The day before Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack on southern Israel, the Houthi militia’s publication, al-Maseera, ran a piece entitled “Peace with the Jews is in confronting them, not shaking their hands.” The article vehemently criticized the Arab Gulf states for their willingness to consider normalized relations with Israel, framing it as a capitulation to the United States’ and Israel’s regional influence. This combative stance against the U.S. and Israel is deeply rooted in the Houthi ethos, which, as their slogan makes clear, includes a fervent opposition to Jews and calls for the destruction of Israel and the United States — a reflection of their longstanding ideological convictions.
The Houthi movement, a Shi’a armed faction adhering to the Zaidi sect and aligned with Iran’s “Axis of Resistance,” initially emerged as a local group inside Yemen and was often underestimated as a global threat due to its geographical remoteness from the U.S. and Israel. However, following their takeover of Sanaa and seizure of Yemen’s government in 2014, the Houthis forcefully solidified their control of much of the country, prompting a Saudi-led coalition to intervene militarily in March 2015 and igniting a geopolitical standoff with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that has continued ever since. This protracted conflict is commonly interpreted as a power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia over influence in Yemen. However, that perspective neglects Iran’s broader strategy of mobilizing a transnational, largely Shi’a network of actors under the Axis of Resistance banner, one that has the potential to disrupt stability across the Arab region and beyond.
The Houthis’ expression of solidarity with Hamas by launching targeted attacks against Israel in October 2023 clearly demonstrated Iran’s influence and agenda in Yemen. By engaging directly with Israel, the Houthis have not only broadened the scope of the ongoing regional conflict alongside other actors in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, but they have also shifted the strategic calculus for multiple stakeholders in the Middle East, adding complexity to the already intricate web of alliances and enmities. Despite the Houthis’ geographical distance from Israel and perceived limited capabilities, the threat they represent is all too real and if underestimated, they have the potential to derail diplomatic efforts and destabilize the region, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
The Houthis’ motivation and propaganda
On Oct. 31, the Houthis launched failed missile and drone attacks that targeted Eilat, an Israeli Red Sea tourist resort, causing explosions in two Egyptian towns near the Israeli border. On Nov. 8, the Houthis claimed to have downed a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone and launched missile strikes toward Israel. On Nov. 14, the Houthis launched additional ballistic missiles at Israeli targets, including Eilat, which the Israeli military subsequently intercepted. Taken together, all of these incidents suggest a notable expansion in the Houthis’ operational scope and intensity.
Central to the Houthi assault on Israel is their multifaceted strategy, driven by their deeply anti-Semitic ideology and desire to align with Iran’s anti-Israel regional axis. The synchronization of their attacks with Hamas, an Iran-backed Sunni Islamist Palestinian group, reflects a pattern seen in other Iranian-linked actors over the past two decades, indicating a broader strategy directed by Tehran.
Strategically, the Houthis’ attacks on Israel fulfill multiple objectives for the group. They reinforce their stance against Israel and garner support from Iran. Additionally, Houthi propaganda often depicts Yemen as a victim of a Saudi-American-Israeli conspiracy, a narrative that has been effective in mobilizing local support. These actions also aim to create insecurity among Arab governments that have normalized relations with Israel.
Amid Israel’s punishing airstrikes and widening ground assault on Gaza and the mounting Palestinian death toll, the Houthis portray themselves as protectors of the Palestinian cause, framing their actions as defensive measures against foreign interference. In a TV appearance on Oct. 10, the leader of the Houthi movement, Abdulmalek al-Houthi, gave a speech praising the Oct. 7 operation, portraying Western countries, particularly the U.S. and United Kingdom, as complicit in the injustices against Palestinians and appealing to Islamic solidarity in the face of perceived Western aggression, potentially further exacerbating sectarian tensions in an already volatile region.
Domestically, the Houthis are focused on proving to their rivals that they are tough and not easily defeated. Their goal is to demoralize their local opponents, gradually pushing them to accept the Houthis’ leadership as the status quo. This strategy is aimed at crushing hopes for democratic change by showing that they are a strong and lasting force in the region.
Despite lacking the extensive supply chain of other Iranian proxies like Hezbollah, the Houthis have significant missile and drone capabilities that pose a considerable threat to regional security and maritime operations. Their readiness to deploy these resources against Israel conveys a message of strength and defiance. This strategy diverts attention from their internal governance challenges, bolsters their image as a critical regional actor, and demonstrates their adeptness in using military action to gain respect, consolidate power, and control narratives both locally and regionally.
A number of analysts have interpreted the Houthis’ declaration of war on Israel as a strategic bid for influence. While there is truth in this view, it is essential to recognize the significance of the Houthis’ actions, which have both immediate and far-reaching consequences for regional geopolitics. The group’s vocal advocacy for the destruction of Israel and the U.S., despite their limited capacity to achieve this, is a fundamental tenet of their belief system. This deep-seated antagonism not only propels their agenda but is crucial for sustaining their movement’s purpose. The real danger lies in the Houthis’ unpredictability and potential to execute high-impact attacks that could have major regional ramifications, such as the drone strike they carried out at the airport in Abha, Saudi Arabia, in February 2022.
Escalation risks and regional impact
The potential for the conflict to escalate, including threats to U.S. bases, the Gulf states, and vital shipping routes, remains a serious concern. Mohammed Abdulsalam, the chief Houthi negotiator, has openly referenced the downing of a U.S. drone over Yemen, affirming, on Nov. 10, the group’s commitment to supporting Hamas and the Palestinian cause: “In Yemen, we will continue to bear our responsibility before God towards Palestine, no matter the cost.”
Additionally, the Houthis have an established history of targeting oil tankers and infrastructure in the Red Sea, and they have again threatened to attack Israeli ships there. This underscores their ability to disrupt regional trade and security. Their rhetoric has increasingly focused on the UAE due to its diplomatic ties with Israel.
With enhanced capabilities and Iranian support, the Houthis could persist in their assaults on Israel and broaden their attack spectrum, threatening regional stability. This escalation could severely impact the economy and security of the Gulf states, potentially roil global oil markets, and influence the dynamics of the Yemen conflict.
Although their military strength is limited compared to state actors, the Houthis are focused on disruptive wars of attrition. Recent military parades have displayed advanced weaponry, including land-attack cruise missiles, precision-strike ballistic missiles, suicide drones, and medium-range ballistic missiles with a range of over 1,000 kilometers, some of Iranian origin, hinting at an increase in offensive capabilities.
The effectiveness of the Houthi arsenal, especially their anti-ship missiles targeting crucial shipping lanes, is a critical concern. Despite Saudi Arabia and Iran’s normalization of relations earlier this spring, as part of which Iran reportedly agreed to halt arms shipments to the Houthis — a promise it has not kept — their continued readiness to capitalize on regional tensions indicates the ineffectiveness of these measures. The international community, particularly Gulf and Red Sea security stakeholders, must remain alert to the Houthi movement’s actions and evolving capabilities.
The Houthis’ behavior will undoubtedly complicate the fragile Saudi-Houthi talks as they continue to demonstrate their commitment to furthering Iran’s agenda at the expense of Yemen’s national security and Gulf regional stability. These attacks undermine confidence-building measures and increase tensions between the parties. They may also make Saudi Arabia, which faces international pressure to end its military intervention in Yemen, less inclined to engage in negotiations with the Houthis. On the other hand, the Houthis perceive their aggressive tactics as successful, which diminishes their willingness to compromise. The prospects for a peaceful resolution to the conflict seem increasingly uncertain, and the path forward remains challenging.
Moving forward: Strategies and responses
The Houthis’ operations serve as a litmus test for the international community’s tolerance and response to the escalating influence of terrorist groups, rogue militias, and other non-state actors. The actions of such groups are increasingly challenging global powers, which are struggling to restrain them despite technological superiority and abundant resources. This is particularly relevant at a time when efforts to normalize Arab-Israeli relations had been gaining momentum before the Oct. 7 terrorist attack and subsequent war on Gaza.
At this stage, the U.S. needs to deepen its alliances in the Middle East. As security concerns intensify due to attacks by the Houthis and other non-state actors, it becomes increasingly clear that collaboration and intelligence sharing among regional powers is essential. This would not only help in effectively countering immediate threats but also in building a long-term strategy for peace and stability in the region. Moreover, current U.S. efforts and naval presence should continue to counter and intercept Houthi missiles and drones.
The Houthi attacks on Israel, transcending symbolic aggression, highlight a tangible threat — one that the militant group’s history of carrying out sophisticated missile and drone strikes on Saudi Arabia and the UAE provides ample evidence of. These actions indicate a readiness to engage in terrorism, a disregard for international borders, and a desire to destabilize regional peace. This situation underscores the need for international vigilance and a reassessment of the Houthis’ role in the broader regional security landscape. Their capabilities, enhanced by Iranian support, serve as a stark reminder of the Middle East’s volatility and the risks posed by groups that exploit regional conflicts.
Addressing the Houthi threat requires a balanced approach, blending robust security measures with diplomatic efforts to tackle the root political and social issues fueling the conflict. This includes fostering a political resolution in Yemen, curbing Iran’s regional influence, and addressing humanitarian concerns. Crucially, disrupting the flow of arms and financial support to the Houthis, particularly from Iran, is essential. Targeted sanctions and diplomatic pressure could limit their operational capabilities and encourage participation in peace talks. Underestimating the Houthis or failing to address the broader context of Iran’s regional strategy could lead to devastating consequences, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive, coordinated international response to ensure regional stability and security.
Fatima Abo Alasrar is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images
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