Houthi Ship Hijacking Explained: Who Are Yemen's Houthi Rebels, Why Are They Fighting Civil War In Yemen?

The Houthis are fighting the Yemeni Civil War that has been going on since 2014. The Houthis are backed by Iran and are fighting against the internationally-recognised government, backed by Saudi Arabia and its Arab partners in the Middle East.

Tribesmen loyal to Houthi rebel raise their weapons as they chant slogans during a gathering aimed at mobilizing more fighters for the Houthi movement in Sanaa, Yemen.

The Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen on Sunday hijacked an India-bound cargo ship. While they took over the ship by saying it belonged to Israel, it has since emerged that the ship is operated by a Japanese business. 

In opposition to the Israeli war efforts in the Gaza Strip, the Houthis have declared war on Israel and have launched missile attacks on the country as well. Just like other Iran-backed groups in the region, Hamas and Hezbollah, the Houthis are also opposed to Israel. 

While Japan is reaching out to the Houthis for the release of the ship, the incident has brought the focus to the ethnic group that has been fighting in Yemen for nearly a decade now. The Houthis are fighting the Yemeni Civil War since 2014. They are fighting against the internationally-recognised Yemeni government, backed by Saudi Arabia and its Arab partners in the Middle East.

Over the years, the Yemeni Civil War has plunged the country into the world's worst humanitarian disaster. Here we explain who Houthis are, what's their movement, and how the war has plunged Yemen into crises. 

Who are Yemen's Houthi rebels?

Yemen's Houthis are an ethnic minority in the country. They belong to the Shia sect of Islam in the Sunni-majority Yemen. 

The Yemeni Civil War and the movement of the Houthis merge the ethnic and regional movements. The Houthis are based in the country's north and the Sunnis dominate the south. Hence, there are regional, religious, and ethnic dimensions to the long-running conflict. 

The Houthis of Yemen are a clan practising Zayd form of Shia Islam. They make up around 35 per cent of the country's population. They have historically ruled the region that's modern Yemen but have been out of power in recent decades and the disgruntlement resulted in a section of the clan taking up arms against the internationally-recognised government. Formally, the Houthis call themselves Ansar Allah (Partisans of God).

"A Zaydi imamate ruled Yemen for 1,000 years, before being overthrown in 1962. Since then, the Zaydis –stripped of their political power– have struggled to restore their authority and influence in Yemen. In the 1980s, the Houthi clan began a movement to revive Zaydi traditions, feeling threatened by state-funded Salafist preachers who established a base in Houthi areas. Not all Zaydis, however, align with the Houthi movement," says think tank Wilson Centre. 

The think tank's report further notes that the movement evolved beyond the religious domain after 2011 and became an overt opposition and insurgency against the central government of the country. 

The Houthi movement echoes the tenets of the Islamic Republic of Iran and opposes the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, which is evident in its slogan: "God is great! Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse upon the Jews! Victory to Islam". The Houthis movement took shape in the 1990s and had been clashing with the Yemeni government intermittently since 2004. That changed after 2011.

How did Houthis start Yemeni Civil War?

In 2011, in the regional upheaval triggered by the Arab Spring, Yemenis toppled the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Houthis supported the ouster and Saleh's loss further improved the military position of the Houthis. The international community helped set up a transitional government in its place, but the Houthis declared that it had no representation in it. A series of meetings during 2013-14 to arrive at a national consensus failed and the Houthis eventually began the war. Within months, the Houthis captured the capital Sana and deposed President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

"Outraged, and believing the transitional government was deliberately refusing to represent them, in mid- to late 2014 the Houthis organized demonstrations against the Cabinet and some of the government's specific economic policies. Houthi forces mobilized, and the protests eventually became a full-on military conflict. Houthi fighters marched on the capital city of Sanaa, where fighting spread by September 18. The Houthis swept away government resistance and established control of much of Sanaa. After occasional clashes in Sanaa, Houthi forces took over the presidential palace in January. The next month, they formally deposed Hadi," notes Vox.

Since then, Saudis and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have also entered the conflict and have carried out offensives inside Yemen. As regional Shia-Sunni rivals of Iran and Saudi Arabia directly backed the opposing factions, the Yemeni Civil War has also been seen in terms of a proxy war by observers. The Arab coalition, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has also been supported by the United States, United Kingdom, and France.

The humanitarian crises in Yemen

The decadelong fighting in Yemen has plunged the country into a situation that has been called the world's worst humanitarian crises by the United Nations (UN).

As of early this year, the Houthis controlled around half of the country and another quarter of the country was contested, with the rest of the country being divided amongst the UAE-backed southern separatists, a transitional government in the south, and the formal national government, according to a map published by BBC News in April.

The UN says 4.5 people in Yemen have been displaced in the civil war and 24.1 million, around 80 per cent of the population, are in need of humanitarian aid.

The UN says that the fighting has led to healthcare and famine-like conditions in the country. The war and the breakdown of civic services and basic healthcare amenities also led to one of the worst cholera outbreaks ever in the country, recording around 2.5 million suspected cases and nearly 4,000 deaths since 2006. 


Nearly 377,000 had died by 2022, with 60 per cent of them dying from war-induced hunger and healthcare crises, according to UN figures cited by BBC, which also says that over 11,000 children are understood to have been killed.