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Red Sea attacks: How Yemen's Houthis have defied western stereotypes

Attempts by the US and UK to depict the group's actions as irrational and illogical are falling flat on their face
People protest the US and UK strikes across Yemen against Houthi forces, at a rally in Seattle, on 12 January, 2024 (Reuters)

Demonisation is a familiar play when organisations and governments challenge western policy.

One of the arguments now making the rounds about the Houthi movement in Yemen is that its actions against Red Sea shipping have nothing to do with Gaza at all - and that even if Israel stopped the war, the Houthis wouldn’t stop. 

Underlying this is not just demonisation, but also racism. British officials have repeatedly made such claims in recent days, aiming to justify launching strikes without parliamentary approval. The Houthis’ actions have “nothing to do with the Israel-Gaza conflict”, Defence Secretary Grant Shapps noted. 

This is despite the fact that the Houthis have consistently said they are only targeting ships heading to Israel, and have avoided causing any deaths - while suffering their own casualties in the US-British attacks launched since 12 January. The most their fighters have done is taken ship crew members hostage

The Houthis have won huge support across the Global South because the Red Sea attacks are seen as a brave, if modest, effort by the little guy against a tyrannical force.

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Even if the Houthis were solely playing cynically to global audiences, as critics argue, it is hard to see them forfeiting that support by continuing to disrupt shipping without cause after a Gaza ceasefire. 

At the same time, the Houthi policy has proven to be remarkably effective. With relatively little effort, they have caused major shipping companies to avoid the Red Sea, through which around 12 percent of global trade passes. Global supply chains are clogging up as ships take the long route around Africa, with huge extra costs in fuel, or companies look at alternative land and air routes. 

Dripping with condescension 

Israel’s economy is suffering heavily, partly due to the Houthi blockade and missiles - however unsophisticated - fired towards the Red Sea port of Eilat. The Israeli central bank has estimated the war’s cost at $56bn, and joblessness rose sharply in the first month of the war alone, to 9.6 percent

At the same time, western rhetoric against the Houthis, known officially as Ansar Allah, has been dripping with the kind of condescension for those who resist western dictates that non-western audiences immediately understand. This “ragtag force of religious lunatics” cannot possibly have a cause other than sowing mayhem at Iran’s bidding; this has been a particular focus of US commentary

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Such themes are intended to deflect attention from what Houthi leaders have said repeatedly about their own actions: that the attacks are about Gaza. As viral “Houthi TikTok pirate” Rashid al-Haddad told popular US streamer Hasan Piker, "the most important thing is that we stand with Palestine".  

Countries that signed the UN's Genocide Convention have an obligation to stop such atrocities, and given the historic ruling of the International Court of Justice last month – and Israel's vow to ignore it - the Houthis can lay further claim to be acting as an enforcer of international law against a rogue state. 

The discourse of 'mad mountain' savages is going nowhere. The Houthis acted because of Gaza; they will stand down over Gaza

The Biden administration has tried to present itself as the voice of reason by waiting after the Yemeni attacks began in November, and issuing a series of warnings to back off, before launching multiple deadly strikes on Yemen since 12 January.

But it’s not lost on anyone outside the gang of western countries protecting Israel that the US-British concern is to protect economies - not least Israel’s - and not human life. 

In their view, Israel must have the unencumbered ability to carry out its war on Gaza in a way that will, according to their theory, maintain the prestige of the apartheid state, which means freedom of choice on how to end the conflict. They cannot countenance the idea of succumbing to global pressure to end the slaughter, despite the fact that Hamas remains in place as a political and military force capable of fighting back against the Israeli army. 

The western bid to depict the Yemeni actions against mass murder in Gaza as irrational and illogical is falling flat on its face. There are many things the Houthis can rightly be accused of: their war conduct has caused numerous forms of cruel, random suffering for civilians. And there’s no doubt they are able to strengthen their grip on power through championing this global cause celebre. But the discourse of “mad mountain” savages is going nowhere. 

The Houthis acted because of Gaza; they will stand down over Gaza.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Andrew Hammond currently teaches Turkish history at Oxford university. He is the author of Popular Culture in North Africa and the Middle East, The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia, and numerous academic articles on modern Islamic thought. He worked previously at the European Council on Foreign Relations, BBC Arabic and Reuters in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
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