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Beyond the Sunni-Shia narrative in Yemen

May 12, 2015 at 8:26 am

Over the past few weeks, much of the coverage on the Yemeni conflict has reduced it to a simple case of sectarianism. Sunni and Shia are words plastered over most coverage on Yemen, which gives an inaccurate picture of the complex network of arms and social relations that criss-cross the country.

Context through the relevance of the way that the 20th century shook Yemen has been missing and so has the tribal structure that tries to hold political arrangements in place with great sensitivity. Although wider regional political and ideological conflict has been taken into consideration when analysing Yemen, there is a tendency to assume that local politics is similar to the Saudi-Iranian power grab in terms of Sunni-Shia tensions. This is actually a preposterous way to even consider looking at the conflict, when you study the facts. Although sectarian elements are present on the ground, their importance is being blown out of proportion.

The most common narrative is this: “Shia Houthi fighters backed by Iran have taken over Yemen via a coup and forced the legitimate Sunni President Hadi to flee the country; this has led to Saudi military intervention to sustain the Sunni hegemony.” To reduce the Houthis’ takeover to the purpose of creating a Shia state is a gross misunderstanding of their aims. The Houthis are a Yemeni tribal alliance, which has been battling the Yemeni government via insurgencies since 2004 for tribal and territorial expansion, with the face of countering corruption within the Yemeni government. Their current military activities largely affect the civilian population irrespective of sect. Their enemies are not the Sunnis per se, but anyone who gets in their way as they extend their power.

The irony is that before the 2011 revolution, the Houthis were staunchly opposed to ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a fellow Shia. After Saleh was forced to step down, he stayed in Yemen and has attempted to exert his political authority covertly, playing a prominent role in orchestrating the Houthi coup. Even before the armed takeover, tribes loyal to Saleh were supportive of the Houthis when they saw the benefits of a strategic alliance with them. When the Houthis arrived in Sana’a in September 2014, they would not have succeeded in the way that they did without his help. Despite their political differences, and years of Saleh referring constantly to the Houthis as Iranian proxies during his presidency, they united, not under Shia solidarity, but through an alliance that allowed them to control the government and overpower tribes with their joint military power.

Taking advantage of the frustration felt by many Yemenis as a result of the lack of social justice during Saleh’s presidency, the Houthis’ main propaganda claimed that they were launching an anti-corruption campaign and their rule would bring justice to Yemen. They played with this narrative during the 2011 protests especially, to give them legitimacy and support. Their support was still relatively minimal, which took them to relying more on power-grabbing through military rather than social means.

At the moment, there are many factions fighting the Houthis, and not because of a sectarian agenda; it’s more about territorial integrity. Fighters in Marib are not being mobilised by tribal elders to save the Sunni sphere of influence in the Middle East, but for their land and to ensure that the Houthis don’t take control of their oil-rich province. Saving the innocent and vulnerable members of their tribes from the growing list of crimes committed by the Houthis and their illegal takeover also figures high on the priority list. The Hirak fighters in Ad Dali are fighting for the integrity of southern Yemen as well as territory. They see the Houthis as another threat coming from northern Yemen, rather than a Shia militia.

In terms of Iran arming the Houthis, there has been much speculation about this for years; in which Iran has not been able to prove that they have not been doing so. The situation is, though, more complicated, which shapes the context behind the current conflict itself. Wikileaks released a CIA report proving that the Houthis do not in fact need Iran because they have other sources of weapons that in many ways are more sustainable for them than relying on Iranian military aid. Because of the decentralised nature of arms supplies in Yemen, it makes it very easy for the Houthis to obtain weapons through the black market, a route which was used by them in the 2009 insurgency. They also took advantage of corruption within the Yemeni armed forces and bought weapons from soldiers and their officers. It also shows that from the perspective of military strategy, blocking Iranian support may be a hiccup to the Houthis, but will not diminish them; they are Yemenis, after all, capable of working their way around the Yemeni system to grab power and territory.

When it comes to the Houthis and their Shia identity, again, it is not as simple as it is commonly believed to be. Much pan-Sunni media quotes one of the Houthi leaders, Isam Al-Imad, pledging loyalty to Khameini and the “Twelver” Shia ideology he follows, as well as the Iranian political regime. However, in reality, most Yemeni Shia follow the Zayidi sub-sect, which is closest to the Sunni Hanafi school of thought in terms of Islamic jurisprudence. They do not believe in the infallibility of their Imams, thus rejecting one of the fundamental Shia beliefs that contradicts mainstream Sunni thought.

There have even been Sunni religious and tribal leaders joining the Houthis, one of them being Saad Bin Aqeel, a Sunni Mufti from Taiz. It’s worth remembering too that around 40 per cent of all Yemenis are Zayidi Shia, so if this battle had any significant element of sectarianism in it, the Houthis would have managed to obtain a larger degree of support across the country and their bombings would not be as indiscriminate as they are now.

Yemen is a country with a complicated history of socio-political instability, with a mix of armed tribes and civilians, so military movements are not easy to analyse comprehensively. Looking at the conflict from just one angle simply because it’s perceived to be following a regional pattern will take it away from its true context, enhance misconceptions and, perhaps more dangerously, pave the way for yet more counterproductive foreign policies and military activity that will almost certainly end up worsening the humanitarian crisis while finding no lasting political solution.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.