Who Are the Houthis and Why Are They Firing Missiles at Saudi Arabia?

The three-year war in Yemen shows no signs of ending. The conflict has so far claimed at least 10,000 lives and displaced more than 3 million people. What began as a civil war between the Yemeni government and the northern Houthi tribe has morphed into a proxy conflict in the Saudi Arabia–Iran tussle for regional dominance.

A Saudi Arabian–led international coalition is now attempting to reinstall the Yemeni government and crush the Houthi rebels, who are allegedly being funded and armed by Iran. The Saudi-led force is being supplied with weapons and logistical support from the U.S. and the U.K, adding another layer of diplomatic complexity to the murky conflict.

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia said it intercepted another three Houthi ballistic missiles fired at its cities. The attack was the latest in increasingly regular strikes launched from across the border in recent months.

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An image taken from a video by Houthi rebels shows what appears to be a ballistic missile launch reportedly from the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, on March 25. AFP/Getty Images

The Houthis make up around one-third of Yemen's population, and follow a Shiite Islam sect known as Zaydism. The tribe ruled the northern part of the country for 1,000 years, until they were deposed in the early 1960s.

Since then, Houthi regions have been largely ignored and neglected by the Yemeni central government, which carried little authority in the tribe's strongholds. Houthi disillusionment boiled over into six unsuccessful uprisings between 2004 and 2009.

The group's founder, Hussein al-Houthi, worked to protect the interests of the Houthis against the central government and Sunni extremist groups. Though he was killed in an uprising in 2004, his vision has been carried forward by his brother Abdul Malik, who currently leads the Houthis.

In 2011, Arab Spring swept through Yemen, forcing longtime authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh to hand over power to deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The new president struggled to address economic and security issues, particularly the rise of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the south of the country.

Houthis in Yemen
Supporters of the Shiite Houthi movement raise their weapons during a gathering in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, on August 24, 2017. The Houthis took control of Sanaa in September 2014. STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

Under Hadi, Houthis felt excluded from the profits of Yemen's national resources and sidelined in the political decision-making process. After three years of tension, the Houthis left their northwestern heartland and seized the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014. Fed up with government corruption and ongoing food insecurity, many Yemenis supported the rebels, who forced Hadi to agree to a power-sharing deal in which they secured huge influence over government institutions.

The Houthis clashed with government ministers over plans to federalize the country in January 2015, after which the rebels seized the presidential compound and Hadi resigned. The Houthis were left to announce an interim revolutionary government over which they had full control.

Though he was placed under house arrest, Hadi escaped in February, triggering clashes between loyalist government and Houthi forces, which escalated into all-out civil war.

Saudi Arabia considers the presence of an Iranian-aligned Shiite movement on its southern border an unacceptable strategic risk. The kingdom launched a multinational military intervention—mostly in the form of airstrikes—to reinstate Hadi and drive the Houthis back in March 2015.

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A Houthi fighter inspects the site of an airstrike in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, on November 5, 2017. MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

The Saudi air campaign has been punishing. Coalition planes have targeted ammunition depots, food supplies and vital infrastructure, precipitating the humanitarian crisis facing Yemeni civilians. More than 22 million Yemenis require international aid, with over a third of those close to starvation. The Saudi coalition has recaptured some southern areas of the country, but the Houthis still control northern areas and the capital city.

The chaos has allowed AQAP and other Sunni extremist groups—including ISIS—to flourish and launch attacks of their own.

The Houthis have been escalating their attacks in recent months, increasing the regularity with which Saudi cities and installations are targeted with ballistic missiles.

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia said it had intercepted missiles over its capital, Riyadh, and the Saudi cities of Jazan and Najran. The kingdom also claimed to have downed drones targeting airports in Abha and Jazan provinces.

On March 25, Saudi forces claimed to have intercepted seven Houthi ballistic missiles across the country. One person was killed in the attack, allegedly by falling debris after a missile was shot down. In December, a missile fired at the main royal palace in Riyadh during a cabinet meeting was destroyed before it reached its target.

The Houthi-affiliated Al Masirah television network said that Wednesday's attack included a Burkan 2-H missile fired toward the Saudi defense ministry on Wednesday. It followed an announcement by Saleh al-Samad—president of the Supreme Political Council that runs Sanaa and other rebel-held areas—that said Saudi Arabia would face "a year of ballistic missiles" in 2018.

Nikki Haley Iran missile Yemen
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks in front of what was allegedly an Iranian-supplied Houthi ballistic missile fired at Saudi Arabia, during a press conference at Joint Base Anacostia-Boiling, in southwest Washington, D.C., on December 14, 2017. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi authorities say Houthis have fired 90 ballistic missiles at the country in the past year, and both Riyadh and the U.S. have directly accused Iran of providing the weapons. In December, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley spoke in front of what she said were the remnants of an Iranian-made ballistic missile fired by Houthis. The U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has also said there is evidence that Tehran is supplying missiles.

Iran denied it is arming the Houthis. "We categorically reject it as unfounded and, at the same time, irresponsible, provocative and destructive," said Gholamali Khoshroo, Iran's ambassador to the U.N., in response to the allegations.