By Michael Georgy and Aziz El Yaakoubi
DUBAI/RIYADH (Reuters) – Abdul Malik al-Houthi, the enigmatic leader of Yemen’s Houthi fighters whose attacks on Red Sea shipping drew fire from U.S. and British militaries, has created a defiant force challenging world powers from a motley militia in sandals.
Several shipping companies have suspended operations or taken the longer route around Africa due to the campaign by the Houthis, who rule most of Yemen after overcoming difficult odds in a war against forces backed by Saudi power.
Iran-backed activists have pledged to maintain pressure on global maritime trade, which could have damaging consequences for the global economy, until Israel ends its bombing of Gaza to eliminate the Hamas, also supported by Iran.
The Houthis said they would retaliate after US and British warplanes, ships and submarines struck Yemen overnight in retaliation for attacks on Red Sea shipping, a widening of the regional conflict to cause of the Gaza conflict which some analysts say could undermine hard-fought domestic gains.
“They have been able to survive the last eight years, have expanded their power, but now they are inviting airstrikes from the most powerful military in the world,” said Tobias Borck, a senior Middle East security researcher. at the Royal United Services Institute.
Al-Houthi built a reputation as a fierce battlefield commander before becoming the leader of the Houthi movement, mountain fighters who have been battling a Saudi-led military coalition since 2015 in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people, devastated Yemen’s economy and left millions dead. hungry.
Under the leadership of al-Houthi, in his 40s, the group acquired tens of thousands of fighters and a huge arsenal of armed drones and ballistic missiles. It has used them to repeatedly strike Saudi strategic infrastructure despite years of bombing on its territory.
In January 2022, the Houthis upped the ante with a missile attack on the Gulf’s tourism and trade hub, the United Arab Emirates, which, like Saudi Arabia, is a key US ally.
“He (al-Houthi) has managed to transform a rural militia primarily engaged in insurgency tactics into one of the most resilient non-state armed groups in the region,” said Ludovico Carlino, senior analyst, country risk, Middle East and North Africa at SON Markit.
In a 2022 speech, al-Houthi said his goal was to be able to strike any target in Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, two major OPEC oil producers that Iran and its proxies consider as major threats to the security of the Middle East and beyond. .
Al-Houthi is known for rarely staying in one place for long, never meeting with the media, and for an extreme reluctance to make scheduled public appearances.
Since the start of Yemen’s war – widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran – foreign officials who have dealt with al-Houthi have never met him in person, a source said close to the file.
Many people seeking meetings were told to travel to the Houthi stronghold of Sanaa, where a Houthi security convoy would take them to safe locations and conduct security checks before taking them to an upstairs room where it would only appear on one screen.
The Houthi movement was formed to fight for the interests of the Zaydi Shiites, a minority sect that ruled a millennia-old kingdom in Yemen until 1962, but gradually felt threatened by the rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh from 1990 to 2012.
Iran’s support for the Houthis, who forced Yemen’s internationally recognized, Saudi-backed government into exile in 2021, has helped Tehran expand its regional proxy network, which includes Hezbollah in Lebanon and militias in Iraq and Syria.
Yemeni experts say the Houthis are primarily motivated by a national agenda, although they share a political affinity with Iran and Hezbollah. The Houthis deny being puppets of Tehran and say they are fighting against a corrupt system and regional aggression.
Iran supports the Houthis as part of its regional “axis of resistance” – a group of Iranian-backed groups – and the movement has adopted elements of Tehran’s revolutionary ideology.
Saudi Arabia and its allies accuse Iran of arming and training the Houthis, allegations Tehran denies. Analysts say the Houthis are more independent than Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
“He (al-Houthi) is less beholden to the Iranians than Hezbollah. In other words, he is not told to do x, y and z and he does it,” said Peter Salisbury, senior analyst at International Crisis Group.
The Houthis, like other Yemeni political camps, operate in a country with shifting alliances.
In late 2017, they assassinated ex-President Saleh in a roadside RPG ambush after he switched sides to the Saudi-led alliance. They also created a military state to strengthen their hold.
“The Houthis also rely on a very brutal internal intelligence apparatus, suppressing any form of dissent,” said analyst Carlino.
In pre-recorded speeches and sermons, al-Houthi, who traces his lineage to the Prophet Muhammad, says his movement is under complete siege because of his religion.
“We must focus on preserving the authenticity of our Islamic affiliation and identity,” he said in a speech, denouncing a “soft war of influence” aimed at weakening Houthi morale. “Today we are facing the most dangerous war.”
(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper in London, Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Philippa Fletcher)
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