The Houthi–Tribal Conflict in Yemen

The Houthi–Tribal Conflict in Yemen

By Maysaa Shuja Al-Deen

While fighting between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition has stopped along the western coast of Yemen around the port of Hodeidah since the Stockholm Agreement was signed on December 13, 2018, several other secondary conflicts have flared up, revealing how complicated the internal conflict in Yemen is even aside from its regional dimension. The most prominent battles have been between the Houthis and the tribes of Hajour in the governorate of Hajjah, where fighting broke out in January and continued for two months until the Houthis took control of the region on March 8. Even though the Houthis won the battle, the emergence of a serious threat in their northern heartland raises questions about their ability to assert control.

The battle of Hajour took place near the Houthi stronghold of Saada, and despite Houthi’s superior military might, the Hajour tribes were able to hold their own for two months nonetheless, spurred on by various political, sectarian, and foreign incentives. The Hajour tribe’s home region is of vital strategic importance in light of the war between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia. Hajjah borders Saada governorate (the Houthis’ home base), Amran (the northern gateway to Sanaa), and the Harad district along the border with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are seeking to create a buffer zone along the border, especially since the army loyal to the recognized government took control of the Ahem triangle in the border district of Harad in November 2018, a significant military breakthrough. This spurred them to assert control over the Hajour tribal region, especially Mount Kushar and al-Abissa, through which runs the only paved road linking Saada (the Houthis’ supply base) and the border area of Harad. The Hajour area also links Saada with the Tahama plains (along the west coast) and with Amran governorate.

Tension between the Houthis and the tribes has been on the rise since Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed on December 3, 2017. The former Yemeni president represented the most powerful tribal wing of the alliance between the Houthis and the tribes. This alliance had been based on short-term overlapping political objectives, such as fighting common enemies and a desire to derail the political process in its interim phase. Regional solidarity also helped unite the two groups, since the Houthis identified as Hashemites (claiming direct descent from the line of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima), giving them a religious leadership role and social prestige. Meanwhile, Saleh possessed a broad, trans-sectarian network of tribal alliances, particularly among historically Sunni areas along the coast or highland areas that converted to Sunnism, especially as Salafi ideology expanded in recent decades.

During Saleh’s presidency, the area fell under the military influence of Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the commander of the First Armored Division and an ally of the Islah Party, itself associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Houthis and the tribes had previously fought each other when the Houthis first expanded into neighboring northern governorates after they took control of Saada during the 2011 popular uprising. In January 2012, successful tribal mediation resulted in a deal wherein the Houthis would not intervene in the area in exchange for the tribes remaining within their home regions. This agreement held up until January 2018—both sides accuse the other of violating the agreement, and there are varying accounts of how the latest round of fighting broke out.

The Houthis accuse some tribal elders, especially Sheikh Fahd al-Dahshoush from Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) Party, of having received payments from Saudi Arabia to abrogate their agreement with the Houthis, claiming that this is why they could afford several new, well-equipped security checkpoints. Meanwhile, the Hajour tribes argue that Houthi fighters crossed over onto their land, and that the Jahaf family (a Hashemite, non-tribal family of Houthi supporters) had begun bringing in heavy weaponry to their village, antagonizing the Hajour tribes.

The initial reasons for this fighting were likely local in nature, such as a dispute between Houthi supporters and their opponents. However, several other factors contributed to the clashes’ duration and expansion, as well as the failure of traditional tribal mediation attempts. These include a built-up desire for vengeance left over from previous fighting, the need to resolve the strategically significant area’s status, and foreign intervention. On February 19, Saudi Arabia made a somewhat belated attempt at intervention, making five airdrops of medical supplies, food, weapons, and money to tribal elders besieged by the Houthis. Although the airdrop, particularly the arms and ammunition, was key in allowing the tribes to hold out longer, it also set off internal squabbling over the distribution of supplies.

You can read the full opinion article at Carnegie Endowment For International Peace here.

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