With Saudi aircraft bombing the Yemeni capital Sana’a, it is easy to view this action as simply a reaction to yet more Iranian regional interference.
But to view the crisis in Yemen as simply another example of Shia communities in the region acting with the support of Tehran to create a Persian satrapy in the Arab world reduces it to an easy to understand but ultimately erroneous narrative.
Such an approach not only ignores the power of multiple local issues in determining the trajectory of conflicts, it also betrays a weak understanding of the nature and strength of the forces that continue to shape the region.
The Middle East is complex, with a dizzying array of differing and sometimes competing identities often sitting uncomfortably alongside each other within the same national boundaries. Supra-national loyalties resulting from shared religious, ethnic or sometimes tribal identities simply adds to the complexity. As Syria and Iraq have shown, when sufficient pressure is applied to the political and societal fault lines, the fragility of national unity is brutally exposed.
Despite the claims regarding the Yemeni unrest as being a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is really much more about the complex interplay of local political issues than it is about religion or regional confrontation. The use of the words Shia, Houthi and Iran in the same sentence, for example, invokes a sense of religious unity where in fact there is very little. The Houthi movement in Yemen is from the Zaydi branch of Islam and, while they share a common starting point, they have developed along different paths to such an extent that they are in many ways separate religions.
Not only have the Zaydis developed a different school of Islamic religious law and as a consequence don’t study and forge personal relationships with other scholars in the great Shia religious schools in Iran or Iraq, they don’t visit Shia shrine sites, don’t observe most Shia commemorations and don’t believe in an Awaited Imam who will reappear on Judgment Day. They certainly don’t subscribe to Iran’s model of theocratic governance.
But if the Houthis have little in common religiously with Iran, they do have some common philosophical ground. They see a leadership role for those who seek to counter injustice, and denounce the US and Israel.
They also both seek to counter Saudi influence. For Iran it is because the Saudis are regional rivals for political influence and for Islamic leadership. For the Houthis it is resentment at an increasing marginalisation within Yemeni society, and an aggressive program of Salafist proselytising in their northern heartland funded by Riyadh during the 1990s that threatened their religious identity. There have been accusations of Iranian funding for the Houthis and much weaker claims that training and weapons also have been provided.
Given the Zaydis have neither a diaspora nor a wealthy merchant class and that Iran is seeking allies to increase its influence, there is some credibility in the claim that the Houthis have accepted Iranian largesse, although Tehran’s influence over the Houthis generally has been heavily overstated. Any relationship they have is based on pragmatism and short-term shared interests rather than a common religious identity.
There are other elements contributing to the Yemeni unrest. Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh ruled North Yemen and the Republic of Yemen for 30 years until he was ousted in 2011 after his inability to quell popular protests against his rule and to maintain the continued loyalty of his entire military, and there are reports he has used his connections and military loyalties built up across the three decades he was in power to aid the Houthi movement as a means of seeking revenge on those who replaced him. This aspect of the conflict is simply domestic politics.
President Abed Rabbo Hadi’s relocation to the southern Yemeni capital of Aden and the rescinding of his previous resignation has further complicated the issue of who actually governs the country. Four Gulf states shifted their embassies from Sana’a to Aden, indicating how little regional support the Houthis have. The existence of two governments in Sana’a and Aden, however, has also revived memories of the old South Yemeni socialist government, national unification in 1990 and the ill-fated 1994 civil war that pitted the resource-rich south against a northern Yemen led by Saleh that was perceived by the southerners as being discriminatory towards them.
The emergence of a southern secessionist movement in 2007 showed just how fragile the post-civil war national identity was, and these recent events have given a fillip to those who advocate a breakup of the country.
Into all this confusing mix one should add the various tribal allegiances that continue to underpin much of Yemeni society, to say nothing of the long-term presence of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s continued destabilising presence in the country.
The regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is of course part of the backdrop to the crisis in Yemen, but it is neither its cause nor its reason for continuing.
Despite the military intervention of Saudi Arabia, sometimes conflicts are driven by local issues much more than we think.
Rodger Shanahan is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and a fellow at the Australian National University’s National Security College.