Ali Abdullah Saleh created the Houthis and died by the Houthis
Always looking to balance power in Yemen, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was the one who first helped the Houthis onto the scene. In fact, he was the one who gave them access to Hezbollah and Iran and, starting in the 1994 civil war, he tried to use them for political gain. Saleh won that war thanks to the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists.
Saleh was a master of balancing power to remain in charge. He didn’t want to be dependent on just one strong party in Yemen so he encouraged Sheikh Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar to form Al-Islah Party to counter the influence of the Yemeni Socialist Party and its secular ideas and various Islamists and tribal leaders. Al-Islah was a combination of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh al-Ahmar’s tribe and Salafists led by Sheikh Abdul Majeed al-Zindani. Sheikh al-Ahmar died in 2007.
By encouraging the Houthis, Saleh wanted to block the big Zaidiyyah families, also known as the Hashimiyya families, including al-Mutawakkal clan and al-Hamid Uddine clan, which Saleh never trusted.
His second objective was to show the Saudis that he could set up connections with Iran and a third was to create a force capable of opposing the Salafist and Brotherhood’s religious schools in northern Yemen, especially in Saada province, the Houthis’ fiefdom. Those schools were backed by Saudi Arabia.
Many Yemeni officials have testified that Saleh financed the Houthis and introduced them to parliament in the first elections after the civil war.
Following that period, scores of Houthis spent many years in Qom, Iran, and adopted the “Twelver” Shia ideology, which is distinct from their traditional Zaydiyyah ideology. With the help of Hezbollah, the Iranians converted a good part of Zaydiyyah society to “Twelver” ideology.
Until 2003, Saleh thought he had the Houthis eating from the palm of his hand. An incident in Saada, however, gave him reason to think otherwise. After signing a border treaty with Saudi Arabia, Saleh travelled by land to Mecca for a pilgrimage as a gesture of goodwill towards the Saudis. On the way, he stopped at Saada and gave the Friday sermon at its main mosque. After the sermon, a Houthi stood up and let out what is known among Houthis as sarkha — “the scream.” This involved shouting: “Death to America. Death to Israel. Damnation on the Jews. Victory for Islam.”
Saleh was shocked to discover that the Houthis had fundamentally changed. It was clear to him that the Houthis had become puppets of Iran. He ordered a campaign of arrests against them, igniting the first of six wars to come with the Houthis.
From 2004-10, thousands of victims from both camps fell. Among them was Hussein Badreddine al-Houthi, brother of the Houthis’ current chief, Abdelmalik al-Houthi. Saleh once told me: “Between me and the Houthis, there are six wars and 30,000 martyrs.”
Saleh had no idea how deeply perverted the Houthis were by Iran and Hezbollah. The Iranians armed and trained the Houthis and set up a dedicated communications network for them. Saleh used these conflicts to sideline his arch enemy, General Ali Mohsen Saleh al-Ahmar. He had probably never wanted to end the war with the Houthis or perhaps he couldn’t. Nevertheless, he used them for specific purposes.
Ahmar was a relative of Saleh’s but belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. He commanded the strongest tank brigade in the Yemeni Army. Along with Hameed al-Ahmar, he took advantage of the 2011 youth rebellion in Yemen and staged a coup against Saleh. That freed the Houthis from their siege and practically gave them the country on a silver platter.
I first interviewed Saleh in the summer of 2004. He insisted that I publish the interview in the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal. In the interview, he hinted at the close relations between the Houthis and Iran and Hezbollah. By choosing Al-Mustaqbal, he probably wanted to convey a message to Hezbollah. The interview appeared on the front page in July 2004 right after the first battles between the Yemeni Army and the forces of al-Shabab al-Mu’min.