Houthis Advance On Marib

In early March, fighting in Yemen’s civil war resumed when the Houthi rebel group advanced on the city of Marib. The acquisition is geostrategically important for the Houthis; Marib was one of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s last strongholds in the region, and the city could facilitate further Houthi appropriation of valuable oil fields. Notably, the attack followed recent Houthi drone attacks on southern Saudi Arabia. Marib, which has not had to endure any significant conflict for most of the war, is now very much a fighting ground between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. This has resulted in hundreds of casualties for both sides of the war.

With over two million civilian lives threatened, the assault on Marib is the civil war’s bloodiest altercation since 2018, when the Saudi-led coalition launched an offensive on the ultra-strategic port of Hodeidah, bordering the Red Sea. This is expected to aggravate the tragic condition of a country suffering from famine and economic crisis, both of which have noticeably been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Further, the fighting has displaced civilians away from the city, as hundreds of families risk their lives to find refuge in more remote areas of the country. However, these remote regions tend to offer scarcer access to public services.

To put things in perspective, the fighting in Yemen is responsible for the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Over 24 million people in the country are in need of humanitarian assistance, accounting for around 80% of the population, and over 3 million people have lost their homes in the last five years of fighting. Institutions and infrastructure have collapsed, leaving impoverished and vulnerable civilians with no access to much-needed public services like education and healthcare.

This latest attack can be seen as an escalation of hostilities in the direct conflict itself, but also in the wider geopolitical rivalry between two larger regional powers. In fact, this proxy war is a manifestation of the historic rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. These two major Islamic Middle Eastern superpowers have waged an ongoing power struggle in Yemen on the basis of regional superiority and religious primacy. While Saudi Arabia supports a coalition that backs the internationally-recognized government in Yemen, Iran has sided with the Houthis to dislodge it.

The Houthis first appeared in the 1980s as a cultural and religious revivalist movement of Zaidi Shi’ism in Northern Yemen, during a time when the country was geographically and ideologically divided. Today, the Houthi are most commonly referred to as a northern Yemeni insurgent group, formed in response to the rise of the previous president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s autocratic tendencies and the marginalization of Zaidi Shia Muslims in Yemen. Massive protests against President Saleh’s longstanding authoritarian regime marked the start of the Yemeni Revolution in 2011, which coincided with the fall of old regime dictators across the Middle East, including Ben Ali (Tunisia), Gaddafi (Libya), and Mubarak (Egypt).

The United States has recently declared its intention to cut support for the Saudi coalition, which had been blocking humanitarian aid for vulnerable communities in Houthi-occupied territory. The Biden administration has urged the rebels to put an end to the Houthi military offensive in Marib and has reinstated its willingness to resolve the conflict diplomatically by resuming negotiations. The American government has also revoked its decision to classify the Houthis as a terrorist organization, which would prevent any possibility of much-needed humanitarian aid in Houthi-occupied territory.

Other significant international organizations such as the United Nations have made clear demands to stop the offensive on Marib, as well as the cross-border hostilities in Saudi Arabia. Further escalation of the conflict may impede on these organizations’ renewed willingness to put an end to the civil war.