In recent days, the Houthi movement renewed its call to attack the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which suggests, along with other indicators, that the movement is adopting an escalatory approach at the rhetorical and operational levels.
This has raised many questions about the outcome of the situation in Yemen and the fate of the path to settlement, which many circles considered imminent in recent months, especially given the progress made on the level of Saudi-Iranian reconciliation. This Houthi escalation could threaten many of the gains and contexts that have been established in recent months and move Yemen closer to reproducing the cycle of conflict.
Indicators of Escalation
The Houthis have recently adopted a rhetorical strategy and operational plan that emphasizes relative escalation. The following are a few of the most obvious signs of this escalation:
1. Threatening to Attack Saudi Arabia: Early in June, Jalal Al-Ruwaishan, the deputy head of the Houthi National Salvation Government, threatened to attack Saudi Arabia, asserting that “Sanaa has the ability to militarily control Saudi ports and the flow of capital to them, and the Yemeni armed forces have previously carried out operations in this direction”, adding, “We hope that Saudi Arabia would realize that it is not possible to combine economic development plans with the invasion of a neighboring country.” According to him, this threat stems from Saudi Arabia’s inability to resolve the humanitarian issue during negotiations between the two sides.
The Houthis’ escalation against Saudi Arabia in recent days has not been without similar threats. According to Najeeb Al-Aji, Minister of Guidance and Hajj and Umrah Affairs in the Houthi government, “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni government have put many difficulties and obstacles in front of Yemeni pilgrims, which has led to the doubling of the costs of Hajj”, claiming that Saudi Arabia’s dealings with Yemeni pilgrims are dominated by “politicization”, accusing Saudi Arabia of linking the Hajj file to its regional relations.
2. Attempting to Create a New Banking System in Yemen: Rashad Al-Alimi, Chairman of the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council, confirmed, on the sidelines of his meeting two days ago with the United Nations Special Envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, in Riyadh, that “the Houthis expanded in imposing restrictions on the movement of individuals and commodities, as well as arbitrary measures against banks and chambers of commerce, and private sector activities”, noting that the Houthis’ actions were in response to the Houthi escalation in Yemen.
In the context of the Houthi escalation in Yemen, Rashad Al-Alimi, Chairman of the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council, confirmed, on the sidelines of his meeting two days ago with the United Nations Special Envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, in Riyadh, that “the Houthis expanded in imposing restrictions on the movement of individuals and commodities, and arbitrary measures against banks and chambers of commerce, and private sector activities”, stating that their objective “is to retroactively confiscate all banking interests over the past years and establish a new banking apparatus affiliated with them, similar to Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which will give rise to money laundering and terrorist financing activities.”
3. Military Escalation Off the Yemeni Coast: To exert pressure on global and regional powers with significant economic, security, and strategic interests in the Red Sea region, the Houthi organization is betting on a threat to maritime security off the coast of Yemen and the region more generally. In this context, the UK Maritime Trade Operations Agency stated at the end of April that it had received reports of an attack on a British ship south of the Yemeni coastal town of Nishtun. Although neither the British party nor international estimates specifically blamed the Houthis for the incident, the length of the Yemen conflict and the fact that this region serves as a route for the Houthis to obtain Iranian weapons that are being smuggled into the country proved that the group was to blame for all threats to maritime security in this vital region.
4- Targeting Yemen’s Judicial System: The Houthi militia is persistent in its efforts to take over Yemen’s judicial system, particularly by using methods of repression, intimidation, and judge assassination to guarantee control over this crucial institution and use it as a weapon against opponents. The Houthi strategy has been shown to be continuing in recent months, especially in light of the decisions made by Rashad Al-Alimi, the president of the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council, in early August 2022, which included significant structural changes to the courthouse. Judge Shams Al-Din Al-Maliky, the head of Al-Husha First Instance Court in Ibb Governorate, was detained by Houthi apparatus on 25 August, for allegedly demanding payment. On August 30, Houthi militants surrounded Judge Abdullah Al-Jabri’s home in Southwest Sana’a, where he serves as president of the court. In the meantime, the Houthi movement issued a decision on 18 August to suspend 70 judges and prosecutors and replace them with its loyalists.
5- Allegations of Field Escalation by Houthi Forces: May saw an increase in claims that the Houthi militia was engaging in military maneuvers that suggested war preparations. Member of Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council Othman Majali told US Ambassador to Yemen Stephen Fagin that “the Houthis are working to transfer large quantities of heavy weapons between the fronts, and recruit children in summer camps.” The Houthi militia, he continued, “is working at a high pace to dig camouflaged trenches, create military sites, and install missile launchers to launch its aggressive attacks in and outside of Yemen, including targeting the maritime shipping corridor.” In addition, he stated that the Houthis view peace as a chance to rebuild their military structures and organize field conditions.
The Houthi escalation in Yemen, the most recent manifestation of which was the threat to target Saudi Arabia, reflects a number of significant indicators, which are highlighted below.
1. Argument over the Humanitarian File: Houthi General Jalal Al-Ruwaishan’s statements, in which he threatened to target Saudi Arabia, indicate that the humanitarian file is the most contentious issue between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi militia at present. The dispute in this file is related to the premise and philosophy with which the Houthi militia deals with Saudi Arabia, as it promotes that the negotiations with Saudi Arabia must be based on the fact that Saudi Arabia is a party to the conflict, and therefore must bear a significant portion of the cost of reconstruction and payment of compensation. This reflects a practical Houthi logic that, on the one hand, seeks to extend the negotiations with Saudi Arabia under Omani sponsorship in order to secure a military repositioning and, on the other hand, obtain the greatest possible quantity of gains.
2- The Lack of Saudi-Iranian Agreements on Yemen: When the agreement to normalize relations between the two countries was signed last March under Chinese sponsorship, many political circles in the region were optimistic about how it would affect the Yemen crisis. Regardless of the severity and tactical or strategic goals of the Houthi escalation, it shows that the Saudi and Iranian sides have not yet reached an understanding on specific guarantees and commitments regarding a settlement in Yemen that would put an end to the current state of war.
3. Adopting the “Tactical Escalation” Strategy: Any close observer of the Houthi strategy since the start of the war in Yemen understands that placing a wager on peace or achieving a political settlement was never a strategic choice for the Houthis. However, the Houthis might take some measures tactically to achieve a settlement for some issues, as evidenced by their involvement in the Geneva prisoner exchange agreement and other actions.
However, concurrently, they practically adopt escalatory field measures, which are actions taken to impose a field reality in favor of the militia and are used politically to obtain the greatest amount of political gains, in addition to using these actions as a pressure tool on the parties involved in the settlement process.
4. Increasing the Houthis’ Economic Strength: One benefit of the Houthis participating in some settlement negotiations is that they have gained the time necessary to accomplish a number of tactical and strategic goals, particularly when it comes to trying to alter the balance of power on the ground. Along with the field escalation, the Houthi militia’s efforts to strengthen its economic power are among the most notable. This is evident in the measures it took to separate banks, confiscate depositors’ money, and prevent trucks from crossing from the legitimate areas to their areas, in addition to Taiz, in an attempt to thwart the West Coast force’s efforts to lift the blockade.
In summary, it can be argued that the Houthis’ threat to attack Saudi Arabia is one of the escalation episodes that the militia has adopted in the recent period as part of the tactical escalation strategy, which seeks to apply pressure to the parties involved in the crisis along with the adoption of escalatory measures on the ground that shift the balance of power in favor of the Houthis.