; Johnston & Klandermans 1995). According to Snow & Benford (1988),
framing typically involves three basic tasks: firstly, "diagnostic framing" -- the problem diag-
nosis, secondly, "prognostic framing" -- stating remedying solutions, and thirdly, "motivatio-
nal framing" -- providing motivation for collective action (ibid: 616-17; McAdam 1996: 6).
Effective framing is often done in just a few words, such as "Islam is the solution" (Robinson
2004: 116). What is more, framing can be examined as a field where multiple inter-
movement, intra-movement as well as official actors (Noakes 2000) compete for "framing
hegemony", especially concerning strategy and tactical issues (Benford 1993; Benford and
Snow 2000: 625-27), such as whether to include force or rely on the belief of the individual
(Wiktorowicz 2004: 17f).
The analysis of opportunity structures sheds light on the broader societal environment and
exogenous factors that either accelerate or decelerate collective action (Tilly 1978: 24; Bayat
2007: 18). Determining variables themselves rely on interpretation (Kurzman 1996; McAdam
et al. 1996). In regard to political opportunity structures (POS) these variables can comprise:
"the level of formal and informal access to political institutions and decision making, the
degree of the political system receptivity to challenger groups, the prevalence of allies and
opponents, the stability of the ruling elite coalition, the nature of state repression, and state
institutional capacity" (Wiktorowicz 2004: 14; Tilly 1978; Kitschelt 1986; Tarrow 1994;
McAdam et. al. 1996). In addition, Wiktorowicz includes "cultural, social and economic" op-
portunities likewise (Wiktorowicz 2004: 14).
3. The Al-Houthi Movement: Origin and Development
3.1. Zaydi History, Culture and Identity 893­1962
The Houthi movement has deep roots in Yemeni history and Zaydi Islam as its foundation.
During the eighth century Zaydism emerged as the oldest branch of Shi'a Islam and -- in
recognition of Zayd ibn Ali as the fifth rightful Caliph -- is also known as "fiver" Shi'a in com-
parison to the ,,sevener" Shia (Isma`ilism) and the "twelver" Shi'a, which is the state religion in
nowadays Iran. A core maxim which is in contrast to Sunni Islam, is called "khuruj" ("coming
out"), meaning the uprising against an unjust ruler, which Zayd himself followed against the
Umayyad Caliphate in Kufa, resulting in his martyr death in 740. By 893 Imam Yahya bin al-
Husayn, a sayyid (pl. sa'ada), meaning a member of the Zaydi nobility and a Hashemite clan-
member, became the first to establish an Imamate in Sa'ada in northern Yemen, which be-
came a strong and tolerant Zaydi State, that lasted for over 1000 years and thereby effec-
tively resisted the Ottomans' occupation in the North from the 1870s until 1918 as well as the
British rule in the South from the 1830s to 1967 (Dumm 2010: 71).

However, a Cairo-backed republican revolution (vom Bruck 2005: 7) terminated the reign
of Mohammad al Badr as the last Imam in September 1962 and thus the social and political
beneficiaries for the Zaydi community. Instead, Ali Abdullah Saleh was appointed the first
President of the northern Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), which was divided from the southern
People's Republic of Yemen (PDRY) (A.3) until unification in 1990 (A.4). His successor Ali
Abdullah Saleh served as president of YAR from 1978 until 1990 and subsequently as presi-
dent of the Republic of Yemen (RoY) until 2012. As a reaction to the new state, some Zaydi
sa'ada renounced their heritage and modified their surnames (ibid: 235). Others reconciled
their past identity with the presence and even supported the new regime (International Crisis
Group (ICG) 2009: 6). The latter strategy met more difficulties over time, as Saleh -- alt-
hough being a Zaydi himself -- commenced to promote a new, mostly tribal Yemeni identity
(vom Bruck 2005: 9). The government of Yemen (GoY) vilified the country's Zaydi history
and neglected the region of Sa'ada (Dumm 2010: 75), which thereby literally became the
country's "periphery" (Salmoni et al 2010). For the country's religious distribution as well as
for the tribal setup see A.5 and A.6.
3.2. Early Zaydi Social Movements 1980s­1990s
This official exclusion of Zaydi identity as something non-Yemeni (vom Bruck 2005: 10) as
well as the emerging Salafi/Wahhabi Sunni Islam since the 1980s -- which supported from
the KSA and GoY financially (ICG 2009: 8,10; Bonnefoy 2009) -- challenged the wish to
preserve core tenets of Zaydism and thus gave rise to a self-defensive cultural revivalist mo-
vement (Dumm 2010: 80, 90). This acquired particular urgency in the course of Wahhabi
desecrations of Zaydi tombs and gravestones and the public advocation of these actions
(Weeden 2008: 165; Haykel 1995).
The Zaydi reaction strategy caused a generational split within the movement: with the
"hijra", mainly elderly withdrawing from the contested urban zones on the one hand, and the
younger revivalist movement on the other hand. The latter opted for copying strategies of the
expanding Wahhabi movement and set up their own educational system with religious
schools (madaris al ilmaiyya)
or teacher training institutes. As a Zaydi cleric and proponent of
Zaydi revivalism since the 1970s, Badr al-Din al-Houthi became a prominent figure in that
period, which was characterized by a defensive posture in comparison to the Wahhabi mo-
vement. Furthermore, pamphlets and audios were distributed, Zaydi rituals promoted and the
festival of "Eid al Ghadir" reinstalled (Dumm 2010: 88ff), which was forbidden since 1962.
The unification of North- and South Yemen to the Republic of Yemen in 1990 with the estab-
lishment of a multiparty system led to the foundation of the "al-Haqq" party in 1991 as the
"party of truth" to compete with the Sunni Islamist "al-Islah"
party and the ruling General Pe-
ople's Congress (GPC) of President Saleh (ibid: 94).

3.3. Zaydi Radicalization 1986­2004
In contrast to the success of the GPC with 123 seats and the al-Islah party with 62 seats
in the elections of 1993, the al-Haqq party won 2 seats only for Husayn al Houthi and Yahya
al Houthi and repeatedly failed to win seats in parliament thereafter (Dumm 2010: 95ff). In
combination with the spread of Wahhabism in Zaydi heartland and the limited outcomes of
the educational network, these failures led to a split in the revivalist leadership in the late
1980s and to the founding of the Youth Union by 1986 (Haidar 2009) and the Shabab al Mo-
umineen (SAM) as a successor organization in 1992 (Freeman 2009: 1008). As an alternati-
ve to the revivalist school network and disappointed by al-Haqq, Mohammed Ezzan and Ab-
dul Karim Jabdan founded a network of educational summer camps, associations and sport
clubs as an "entirely new associational space for young Zaydis" and as a tool for cultural self-
defense in a peaceful manner (Dumm 2010: 98, 102). They became quite popular and soon
co-opted around 18.000 students (Clark 2010: 249).
By the end of the 1990s however, the movement began to recede. This led to another in-
tra-movement dispute about "the degree of polarization appropriate for the Shabab" (Salmoni
et al 2010: 108), which was spearheaded by Husayn al-Houthi and resulted in the divide of
SAM into a moderate and more conservative arm with the latter taking up arms shortly
thereafter and calling themselves "al-Houthis".
The beginning of the "militant phase" (Fattah 2009) in 1999 was justified by the need to
protect the Zaydi identity, the "madaris al ilmaiyya" and the summer camps from threats po-
sed by the Wahhabi forces and the GoY (Dumm 2010: 103). As the existing arrays of
grievances in socio-economic, cultural and political regard came to pass the events of 9/11
-- with the so called "global war on terror" (GWoT) -- the alienation from the GoY with its
increasing US-security cooperation, gained a new momentum (Salmoni et al 2010: 114).
Also due to the bombing of the USS
in 2000, Yemen was under pressure to take coun-
terterrorism measures, for which the US greatly augmented their military aid and technical
assistance (ibid: 125) (A.7). Husayn al-Houthi, who soon was deemed the `allama, the lea-
ding one (ibid: 115), addressed the sorrows of these developments by referring to the prin-
ciple of khuruj and questioned whether GoY was still able to defend Islam. His lectures and
Friday sermons were recorded and circulated as rapidly as his protest slogan, which was
invented in 2002 and usually chanted at the end of his speeches: "Allahu Akbar, Death to
America, Death to Israel, Curse Upon the Jews, Victory for Islam". As the chanting was inter-
preted as a threat to the regime, GoY adopted a rather strong stance, banned it, imposed it
with penalties (ibid: 123) and did not exclude the use of offensive military means for the first
time -- a posture that would have been quite unlikely prior to 9/11 (ibid: 123).

4. The Course of the Houthi Conflict in Yemen
4.1. Six Sa'ada Wars 2004­2010
The visit of President Saleh to a mosque in Sa'ada in 2003 is often considered the initial
spark for the Houthi conflict, as he was drown out by SAM members chanting the slogan. In
times of intensified US-Yemeni security cooperation, Saleh interpreted this as a threat and
challenge to his regime (Dumm 2010: 25). He initiated government crackdowns and arrests
of more than 600 people (Winter 2011: 103). The growing sentiment among the Zaydi com-
munity of being unfairly targeted, sporadic attacks on governmental installations, the spread
of the Houthi slogan and the withholding of taxes for GoY (Freeman 2009: 1009) aggravated
the situation. Last-minute efforts of mediation failed to prevent further escalation (ICG 2009:
Increasing anti-government protests in the streets and even in the capital gave rise to the
first round of the conflict in June 2004. 640 SAM-members and protesters were arrested
(Glosemeyer & Reneau 2004: 44) and Husayn al-Houthi should be taken captive by a police
campaign. Instead of surrendering, he addressed Saleh in an open letter where he rejected
the reproach to establish a new imamate (ICG 2009: 3). Instead, he called for unity in the
struggle against the common enemies of the nation and the "ummah" -- the Islamic commu-
nity (Wedeen 2008: 155). While arbitration efforts were still underway, GoY resorted to force
in order to capture him -- a strictly forbidden move under Yemeni tribal law (Glosemeyer &
Reneau 2004: 45, Dumm 2010: 29). Following clashes between Houthi fighters and govern-
ment forces, the killing of Husayn al-Houthi in September 2004 marked the end of the first
round (Boucek 2010: 6).
Until April 2005, the second round witnessed a change in leadership to Husayn's father
Badr al-Din al-Houthi, who led repeated clashes after GoY promises to release Houthi sup-
porters had been reneged on (Winter 2011: 103). In addition to campaigns to oppose the
Houthis' influence, GoY's military response became even harsher (Peterson 2008: 7; HRW
Lasting from November 2005 to February 2006, the third round began with tribal fighting,
followed by clashes of varying intensity with government forces. The natural death of Badr al-
Din al-Houthi led to another change in leadership, putting Husayn's brother Abd al-Malik al-
Houthi in. Prior to the Yemeni presidential elections in September 2006, GoY strived to draw
a line under the fightings and released around 600 prisoners (Boucek 2010: 7).
After a relatively calm year, the fourth and by then longest and bloodiest round quickly
escalated in January 2007, reaching a new complexity due to the additional layers of tribal
fighting and came to an end only through Qatari efforts, who brokered the Doha Peace Ag-
reement in February 2008.

Due to mutual recriminations, the peace agreement found a premature end. This led to
the short, but intense fifth round starting in March 2008, which took the fightings up to just 20
km before the capital of Sana'a (Winter 2011: 104). Despite this proximity, president Saleh
announced a unilateral ceasefire due to the thirtieth anniversary of his rule in July 2008
(Boucek 2010: 8).
On the basis of an increase in brutal abductions -- for which AQAP seems more likely to
be accountable (ibid: 8) -- GoY started the sixth round in August 2009 with the aim to finally
crush the Houthis with a "scorched earth" policy (Winter 2011: 104; Boucek 2010: 9). In addi-
tion, the conflict between the Houthis and AQAP intensified (A.8). After 40.000 soldiers, artil-
lery and aerial bombardments (ibid: 9) had given rise to another increase in civilian casual-
ties, the ceasefire of February 2010 stopped the conflict for a moment (ICG 2014: 1).
4.2. From Arab Spring to Civil War 2011­present
By joining the anti-regime protests during the Arab uprising and by forming ties to activists
throughout the country, the al Houthi-movement commenced a ,,revolution within the revolu-
tion" (Blecua 2015). They expanded rapidly and became the de-facto governing authority in
Sa'ada province and thus ,,the biggest winner" (ICG 2014: 2) of the Arab Spring. As a natio-
nal actor, the movement soon devised a political program, demanded a place in the national
decision-making and obtained domestic and international legitimacy by joining the UN-
backed National Dialogue Conference (NDC) (ibid: 2). By the end of 2011, president Saleh
followed a GCC-brokered transition plan to hand the office over to his vice president Abd
Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who was appointed the next president after the presidential elections
in February 2012.
However, the agreements achieved in the NDC were thwarted by the Houthi fighters. With
the negotiation deadline approaching the fightings -- with the Houthis and the tribes on the
one hand and Islah, Ali Mohsin and the Ahmar family as well as Salafi fighters on the other
hand -- intensified and made the conflict spread. President Hadi preferred not to get invol-
ved militarily and rounded off the NDC with a ceasefire in January 2014.
The following talks between a governmental delegation and Abd al-Malik al-Houthi in April
2014 concerning the implementation of the NDC agreements were soon overshadowed by
renewed clashes, in which the Yemeni Air Force eventually found itself bombing the Houthis
again (Reuters 2014a and 2014b), which seized parts of the capital Sana'a in return, inclu-
ding the government headquarters and the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY). Soon thereafter
the UN-brokered Peace and Partnership Agreement to form a unity government was signed
in September 2014.
However, the Houthis gained further territorial control in early 2015, which paved the way
to access the strategic important Bab-el-Mandab strait and other parts of former southern
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The Al-Houthi Movement in Yemen. A Social Movement Approach
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