Blurry Yemen: Shia v. Sunni, Sunni v. Houthi, Iran v. Saudi Arabia, or . . .

Many have come to see the conflict between the Iranian financed Houthis of northwest Yemen and a combination of Yemeni and Saudi forces as a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. This week, major Iranian news network Al-Alam blacked out, as its satellites — Saudi-based Arabsat and Cairo-based Nilsat — dropped it without prior notice. If the proxy war analysis is true, the battle in Yemen is part of a greater pan-Islamic conflict and we are seeing the fall-out in frosty relations. Some, however, don’t buy the hype, arguing that the situation is more complex than that.

Yemen’s government has been fighting the Houthis, a Shia minority in Sunni Yemen, since 2004, with an escalation of the conflict taking place this summer in an engagement known as “Operation Scorched Earth.” Recently, Saudi forces have joined the battle because of alleged Houthi incursions across the border into their territory. Now the world is watching the conflict. Reports from the battlefield indicate that the Saudis are creating a six-mile buffer zone around their border, despite heavy Houthi fire power. “They have secret power, some kind of magic,” said one refugee. “I mean, those guys are very strong. God knows what they have. They scared even the Saudi soldiers.” Reports have also revealed that the Houthis have Pakistanis fighting in their ranks.

Meanwhile, in Iran and Saudi Arabia accusations and condemnations abound.Iranian cooperation with Huthi rebels in Yemen is a collusion for sin and aggression, “ said Saudi Cleric Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh. 40 more clerics signed a statement saying that Iran “destabilizes Muslim nations by implanting, financing and arming its agents to spread” Shiism. In Iran, 250 legislators signed a statement condemning the killing of Muslims in Yemen by Saudi forces. Dialogue to normalize relations looks like an impossibility, as Yemeni government officials have refused to meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.

Foreign Policy magazine, however, argues that the issue is more complex than simple Sunni vs. Shia. The Houthis are of the Zaidi sect of Shia Islam and do not ascribe to the believes of traditional Twelver Iranian Shia Islam. Thus, the Houthi uprising is a local affair, a domestic Yemeni conflict blown out of proportion by meddling, self-interested outside forces.

Saudi intellectual and expert on Islamic movements Mashari Al-Zaydi disagrees. He argues that the Houthis have, in fact, hijacked the Zaidi sect. He sites manuscripts written by Hussein Badreddin al-Huthi, a radical Houthi leader killed in 2004, as proof. Al-Huthi believed that Zaidi relations with Sunni Muslims were foolish, as their sect had been defeated throughout history for their false beliefs. He goes on to praise Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini as a great leader who could build a great nation.

Yemen is a partner in the United States’ “War on Terror,” and Saudi Arabia is a major producer of oil. Those facts alone are enough to solidify the world’s interest in this struggle as it is. Once explanations on the Houthi fight are clearer — perhaps at the conflict’s end — the world will be better informed on where Islam will be as a whole.


  1. whyamisuni

    This entire scenario is fucked up!

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