Skip to main content

Sanaa: A tale of two leaders in a city without hope

Peter Oborne and Nawal al-Maghafi report on the mangle of alliances which is compounding the misery of residents in Sanaa
Children are among the most vulnerable residents of Sanaa in a conflict which has left thousands dead and many more injured

Editor's Note: Award-winning journalist Peter Oborne and Middle East Eye's Nawal al-Maghafi are among the few correspondents to have ventured into war-torn Yemen during the past few weeks. Much of their reporting is from Houthi-held territory, where they were accompanied, and their interviews monitored, by Houthi minders. We are, however, confident that what they were told by their interviewees is authentic.

SANAA - As Saudi bombs fall on Sanaa, the Yemeni capital is being governed by an improbable alliance between two men who were once deadly enemies.

They have only one thing in common: both are in hiding from the Saudis. It is not known where the two leaders live; they are seen in public rarely - and then only on television.

The first is Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, leader of the Houthi rebels who seized control of Sanaa in September 2014The 37-year-old son of a religious scholar, he is the current mastermind behind the Houthi insurgency.

Smartly dressed in elegant thobes, with Kalashnikovs flung over their shoulders, his militiamen often cause offence to locals by bringing their weapons with them into restaurants and other public places, contrary to Yemeni custom. Many of the fighters look very young: some appear to be child soldiers, an issue highlighted by a UNICEF report in April.

Al-Houthi took over as leader from his charismatic elder brother Sheikh Hussein Badreddin-al-Houthi in 2004, after he was hunted down and killed by pro-government forces in northern Yemen. Pictures of the late Hussein al-Houthi are plastered on Sanaa street corners and public places.

However, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi and his movement are not as powerful as they appear. They govern in coalition with the second leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president of Yemen - and a man who, for many years, was the Houthis’ most ferocious and implacable enemy.

When Saleh was president he fought and lost six brutal wars against the Houthis. And it was his soldiers who killed Sheikh Hussein 12 years ago.

A tale of two leaders

The agreement between Saleh and Abdul-Malik al-Houthi is every bit as cynical and opportunistic as the pact struck between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, the leaders of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, on the eve of World War Two in 1939.

Saleh ruled Yemen for more than 30 years, first as leader of North Yemen and then as national leader after the merger between North and South Yemen in 1990. A secular leader who modelled himself for many years on the Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein, he was eventually forced to resign in 2012.

Sanaa's Bab al-Yaman gate, with Houthi banners hung from the towers (Mohammed Al-Mikhlafi/MEE)
By contrast the Houthis are deeply religious. They subscribe to the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam, which is almost unknown outside Yemen, where they are thought to make up about 45 percent of the population.

Latterly, the Houthis have adopted a ubiquitous slogan: “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.” It is based on the “Death to America” rallying cry of revolutionary Iran. The Houthis are also influenced by Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, and the Saudis accuse them of being an Iranian proxy army.

What's Tehran's involvement?

In Riyadh, the Saudi capital, concern about its main regional rival's influence on its southern border is among the main reasons for the military campaign against the Houthis.

Those concerns have been endorsed by the US Secretary of State John Kerry. During a visit to Saudi Arabia last week, Kerry accused Iran of "shipping missiles and other sophisticated weapons" to the Houthis.

Responding to Kerry's comments in a statement, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif described them as "baseless".

"The US administration with such remarks is itself becoming a partner in the child killings and war crimes committed by the Saudi regime against the innocent people of Yemen," said Zarif.

"Undoubtedly, Mr Kerry knows better than others that the Saudi government in the past year and a half has consistently and seriously blocked all efforts made to establish a ceasefire in Yemen."

EXCLUSIVE: Yemen is facing calamity and it is time the world woke up

Some experts believe the actual extent of Iranian support for the Houthis has been exaggerated. Peter Salisbury, a regional analyst at the Chatham House foreign affairs think tank, said in February 2015 that the Houthis had benefitted from “some support” from Iran but added that “this is not the same as taking orders from it”.

Salisbury said it was plausible that the Houthis had been able to arm themselves because Yemen was "awash with weapons".

But he added: "It is difficult to conceive that the group [Houthis], isolated for much of its existence in the mountainous northern interior, would have been able to evolve an organised and tactically assiduous fighting force without some external support."

Peter Oborne reporting from the Republic teaching hospital in Sanaa, where many casualties of the war have been treated (MEE)
The Saudis are leading a coalition in support of Saleh’s former vice-president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Ali. Hadi, who was Saleh’s deputy for many years, became president in 2012 when Saleh stepped down, then governed precariously for two years before being driven out by the Houthis.

Though supported by Saudi Arabia and the international community, Hadi’s hold on power within Yemen itself is sketchy. He spends much of his time in Riyadh and it is too dangerous for him to stay in the country he supposedly rules. Even when he visits Aden, the southern port city that is his hometown, he reportedly stays in a ship moored offshore.

Crucially it is Saleh and not Hadi who commands the support of the majority of the Yemeni national army - and for the time being Saleh’s soldiers cheerfully man checkpoints alongside Houthi rebels throughout the city.

Meanwhile Houthi ministers are in charge of most government departments – though the Yemeni Central Bank is said to retain its independence.

This alliance between Saleh and the Houthis is likely to continue while the two sides are fighting a common enemy in the shape of the Saudi-led coalition. Indeed there is plenty of evidence that the Saudi attacks have backfired. Intended to weaken the Houthi/Saleh government and drive it from power, Saudi air strikes have killed thousands of civilians and led to a surge in Houthi popularity.

“I dislike the Houthis,” one Sanaa official, who did not wish to be named, confided. “But we have to choose between two evils. One of the evils is bombing us from above. The Houthis are merely making things difficult for us. Given the choice between the two I would rather the ones who are making things difficult for us.”

Widow: I'd rather starve than take aid from Saudi

The depth of the fury at Saudi Arabia cannot be underestimated. One widow at a water distribution point in Sanaa told us: “If the aid is coming from aid agencies we want it. If it’s coming from the Saudis we’d rather starve to death.”

In Sanaa, collection water from street tankers has now become an everyday occurence (MEE)
The Houthis take advantage of this hatred of Saudi Arabia to recruit fighters – and street posters commemorating the deaths of Yemeni "martyrs" are a common sight throughout Yemen.

In the old city we stopped to read one poster, which marked the death of a young man, Abdul Rahman Nashir al-Qayri, killed the previous week in the fighting between Houthi rebels and pro-government forces in the southern city of Taiz.

We were approached by al-Qayri’s cousin, Fikri al-Qayri, who took us to the family home, where there were posters of seven family members who had been "martyred" in the war.

One moustachioed family elder told us that before the war “some were studying, some worked as plumbers. But they were proud to fight in the frontline”. He criticised Britain: “The UK is such a great, respected country. It could play a role in lifting the suffering of the Yemeni people.”

Posters dedicated to men killed in the fighting crowd the walls of Sanaa (MEE)
Instead, said the elder, Britain was on the side of the Saudi aggressor. “We are surprised that all these countries are coming together to fight Yemen, because Yemen has never harmed anyone.”

'Our only sin as Yemen is we're poor'

The Saleh/Houthi coalition has one crucial problem: however popular they are across much of the Yemen, the only government recognised by the rest of the world is the exiled government led by Hadi, hence the dramatic attempt by the Houthis and ex-president Saleh earlier this month to legitimise their de facto rule.

On 14 August, Yemen’s parliament met for the first time since the war began 18 months ago. The two key factions were the Houthi movement and Saleh’s political wing, the General People’s Congress. Their aim is to challenge Hadi’s legitimacy.

The assembly convened within earshot of Saudi bombing raids over the city. Hadi at once denounced the new parliament as illegal - and warned those attending that they could be prosecuted.

There is now talk on the streets of Sanaa about the prospect of a fully fledged land attack on the capital. We heard speculation about sleeper cells in the city ready to back an uprising, while Saudi-backed forces are said to be entrenched within 40 km of the capital.

Residents in Sanaa nervously await news amid rumours of a ground assault (MEE)
America has long been unpopular in Yemen but Britain, the former colonial power in south Yemen, is still fondly remembered by many. This sentiment is changing in the wake of British support for Saudi Arabia.

Many Yemenis feel abandoned not just by Britain but by the world. Following recent air strikes in Sanaa, Yemeni political analyst Hisham al-Omeisy tweeted out a reproachful message: “Our only sin as Yemen is we’re poor. Nowhere near as rich as Saudi to buy off international community’s silence or UN’s carte blanche.”

Many predict that the alliance between the Houthis and Saleh will one day fall apart under the weight of its obvious contradictions.

But with Saudi jets still flying low over Sanaa, and as Yemen’s humanitarian disaster lurches from catastrophe towards pure horror, there is not the faintest sign of that happening yet.

The only certainty is that innocent civilians with no political affiliation, including many children, will be made homeless, maimed and killed.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.