Hypocrisy about the Houthis

21 January 2024
Mick Armstrong

The US and Britain proclaim that the concerted attacks they have launched on Houthi military positions in Yemen are all in the noble defence of “international law”. In this, of course, they have the wholehearted support of the Albanese Labor government and Peter Dutton’s Liberal opposition.

Yet the imperialist powers, again with Australia’s backing, are more than happy to ignore that very same international law when it comes to Palestine. They allow Israel to defy it with impunity with its relentless expansion of illegal settlements on the West Bank, its repeated murders of Palestinian civilians by armed gangs of settlers and its murderous attacks on hospitals, schools, refugee camps, mosques and churches in the course of its genocidal war on Gaza.

This double standard is not some regrettable oversight by Joe Biden and Co. It reflects the reality that there is something far more sacred to the Western capitalist powers than international law: profit and strategic domination over the Middle East.

The Houthis’ actions in solidarity with the Palestinians have not resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of unarmed civilians or left 2 million people homeless. The Houthis have, however, disrupted the orderly passage of oil tankers through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea and consequently hit profits. For the imperialist powers, that is a much more terrible crime than the ethnic cleansing of Gaza.

It is for the same reasons of strategic power and the protection of profits that the US has long armed Israel to the teeth and backed its dispossession of the Palestinian people. Palestinian lives don’t count when it comes to securing imperialist control over the oil-rich Middle East.

Yemen itself has long suffered from imperialist intervention. Little wonder that it is today the poorest country in the Arab world.

The British military seized Aden in south Yemen in 1839. The port of Aden was vital for the British Navy’s control of the sea route to India—the jewel in the crown of the empire.

The British faced repeated tribal revolts, which they ruthlessly crushed—initially with ground troops and then in the twentieth century with devastating bombing raids on defenceless villagers. However, by the 1950s a powerful working-class movement had emerged.

The unions launched repeated mass strikes for improved living standards and eventually an insurrection against British rule. By the 1960s, a guerrilla war had broken out. Despite savage repression, the British were unable to crush the rebellion. At the end of 1967, they were forced to evacuate South Yemen.

In the north, which was then a separate country, a nationalist revolt had overthrown the reactionary monarchy and set up the Yemen Arab Republic. The British, the Israelis and the Saudi Arabian and Jordanian monarchies armed and funded a reactionary Islamist revolt against the republican government, which led to a devastating war.

War after war followed over the following decades, extended by the shifting alliances of rival local forces and their opportunistic imperialist backers—the US and Russia, and various regional powers, including the Saudis and Egypt.

In 1978, Ali Abdullah Saleh became president of North Yemen; in 1990, the country was unified under Saleh’s dictatorial rule. With the on-and-off backing of the West, Saleh maintained his corrupt regime for 33 years through opportunistic alliances, by playing off one tribal group or religious sect against another and by using brutal repression.

Then, in 2011, inspired by the revolts that swept the region in the course of the Arab Spring, a mass rebellion erupted against Saleh’s rule. Day after day, hundreds of thousands took to the streets demanding the downfall of the regime.

The democratic revolt sweeping the country offered hope of a better world for Yemen’s workers, young people and rural poor. That made it a threat not just to Saleh, but to Washington and the Saudi regime, which intervened to ensure “regional stability”.

They divided the opposition forces, bought off various opportunists and brought to power Saleh’s Vice-President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Hadi’s regime survived a few years before it was brought down by ongoing fighting.

The Houthis, who had long been waging a war in the rural north against the Saleh regime, emerged as a serious force. The Houthis are a tribal or clan-based group adhering to the minority Zaydi current of Shia Islam.

The Houthis’ war with Saleh was not some simply religious affair; after all, Saleh himself came from the Zaydi community. It was a product of a falling out within the elite of the north over local grievances.

Neither are the Houthis, as they are commonly portrayed in the Western press, simply some puppet of the Iranian regime. While more than happy to receive Iranian arms, they operate primarily on the basis of their own local interests.

But nor are the Houthis some democratic liberation force. They impose harsh dictatorial rule in the areas they conquer and, for a period between 2015 and 2017, they formed an alliance with their former rival, the old dictator Saleh.

The Houthis’ actions in support of the Palestinians are popular among the Yemeni population and expose the failures of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the other much more powerful Arab regimes to lift a finger to stop the genocide in Gaza. But the Houthis’ attacks on Western shipping are also useful for deflecting popular discontent with their rule.

In 2014, the Houthis’ military drove the Hadi government out of the capital, Sanaa, riding a wave of popular revolt. In the south, they faced a heterogeneous coalition of local forces backed by the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates.

The Saudis believed that the massive supplies of high-tech arms they received from the Western powers would enable them easily to crush the Houthis. But despite spending tens of billions on the war, the Saudis and their allies were no match for the battle-hardened Houthi guerrilla fighters.

The Saudis are currently trying to reach a settlement with the Houthis; a fragile truce is now in place. This makes the Saudis far from enthusiastic about the US and British attacks on the Houthis, as they fear that they could reignite a war they are desperate to end.

Nearly a decade of war and famine has devastated Yemen, costing something like 400,000 lives. More than 4 million people have fled their homes.

The latest US and British attacks will simply add to that misery. The Western powers are not in the least interested in democracy, peace, security or decent lives for the people of the Middle East.

Their only concern is protecting their wealth and imperial power. If that means famine in Yemen and genocide in Gaza, then the price is “worth it”, as then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright notoriously said in defence of the US sanctions that killed 500,000 Iraqi children in the 1990s.

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