Eventually then, enough was enough. After months of Houthi drone and missile attacks on Israel and vessels in the Red Sea, the US and the UK launched retaliatory strikes in Yemen last week. But how did we get here?
The Houthis have been a nuisance for at least 30 years, when they emerged as a clan-based opposition movement in the northernmost governorate of Yemen. They had a number of grievances: endemic poverty, government hostility and Saudi-funded attempts to spread Salafism in their Zaidi Shia stronghold. The last Zaidi ruler had been deposed in 1962. The subsequent civil war set the stage for more or less continuous domestic turmoil ever since. The 1990 shotgun marriage between North and South exacerbated the conflict. Southern Yemen and the Hadhramaut – the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden – became a fertile recruiting ground for violent Sunni Islamists. At the same time, president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who famously described governing Yemen as like ‘dancing on the heads of snakes’, alienated virtually all his neighbours with his Baldrick-like lack of cunning.
During the so-called Arab Spring, these discontents exploded. Saleh was assassinated, Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention, and the Houthis, who have fought and won border conflicts with Riyadh since 2004, have emerged strengthened, though at the cost of around 350,000 deaths and massive economic damage.
Iran claimed the Houthis, in spite of some doctrinal differences, as fellow Shia. The Houthis reciprocated. This gave Tehran an opportunity on the cheap to make mischief for its great Sunni rival, Saudi Arabia, and to gain a hold on the Bab al Mandab strait, one of the Middle East’s three economic choke-points. The Iranians could already restrict access to the Gulf through the first chokepoint, the Straits of Hormuz.