memri
February 23, 2024 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 574

The Houthi Hypocrisy – Maintaining Vast Arsenals But Relying On The West To Feed The Starving Yemenis

February 23, 2024 | By Steven Stalinsky, Ph.D.*
Yemen | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 574

Across the Middle East, failed states and territories depend on massive amounts of humanitarian aid from the West to feed and care for populations. Many of these are run, de facto, by Iran via proxies. One such proxy is the Ansar Allah, commonly known as the Houthis, the organization that controls much of the country, including the capital Sana'a and 70%-80% of the population –and which has, for the past decade, been supplied by Iran with advanced and sophisticated weaponry.

Yet while Yemen, whose 32 million people are among the poorest and hungriest in the world, receives billions of dollars in humanitarian aid every year, the Houthis maintain a vast military, complete with arsenals of the latest weapons and equipment, including missiles and drones that are, based on observation, worth tens of millions or even billions of dollars. These are stockpiled under the noses of the Western bodies and organizations on the ground – just as happened in Gaza with Hamas and in Lebanon with Hezbollah.

According to U.S. Navy Admiral Brad Cooper, deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, the Houthis are "the first entity in the history of the world to use anti-ship ballistic missiles ever... certainly against commercial shipping, much less against U.S. Navy ships." He added that it would be "unwise to consider them" a ragtag terrorist group.

The Houthis – whose official motto is "God is great, death to America, death to Israel, a curse upon the Jews, victory to Islam" – are laser-focused on building military might and carrying out attacks on ships in the Red Sea – to the point where the State Department, on February 21, condemned them for "continu[ing] to demonstrate disregard to the Yemeni people" for "risking spillage of fertilizer and fuel into the sea and threatening Yemen's fishing industry" and "bringing corn and other food supplies to the Yemeni people." It added that they are "preventing the delivery of food and essential items on which the Yemeni people rely and making it difficult for humanitarians to do their essential work, endangering an already fragile humanitarian situation."

More than two-thirds of Yemen's population – some 21.6 million people – depend on food and humanitarian aid from international organizations to avoid starvation. Severe maternal malnutrition and mahram restrictions on women preventing them from going anywhere without a male family member exacerbate the situation.

The United Nations warned as early as 2017 that Yemen was facing "the largest famine the world has seen for many decades, with millions of victims," and that "Yemenis are not going hungry, they are being starved." The World Health Organization has noted that Yemen's health system is near collapse; a WHO official said in April 2023 that 540,000 children under five are currently suffering from severe acute malnutrition "with a direct risk of death." Doctors and nurses describe children who are "just skin and bones," motionless on hospital beds, their bodies covered with sores, and with barely enough energy to breathe or open their eyes.


Malnourished child in Yemen hospital

It has been known for years that the Houthis are stealing aid directly from the mouths of the people of Yemen, and this is ongoing. As of 2018 and 2019, according to a UN World Food Program report as well as media and the Yemen government itself, food aid was being stolen, withheld, and misappropriated by the Houthis. A 2020 Human Rights report also stated that the Houthis were diverting and blocking aid. It is known that the Houthi organization, The Supreme Council for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and International Cooperation, has complete oversight over all humanitarian aid work in territories under most of Yemen.

As of February 18, 2024, according to Pentagon figures, since November the Houthis had attacked at least 45 ships in the Red Sea, as well as launching missiles and drones at Israel. The U.S. Navy has shot down nearly 100 Houthi drones and missiles, with its ships engaging in combat in a way they haven't since World War II. The world's major container ship companies are all now going around the Cape of Good Hope, with an additional month of travel time and a million more dollars in fuel costs – posing, according to U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, a risk to the global economy.

On January 17, the Biden administration named the Houthis a Specially Designated Terrorist Group on January 17, taking effect February 16. This long-overdue move comes three years to the day after President Biden delisted the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, when the UN and aid groups said that the designation could hamper humanitarian assistance to Yemen. The UN has expressed similar apprehensions about this new designation as well.

The Houthi political bureau's near-daily statements and media releases, and the organization's many military parades, aim to show that the group is a strong military force in the region. The missiles and drones it showcased in a massive September military parade, with ranges of 400 to 1,900 kilometers, are derivatives and variants of Iranian weaponry. Their most recent "armed popular show of force" – a massive parade on December 20 – was intended "to send a message of readiness and preparedness to confront the forces of hegemony and arrogance" – i.e. the U.S. and its allies in the region.

The same "forces of hegemony" that the Houthis are targeting – the U.S. and other Western countries – are sending millions in humanitarian aid to Yemen to help feed its starving population. Since 2015, the EU has provided over 1.4 billion euros in aid to Yemen; the U.S. has provided almost half of all aid – $5.4 billion in total. In February 2023, the U.S. pledged nearly $450 million. Another top donor to Yemen is Saudi Arabia, which in 2019 pledged $500 million, as did the United Arab Emirates. Additionally, the World Food Programme said in 2023 that it planned to provide emergency food assistance to 15 million people that year.

Humanitarian and non-government organizations have remained largely silent about the corruption and the theft of much-needed food and supplies. As more becomes known about the Houthis, it likewise becomes clear that they are thieves stealing aid destined for their children and women, heartlessly allowing them to literally starve to death. Almost no one in the Middle East, or groups in the West who claim to care about human rights in the region, are saying one word.

As the Houthis gain prominence across the Middle East, and now in the West, for their actions against both Israel and the U.S., the left has been touting their "long tradition of solidarity with the Palestinian people" and their role as an anti-imperialist resistance movement. Beginning in December in New York City, protests are featuring crowds chanting "Yemen, Yemen, make us proud, turn another ship around!" and "Hands Off Yemen." Pro-Houthi marches continued, including  with a January 12 "Hands Off Yemen" rally outside the Yemen UN Mission in New York. The chant was heard at a 200,000-strong protest in London as well on January 13. Meanwhile, back in Yemen, the Houthis continue to impose their will on the populations under their control – including with death sentences for university students, as well as punishments such as flogging and stoning for "immoral acts," and shaving boys' heads for the crime of sporting "Western hairstyles."

The Biden administration's January 2024 designation of the Houthi movement as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist – after it formally delisted it as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and Specially Designated Global Terrorist soon after taking power in January 2021 – is a good step, albeit one already shown to be further inflaming protestors. Another positive development is the European Union's mission to protect ships in the Red Sea from the Houthis. Additionally, the State Department emphasized that "we and our partners will continue to take appropriate action, as needed, to protect freedom of navigation and commercial shipping from Houthi attacks. But the impact of these moves on the Houthis' attacks on Red Sea shipping, together with the U.S. Navy's operations, appears limited so far, as they continue to carry out significant military operations against sea vessels and U.S. drones.

In light of the Houthis' call in mid-January to expand the regional conflict against the U.S., and its warning that Europe would be their primary victim, a stronger military response might be needed to stop their attacks.

* Steven Stalinsky is Executive Director of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI)

Share this Report:

Help Fight Extremism - Support MEMRI

MEMRI is a 501(c)3 organization. All donations are tax-deductible and kept strictly confidential.