Despite efforts at diplomacy, the war in Yemen continues as the parties to the conflict compete for influence across the war-torn country. Of particular importance to understanding the conflict, as well as where it is headed, are the Houthi Movement’s (Ansar Allah) cross-border strikes on Saudi Arabia. This strategy and the increasing frequency of attacks constitute an overarching pressure strategy designed to force Riyadh’s capitulation in the war and is driven by a Houthi ideology heavily influenced by both regional pressures and traditional sectarian belief systems.
The Houthis have committed to cross-border strikes since the Saudi-led coalition began its air raids in Yemen in 2015. Such attacks have typically targeted airports, military assets, and other locations of economic interest to Saudi Arabia. Over time, the capacity of the Houthis to effectively conduct strikes has increased due to military aid and training by Iran, allowing the armed group to strike with increasingly sophisticated missile and drone technology as far north as Riyadh, al Dammam, and Jeddah on multiple occasions.
An increasingly significant number of these attacks have targeted Saudi oil infrastructure, including the state-owned oil giant Aramco. The Houthis began to shift their focus towards oil installations in 2017, beginning with a 1,100 km ballistic missile strike on oil refineries in Yanbu province. Such attacks have since increased in frequency, with attempted strikes on Aramco sites in Jizan on March 7 and April 23, Riyadh on March 19, and Ras Tanura on May 9. It suggests that cross-border strikes have become a central component of the Houthi war strategy.
Ideological and Geopolitical Pursuits
For a better understanding of the Houthi strategy, the ideological and geopolitical interests of the main belligerents must be deconstructed. Iran has prolonged the fighting with military aid to the Houthis for years. This assistance is difficult to disrupt or end as Tehran benefits from the relatively inexpensive nature of disrupting Riyadh’s efforts in Yemen. Given its history of exporting its revolutionary ideology to allies in the region in support of resistance to the West, Iran has plenty of reasons to continue supporting Ansar Allah.
Such efforts compete with Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical interests, which constitute solidifying a friendly or docile regime in Sanaa. Riyadh also has long-running interests in stable Red Sea shipping lanes and potential plans for Indian Ocean access via Hadramawt or Al-Mahrah in Yemen’s east. Combined with its extensive efforts to export its own Wahhabist ideology and fear of Iranian encroachment, leadership in the Kingdom has shown resilience to pressure campaigns as it views the war as central to its regional power.
The Houthi belief in their divine right to rule Yemen, undergirded by an orthodox and conservative Iranian political ideology, fuels violence against any perceived enemies.
Yet, with the all-too-common discussion of regional stirrings, it is critical to understand that the Houthis are not a proxy for Iran and do not necessarily fight in the name of resistance to Saudi ideological aggression. An important factor here is ideological, as the group is driven by “Fiver” (Zaidism) Shi’ism that is largely exclusive to Yemen and not necessarily aligned with Iranian “Twelver” (Imamiyya) Shi’ism. That said, the core tenets of the Iranian Revolution – particularly anti-imperialism and religious orthodoxy – constitute foundational Houthi beliefs that have significantly shifted traditional Zaidi doctrine.
Ultimately, the war in Yemen should be recognised as a long-running Yemeni conflict first, as evidenced by a century of factional conflicts. The Houthis have been fighting the Yemen government for well over a decade – personified by the Saada Wars of the 2000s – believing, through Zaidi principles, they are the rightful rulers of Yemen as their leadership descends directly from the Prophet Muhammad. Importantly, the war includes a long-running rivalry between the North and the South, united through force by Ali Abdullah Saleh in 1990.
The culmination of these historical underpinnings and the Saudi-Iranian geopolitical rivalry help to explain Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia. The Houthi belief in their divine right to rule Yemen, undergirded by an orthodox and conservative Iranian political ideology, fuels violence against any perceived enemies. Through this approach, the Houthis have resorted to strikes against Saudi Arabia to sway Riyadh into giving up its war effort in Yemen – the only real factor preventing the takeover the Houthis have worked towards since the 1990s. This is bolstered by its friendship with Tehran, who, alongside Saudi Arabia, is prolonging the war out of geopolitical interests and a drive to export its ideology.
Pressuring the Kingdom
The Houthi campaign is designed to pressure Saudi Arabi in support of its ideological drive to conquer Yemen. Interestingly, increased demands from western governments for Riyadh to cease human rights violations in Yemen – including the 2018 U.S. War Powers Joint Resolution – coincide with an uptick in Houthi strikes on the Kingdom. In the same year, the Houthis began significantly increasing their strikes on Saudi cities and oil infrastructure, recognising the benefits of added pressure.
Recent events support the suggestion that the Houthis are focused on increasing pressure at certain choke points in the conflict. In 2021, the Houthis have significantly increased their cross-border attacks in parallel with a series of critical events. This includes the election of U.S. President Joe Biden, who has openly called for an end to the war and is justified in his criticism of Saudi Arabia’s air campaign. Additionally, the report identifying Riyadh’s assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, temporary U.S. freeze of arms sales, and delisting of the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization coincided with an increase in Houthi strikes on Saudi Arabia in a clear effort to force its hand in their favour.
There are many ways in which such a strategy can squeeze Riyadh. For one, weekly images of ballistic missiles and bomb-carrying drones flying over heavily populated areas or into oil infrastructure damage Saudi Arabia’s reputation. This is particularly important as Mohammed bin Salman desires to keep this intact for future development and security interests such as the Vision 2030 project. Simply put, insecurity does not attract foreign investment or tourism.
Arguably, more important, attacks on oil infrastructure and shipping harm crude markets. The recent Houthi strike on Aramco holdings in Jizan in April increased crude futures by over one per cent – not an insignificant margin. The September 2019 strike on Aramco’s al-Khurj area, claimed by the Houthis but likely conducted by Iran or its Iraqi proxies, cut global oil output by five per cent and pushed up oil futures by 20 per cent. This was the largest surge since the 1980s, which nearly brought the region to an all-out war, and severely threatened global energy supplies.
Precisely for these reasons, cross-border strikes have only increased across the conflict. Saudi insecurity, alongside human rights and energy market concerns, makes it exceedingly difficult for Riyadh to justify the war in Yemen to its domestic audience and international backers. The Houthis use this as it will ultimately force Saudi capitulation, allowing them to fulfil their long-running and ideologically driven desire to dominate Yemen. It appears to be succeeding as Riyadh has suddenly pushed for talks with Tehran that have focused heavily on Yemen – despite their rivalry and hardened war-time positions stemming from geopolitical interests.
Thus, the strikes will continue until Riyadh exits the war. This seems increasingly likely as the Houthis continue their slow march to Marib. If this province falls, it will become increasingly difficult to prevent Yemen’s takeover and will probably produce more strikes on Saudi Arabia. Only time will tell how Riyadh responds, but one reality is certain – the Houthis are in the driver’s seat in Yemen’s war.