But many Yemenis insist that the Houthis’ gains can be attributed to outside players, characterizing them as a pawn of Iran, citing longstanding accusations that they are receiving funding and possibly arms from the Islamic Republic.
“You can see Iran’s hands in the growth of the Houthis,” says one Yemeni politician, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic. “It’s a threat to Yemen, it’s a threat to Saudi Arabia and it’s a threat to American interests.”
The Houthis' strident anti-American rhetoric has raised the concerns of Western diplomats, while the group’s power base on the border with Saudi Arabia – and staunch opposition to its Sunni Wahabbi ideology – have prompted accusations that they represent a direct threat to the oil-rich kingdom.
The Houthis have battled Saudi troops in the past. In 2009, fighting briefly spread to southern areas of the Saudi border province of Jizan, and regardless of whether the group is receiving arms from abroad, many stress that the scrappy but skilled tribal guerrillas remain a force to be reckoned with. But the Houthis and their allies deny that they’re receiving funding, insisting they want to maintain the current calm, which has brought a period of relative prosperity to the territory.
“We’ve gone to Saudi Arabia and told them we want to make peace,” said de facto Saada governor Faris Manaa, a former ruling party member and reputed arms dealer who was appointed by a Houthi-dominated council after his Saleh-allied predecessor fled the province last March. “Our hand is open to them, but even after a year and a half, they still haven’t replied.”
While its roots appear to be political, the tension has been accompanied with a sharp upsurge in sectarian sentiment.