The Houthis’ real enemy is their own people

On top of their obstructing humanitarian aid efforts, the Houthis’ tax policy is adding to the suffering of Yemen’s civilians.

With Iran reeling under the pressure of increased US sanctions, its proxy militias, such as the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon, are looking for alternative ways to finance their activities and exert influence.

Finding themselves under renewed US and international scrutiny, these groups have turned to malign manoeuvres and, at times, criminal activities to sustain themselves.

Hezbollah, for example, is banking on illicit dealings in Latin America to earn revenue. The Houthis have imposed heavy taxes on all sorts of consumer goods, creating an additional burden for an already struggling population.

Muammar al-Iryani, information minister of the internationally recognised Yemeni government opposing the Houthis, said the new taxes affect goods and services such as medicine, cigarettes, soft drinks, mineral water, agricultural products, fertiliser, cement, transportation, the commercial sector, land and real estate.

On July 3, Iryani wrote on Twitter that the Houthis were relying on the taxes to compensate for the lack of oil revenue resulting from US-imposed sanctions. He said Iran had provided support to the Houthis in the form of oil shipments, allowing Tehran to maintain its influence, finance its war efforts and uphold what he described as an arms-trafficking business that supports Iran’s proxy war in the region.

Iryani criticised “the illegal taxes imposed on the residents in areas under Houthi control,” saying they “represent an additional burden for the Yemeni citizen and contribute to the increase of human suffering.”

“They also play a major role in the deterioration of the national economy and the devaluation of the currency due to hard currency purchases and remittances abroad,” Iryani said.

He condemned the international community’s failure to act in the face of “systematic looting and deliberate starvation of civilians in the areas controlled by the militia, as well as the scale of humanitarian violations, killings, repression, intimidation, imprisonment, kidnapping, imprisonment and terrorism that has never been seen before.”

Iryani has every right to cry foul. Crippling taxes are the last thing an impoverished population such as Yemen’s needs. International organisations such as the UN World Food Programme (WFP) have said Yemen’s level of poverty and famine is growing. In March, WFP spokesman Herve Verhoosel warned that “20 million Yemenis — some 70% of the population — are food insecure, marking a 13% increase from last year.”

While the Houthis’ activities have proven devastating to the local population, the Iran-backed rebels continue to claim their main adversary is the Arab-led coalition, which has been fighting to restore order in the country since 2015.

A 2019 Human Rights Watch report stated that the Houthis have repeatedly fired artillery indiscriminately into Yemeni cities, striking populated neighbourhoods. The strikes have had a particularly devastating effect on Taiz, Yemen’s third largest city.

Houthis are also accused of placing up landmines throughout the country, killing and wounding civilians and preventing their return home.

Their list of crimes goes on. Since late 2014, Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases of arbitrary and abusive detention by the Houthis, as well as forced disappearances and torture. Former detainees, including students, human rights activists, journalists, political opponents and members of the Bahai religious community, said Houthi officers beat them with iron rods and rifles and suspended them from walls with their arms shackled behind them.

The Houthis have also taken hostages. Human Rights Watch documented 16 cases in which Houthi authorities held people unlawfully, primarily to extort money from relatives or to exchange them for people held by opposing forces.

Not even Yemeni children have been spared from the Houthis’ cruelty. The United Nations said the Houthis have likely utilised hundreds of child soldiers. In 2017, the United Nations verified 842 cases of recruitment and use of boys as young as 11, nearly two-thirds of which were attributable to

Houthi forces.

On top of their obstructing humanitarian aid efforts, the Houthis’ tax policy is adding to the suffering of Yemen’s civilians. While they claim to be implementing the measure to help in their battle against the Arab-led coalition, it is the Yemeni people who are feeling the blow.

How long can such a tragedy last? That largely depends on the reaction of the international community, which has done very little to clip the wings of the Houthis and their Iranian sponsors.

Iman Zayat is the Managing Editor of The Arab Weekly.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.