Saudi Arabia’s Self-Fulfilling Houthi Prophecy

The Yemeni minority group hardly had anything to do with Iran—until the Saudis got involved.

Newly recruited Houthi fighters chant slogans as they ride a military vehicle during a gathering in the capital Sanaa to mobilize more fighters to battlefronts to fight pro-government forces in several Yemeni cities, on Jan. 3, 2017.
Newly recruited Houthi fighters chant slogans as they ride a military vehicle during a gathering in the capital Sanaa to mobilize more fighters to battlefronts to fight pro-government forces in several Yemeni cities, on Jan. 3, 2017. MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

Hours after a swarm of weaponized drones and short-range cruise missiles struck the core of Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure last month, Yemen’s Houthis stepped up to take full credit. On the local TV channel Al-Masirah, the Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree presented a detailed overview of the operation, which he dubbed “Balance of Deterrence 2.”

Experts familiar with the Houthis’ weaponry quickly challenged their account of the attack. Satellite images provided by the U.S. government and the private satellite company DigitalGlobe revealed a highly coordinated and diligently planned strike that bypassed detection and defense mechanisms. The attacks struck at least 17 individual points of impact at the Abqaiq facilities, and all 12 of the dome-shaped oil separation tanks were branded with bullseye craters. This was far beyond the typical small fire damage caused by previous Houthi strikes; the far more plausible culprit was Iran, the Houthis’ most prominent international patron. “There is no one piece that excludes Yemen from the equation, but when you put everything together—range, capabilities, and scale—it becomes implausible that the Houthis implemented it,” said Fabian Hinz, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

But there was a kernel of truth expressed, albeit indirectly, in the Houthis’ claims: Their relationship with Iran is closer than ever, with a growing overlap in capabilities and strategic priorities. And yet if the Houthis pose a greater danger to Saudi Arabia than before, it’s Saudi Arabia that is itself responsible.

On Sept. 21, 2014, the Houthis seized the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, forcing President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi into exile and triggering a ruthless intervention by a regional coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which asserted the Houthis were under Iran’s control. There was plenty of reason to doubt this was true at the time. The sectarian narratives peddled by the Saudi-led coalition inaccurately simplified the conflict in Yemen as one driven by ancient religious divisions—Shite vs. Sunni—rather than regional power dominance. The Houthis belong to a school of Islam known as Zaydism, which is far removed from the Shiite Twelver Islam common in Iran.

Nevertheless, when the coalition’s aerial bombardment campaign began in Yemen, it triggered a self-fulfilling prophecy. Until the international conflict began in Yemen in 2015, Saudi allegations of Houthi-Iranian cooperation were mostly only backed by hearsay and online rumor-mongering. According to Peter Salisbury, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, the Houthis received only minimal levels of support from Iran before the regional war started. “It has been politically more convenient to lay the blame for the Houthis at Iran’s door than to say that the Houthis’ rise was the product of a series of internal political miscalculations and misplaced international priorities,” Salisbury said.

Circumstances have since changed. Despite their religious discord, Iran began to see the Houthis as an avenue for extending its influence in the Arabian Peninsula amid a broader proxy war with Saudi Arabia. To Iran, cooperation with the Houthis was a timely opportunity, not a preplanned strategy. Even now, Iran’s direct involvement in Yemen remains limited to noncombatant advisory roles and is fully dependent on concrete payoffs—Iran’s direct investment is minimal. It is nevertheless enough to feed the Saudi coalition’s fears of Iranian involvement.

The Houthis have significantly amped up their cross-border attacks since December 2017, launching many drone and missile strikes on military installations, power stations, airports, and oil and gas fields in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Saudis, in turn, have invested billions of dollars in air defense systems from the United States, which have nevertheless failed to shield the kingdom from incoming attacks by Iran and its proxies. During a press conference following the Abqaiq attack, coalition spokesman Col. Turki al-Maliki alleged that Saudi Arabia had been targeted with 232 ballistic missiles and 258 drones this month alone, adding, “No country in the world is being attacked with this amount of ballistic missiles.”

This surge in attacks is in a large part due to the Houthis’ growing capabilities to manufacture drones and missiles based on Iranian design using commercially available components. In late February 2017, the Houthis unveiled their first fleet of self-made drones, including the Qasef-1. The Houthis claimed that the drones were of indigenous design. However, two of the four were commercial Chinese drones that could be purchased from the website, and the remaining two bore an uncanny similarity to Iranian-manufactured drones—in particular the Ababil-2 family produced by Iran’s Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company.

Since then, their technology has grown more sophisticated and far more lethal, expanding to include long-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. And Iran has strategically armed Iraqi groups and Yemen’s Houthis with identical Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps arms technology, producing some plausible deniability when such equipment is used in strikes like the one on the Saudi Aramco facility.

Devastating international sanctions intended to deter Iran from supporting extremist groups and developing its nuclear program have managed to reduce Iranian financial support for Hezbollah, the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, and the Houthis. But they have deepened its advisory support for the same groups. So long as Iran and the Houthis share mutual adversaries—Saudi Arabia and the United States—their relationship will continue to grow. Indeed, the international community’s isolation strategy is quickly becoming the sinew holding together the Iran-Houthi alliance of convenience. The United Arab Emirates seems to have realized as much. In July, it announced a rapid pullout from Yemen’s stalemated conflict, leaving the Saudis increasingly isolated in their costly war against the Houthis.

If Iran’s influence in Yemen was once difficult to uncover, it is now impossible to overlook. The remnants collected from the aftermath of the Abqaiq attack all point toward weapons of Iranian design. But what ought to surprise observers is that the Houthis would even attempt to claim responsibility for an attack with so many Iranian fingerprints. “It’s hard to imagine a launch of this magnitude by the Houthis, Hezbollah, or Popular Mobilization Forces without the direct orders of [Iranian Supreme Leader] Ali Khamenei,” said the weapons researcher Fabian Hinz. “In the end, it doesn’t make that much difference where the missile came from, but rather what we’ve learned about Iran and the Houthis in the process”

Rawan Shaif has spent the past three years reporting from the ground in Yemen for Frontline PBS, Foreign Policy, Amnesty International, Der Spiegel, the New York Times and others.  Twitter: @RawanSSA18