Saudi Arabia's Yemen War Isn't About Sectarianism

Image: “5TH FLEET AREA OF RESPONSIBILITY (Dec. 11, 2014) A Saudi Marine fires an Mk19 grenade launcher during a joint machinegun live-fire exercise with U.S. Marines from Echo Company, Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), as part of exercise Red Reef 15 in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility, Dec. 11, 2014. Red Reef, is part of a routine theater security cooperation engagement plan between the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and Royal Saudi Naval Forces

Riyadh's interests in Yemen haven't changed—only its allies and enemies.

The Yemen War seldom punctuates our current news cycles here in the West. When it does, it often depicts the narrative of sectarianism; Sunni versus Shia, Saudi Arabia versus Iran.

The conflict is complicated, to say the least. It involves a series of fractious actors and alliances, each with their own agendas and ambitions. Reductionist analysis too often boil it down to the aforementioned sectarian tilt. This, whilst certainly playing a part, too often misses the mark.

So what is the reasoning behind Saudi actions in Yemen? First we must address the sectarian tendencies of the conflict to see exactly what role it encompasses.

The Houthis, Hezbollah and Iran

The Houthis are Zaydi Shia tribe, primarily located in northern Yemen’s Saada governorate. Zaydism is theologically closer to Sunni Islam than the Twelver Shiism practiced in Iran, their supposed patron. Unlike their Twelver cousins; the Zaydis only believe in five imams, not twelve, reject the idea of the Mahdi and do not celebrate Ashura. As such, Zaydi Shiism is recognised as being more moderate. More so, the sectarianism which defines much of the region is not so apparent between the Sunni and Shia communities in Yemen; spotting both Sunni and Shia praying in the same mosques is not uncommon. Not the ideal environment for revolutionary religious fundamentalism to take hold.

Nevertheless, the Houthi movement’s incorporation of more radical elements is arguable. Former leader Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi (of which the group is named after) studied at the Badr Religious Centre where he was influenced by aspects of Twelver Shiism, and imbued these ideas throughout his following. This included the reformation of the Zaydi imamate, which ruled Yemen from its foundation in 897 until its overthrow in 1962. How much this idea has permeated the current Houthi movement is unclear. Its adopted slogan, which echoes Iranian prescriptions, "God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam" potentially gives indications to its potential immoderation, though many experts dispute this.

As such, while Zaydi Shiism is not a natural incubator of Iranian revolutionary zealotry, Badreddin al-Houthi’s own ideological fervour potentially is, and in Yemen, “identity is derived from tribe rather than sect.”

During the 2009 iteration of this conflict, the Yemen Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Chief of Protocol Abdullah al-Radhi expressed concern that “Iran wants a strong political card to play in Yemen similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon.” Alleged ties between the Houthis, Iran and its foremost regional proxy Hezbollah are often stressed by both Yemeni and Saudi media outlets, and whilst evidence of direct cooperation is scarce, there is enough to suggest this is no mere perception.

Iran almost certainly supplies the Houthis with arms and munitions. Iranian media has been eager to publicize Houthi use of the Zelzal-3, an Iranian rocket, which Iran already distributes to its regional proxies, primarily Hezbollah. To limn this point, in an interview with the Washington Institute, Matthew Levitt, author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God and an expert on the group, commented that “Hezbollah [is] helping to ferry Iranian weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen.”