For much of the past decade, Yemen’s far northern governorate of Saada, on the border with Saudi Arabia, has been one of the most conflict-wracked areas of this fractious nation, a place where war between the Houthis, who practice a brand of Shiite Islam known as Zaydi, and Yemen’s central government has left thousands of dead and much of the region in ruins.
Today, however, the governorate is an unlikely bastion of calm, with the Houthis effectively seizing control during the months that the battle to depose former President Ali Abdullah Saleh distracted the central government.
Residents of the area largely welcome the stability that the Houthis have brought and discount the concerns elsewhere that the Saada “state within a state” is ruled through violence and intimidation.
Devastation from years of warfare is still evident. Wrecked homes dot the landscape, and civilians with devastating war injuries are common. But shops brimming with goods operate out of half-ruined buildings, bullet-scarred gas stations are open and construction is evident across this provincial capital – all signs of a tentative return to ordinary life, or at least a new normal.
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There’s no question of who’s in charge: Houthis man the frequent checkpoints, and the Yemeni flag is a rare sight. Banners and graffiti bearing the Houthis’ notorious slogan – “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, damn the Jews, power to Islam” – are everywhere.
Houthi leaders appear to have embraced their new role in governance enthusiastically – gaining popular backing, they say, through their commitment to clean rule and opposition to American interference in Yemen.
“At the head of our political program are leaders who reject bribery, who reject corruption,” said Saleh Habra, the head of the Houthis’ political bureau, contrasting Houthi leadership with what he characterized as the faults of other parties. “We have governance by those who are wise, trustworthy and religious.”
But while movement leaders stress that their rule is rooted in the people’s consent, many Yemeni politicians have condemned what they’ve characterized as a Houthi power grab. Control of the province, they say, came only after the former governor and other government-allied politicians and tribal leaders were forced to flee; the Houthis’ actions amount to a coup against the authority of the central government.
“The Houthis’ support isn’t coming from legitimate political methods,” said Naguib al Saadi, the director of the Wethaq Foundation, a human rights organization based in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital. “Their strategy is to use violence, to spread their influence through war.”
Others in Saada dispute that the Houthis are governing a state within a state. Faris Manaa, a prominent arms dealer and former Saleh ally who was appointed the governor of Saada by a council of local notables, though without an official decree, said he had frequent contact with the central government. Government employees continue to work in Saada; even soldiers still man their posts.
Manaa said the claims that the Houthis exercised complete dominance were distortions driven by those who didn’t like how the fighting was resolved.
“Many are unhappy about the peace in Saada, that the Houthis are involved in the government,” he said. “It’s about wanting power.”
Few analysts see any likelihood that the Houthis will be forced from their current role, though many think it’s possible they’ll cooperate with the central government one day.
“If you’re talking about bringing the Houthis into submission, that won’t happen. Times have changed,” said Abdulghani al Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst. “However, bringing them into a national deal that treats them as a partner is something that’s very possible.”