Yemen’s War Against the Houthis Has Always Been about Ports and the Sea

Conflict and War in Yemen

For nearly two months the tragic war in Yemen has centered around a major assault on the Houthi rebels’ most important strategic asset: the Red Sea port of Hodeidah. This port, Yemen’s largest, receives approximately 70 percent of the country’s food as well as a significant share of the Houthi rebels’ arms and cash. The fall of the port would sever the Houthis’ access to their foreign supporters and cripple their uprising, but at a terrible humanitarian cost. The United Nations warns interruptions in port operations could trigger famine and disease that could then claim as many as 250,000 civilian lives.

The fight over Hodeidah, along with the ongoing threat of Houthi attacks on Saudi and Emirati ship traffic in the southern Red Sea, has refocused attention on the importance of the maritime domain in this long war, but this is not a new front. Rather, poor maritime security is one of the underlying causes of this war. Revisiting the maritime origins of the war can help us understand how the fight over maritime space will affect the next phase of the war for the Yemeni government, the Houthi rebels, and the millions of civilians caught in the crossfire.

The Houthis: From Mountain Movement to Maritime Threat

The Houthi movement started about as far from a maritime environment as one might imagine: the rural desert mountains of northwestern Yemen. In the early 1990s the movement emerged as a religious campaign against the corruption of the incumbent regime led by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Houthis recruited quickly in this impoverished region, and by the early 2000s the movement had developed into a significant regional political force.

Most narratives about the Houthis’ first decade home in on two main contributors to their rise: (1) continued corruption and neglect by the Saleh regime and (2) increasing unease with Saleh’s relationships with Saudi Arabia, the United States, and other Western allies. The role of maritime insecurity in this second driver of Houthi mobilization is critical for understanding the current conflict, though it is sometimes underappreciated.

When the Houthis first organized, the Saleh regime and the United States were far from friends. Yemen and Cuba were the only two members of the United Nations Security Council to oppose Resolution 678, which authorized the US-led coalition’s use of force against Iraq in the Gulf War(1990–1991. Yemeni-American relations remained strained throughout the 1990s as Al-Qaeda, which enjoyed a safe haven in rural Yemen, grew in prominence and executed major attacks like the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. These attacks began a strategic shift in the region, and in early 2000 Yemen, under mounting pressure to support American counter-terror operations, began to allow American naval vessels to refuel in Aden. This was a significant offense to radical groups operating within Yemen, and ending this maritime arrangement became a central strategic initiative for Saleh’s internal opponents.

The USS Cole, Security at Sea, and the Birth of the Houthi Insurgency

War is complicated and its origins are rarely convincingly traced to a single spark, but a few flashpoints in the early 2000s drove the Houthis toward war against the Saleh government. One of the most significant of these flashpoints occurred in the Port of Aden, just a few months after the Saleh regime allowed port access to the US Navy.

In October 2000, Yemen became the site of the deadliest attack on the US Navy in the post–Cold War period when the USS Cole was bombed in anchorage at Aden. This was an early catalyst for what would soon become the American “war on terror” and also a pivotal turning point for Yemen’s political stability. The attack was propagated by Al-Qaeda, which opposed positive relationships between Arab governments and the United States, but this strategic decision backfired badly. Saleh began to work very closely with the United States, and after the attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush increased military and development assistance to Yemen, used Yemeni sites for counter-terrorism and secret intelligence operations, and even allowed arms transfers to Yemen from North Korea. In response, the Houthis and other internal enemies of the Saleh regime quickly radicalized and declared an insurgency against the government. The 2003 invasion of Iraq only accelerated and cemented these divisions.

Implications: Maritime Security and the Future of Yemen

While the politics of this region have changed significantly over the last three decades, the geography has not. The natural funnel formed by the Bab el-Mandeb Strait continues to concentrate international trade within striking distance of Houthi-controlled shores. Improved ship identification technology and continued arms transfers from abroad give the Houthis the operational capacity they need to discriminately select from thousands of potential offshore targets each day. Their targeting choices could very well determine the future of the war.

With very few exceptions, the Houthis are focusing maritime attacks on ships linked to members of the Saudi and Emirati coalition. Most intelligence assessments assume they will continue to do so since threatening vessels from uninvolved nations will likely turn global public opinion in favor of the enemy coalition. Here, the strategic misstep of the USS Cole bombing 18 years ago is instructive. The terrorist attack against the USS Cole, an unengaged vessel stopping for fuel, drove Yemen’s government into closer alliances, and those alliances are now the primary obstacle to a Houthi victory. The Houthis will not be eager to make a similar mistake.

While the Houthis have few foreign allies, the opposing coalition earns global condemnation for airstrikes and indiscriminate violence against civilians. This criticism is sure to increase as the battle for Hodeidah continues and Houthi retaliations remain specific to Saudi and Emirati targets. Houthi leadership has already sought truces that would see the United Nations take control of the port. These concessions and a looming humanitarian disaster seem likely to reverse the effects of the USS Cole attack, reducing global support for Yemen’s government rather than amplifying it. Tepid support for the coalition could weaken if a humanitarian disaster unfolds, and in this way the maritime front could drastically shift the balance of power in the war once again.