The war in Yemen has most often been described to us either as a civil war between the government of Yemen and its supporters, and a Houthi tribal militia. It is also represented as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia backing the Sunni government of Yemen and Iran backing a Shia insurgency led by the Houthis, a Zaydi tribe from northern Yemen. Neither description is entirely accurate. To understand what is happening in Yemen, it is useful to understand the factions who are fighting, and specifically, the Houthis.
The ‘correct’ title of the political movement we call the Houthis is Ansarullah. They are not a tribal organization but rather a revolutionary movement. They are also not a Shia movement. Zaydi Islam, though referred to by the Saudis as a Shia Islam, is in practice, much closer to Sunnism and in the north of Yemen, Sunni and Zaydi often worship in the same mosque. In fact, Ansarullah, the group we know as the Houthis, has broad popular support because they espouse populist values.
The reason Ansarullah came to be called Houthis is that in 2004, they informally took the name of Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, who died while fighting in an insurrection against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Al Houthi was so beloved that the members of the organization began to call themselves ‘Houthis’ or ‘the Houthi Movement’. But you may ask, why was a Houthi leading this movement and in what context did they emerge?