It has been argued that the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam is closer to mainstream Sunni Islam than it is to the Twelver Shias who form the majority in Iran. This is particularly so in regards to jurisprudence and general practises. However some socio religious developments among Yemen’s Zaydi community appear to indicate a gradual shift towards Twelverism in recent years.
This has been attributed to Iran’s growing influence in the country, specifically with the Ansar Allah movement, popularly known as the Houthis. Such developments have the propensity to consolidate Houthi control of the north and capital by means of legitimacy partially obtained through the provision of much needed social services where the fragile, barely existent Yemeni government is unwilling or unable to.
The Houthi movement, after all, as with Lebanon’s Hezbollah (and Palestine’s Hamas) primarily began as a social movement before the emergence of an armed wing. One of the most indicative developments towards legitimacy was the appointment of a Houthi ambassador to Iran.
Who are the Zaydis?
Zaydi Islam is an offshoot of the Shia sect emerging in the 8th century, named after Zayd ibn Ali, the great-grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Imam Zayd is believed to have had a following, because he chose to continue an armed struggle against the powerful Umayyad dynasty which ultimately failed, whereas the majority of Shia at the time instead opted to follow the quietest approach of Zayd’s elder brother, Imam Muhammad Al Baqir – the fifth Imam for the mainstream Twelver Shias.
An important and distinguishing feature for the Zaydi imamate is that the leader must assert his claim of leadership by khuruj (rebellion or uprising) especially against an unjust or oppressive ruler.
The Zaydis form approximately 30-40 per cent of the overall population and mainly concentrated in the north of the country. There are also Zaydis in a few towns bordering northern Yemen in neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
There are stern accusations in both the West and neighbouring Saudi Arabia that the Houthis are another “Iranian proxy”, likening them to Lebanon’s Hezbollah or Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces, seeking to destabilise the Middle East and to the benefit of Iranian regional hegemony. Exiled Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi vowed in 2016 that he will never allow a “Persian” state to exist in Yemen.
An often repeated journalistic mantra refers to the group as the “Iranian-backed” Houthis although it has been questioned as to how much this support has been exaggerated by the mainstream media. Both Houthis and Iran of course have downplayed the extent of such support.
The fact is the Houthis emerged independently of Iran and received support as they grew into a more powerful entity, having made use of black market networks for trade and arms. Furthermore, they only turned to violence in 2004 after founder of their Believing Youth movement, Hussein Badreddin Al-Houthi – who drew influence from the Iranian Revolution – was killed by government forces, sparking an on and off war for six years, known as the Saadah Wars.
The leaders, who survived these conflicts, are known as the “Saadah Core” and it is their ideology which leans closer to Twelverism. Indeed, of the three main sub-sects within Zayidism – the Jurudiyyah which the Houthis ascribe to is said to be the closest to the Twelver Shia, at least relatively speaking.
Fivers to Twelvers
The Zaydis also known as the “Fivers” are gradually shifting towards Twelverism at least in regards to outward displays of religious observance.
This show of force has been particularly visible on religious commemorative dates, more associated with Twelvers, such as Eid Al Ghadir, which according to Shia Islam celebrates the divine appointment of Imam Ali as the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), this year’s event on 19 August witnessed mass rallies in the capital and according to Al-Manar started with poems about Imam Ali’s “virtues and sacrifices” for the faith, this was unprecedented for the Zaydis who now openly participate in a previously unmarked occasion.
However, arguably the most distinguishing and prominent event for the Shia is the day of Ashura on 10 Muharram, commemorating the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson, Imam Hussain.
Historically the Zaydis did not observe this either, however in 2012, Reuters described it as the first public commemoration in the capital in half a century – which was targeted by a bomb attack attributed to Al-Qaeda.
The first public display en masse was in 2017 and this year’s event was given the title “Sacrifice and Victory” and was politicised in light of the current conflict.
The occasion was also marked by Houthi leader, Abdul Malik Al-Houthi pledging allegiance to Iran’s Ayatullah Khamenai coinciding with Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah doing the same. Yemen’s Minister of Education was prompted to criticise the Houthis for “imposing the so-called Wilayat Al-Faqih oath in the morning queue in schools located in areas controlled by militias” in reference to the political ideology revived by Khamenai’s predecessor when founding the Islamic Republic which places political authority in the hands of the clergy in the absence of the 12th Imam.
Missed opportunity by the Saudis?
As with the blowback of the Saudi-led blockade on Qatar which only forced it to move closer to Turkey and Iran, so too did the decision to launch a coalition to drive back the Houthis and re-establish the Hadi government in Sanaa using a campaign of air strikes, naval blockades and mercenaries merely pushed the Houthis closer to Iran’s sphere of influence, out of necessity – thus becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Could the Saudis have better capitalised on their relative theological similarities as a means of soft power? Granted, the state religion of Saudi Arabia is the Wahabi interpretation of Sunni Islam – and part of the emergence of the Houthi’s Believe Youth movement in the early 90s, was in response to the emergence of Wahabi schools in their northern stronghold Saadah, in particular the city of Dammaj. But the Saudis have propagated religious ideas as a means of foreign policy before – as in Afghanistan and Pakistan among the Sunni Deobandi movement (which gave rise to the Taliban).
It is also interesting to note that during the North Yemeni Civil War (1962-1970), Saudi Arabia and fellow monarchy Jordan, supported the Zaydi Mutawakkilite kingdom against the sweeping Arab republicanism at the time, spearheaded by Egypt’s charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser, although this soon came to an end following the abolition of the imamate and the establishment of the Republic.
The Houthi domination and presence in the north will remain for the foreseeable future according to a recent interview with the UK spokesperson for the southern Yemenis separatist movement, the Southern Transitional Council (STC). The exiled government currently is without a de facto capital having lost the southern port city to the UAE backed STC in August and lacks the monopoly on violence, which a sovereign state is supposed to possess.
As the Houthis become more powerful, there is potential for a scenario where the non-state actors are more powerful and more battle-hardened with combat experience than the national army, as in Lebanon, leading to a state within a state.
The Houthis are currently increasing their cross-border activities into neighbouring Saudi Arabia, including the recent attack on two oil facilities belonging to Saudi Aramco which was the most significant to date.
However, there are also Zaydis present in some areas in Saudi in addition to another Shia sects, namely the Ismailis of Najran province, which historically belonged to Yemen. As the Houthis move closer to Twelverism and Iranian political influence, there could be potential to export such ideas across the border with its own ramifications. Following the Saudi-led intervention in 2015, Iranian and Houthi aligned media reported the alleged formation of a domestic Saudi opposition group calling itself the Ahrar Al-Najran, although there had been no independent corroboration of any of these events.
The Najrani Ismailis had in the past been deployed by the former King Abdullah against Yemen, perhaps to sow seeds of discord between the two communities. As stated in Foreign Policy, it is not Shia Islam which is a red line for the Saudi Kingdom, but militant, populist movements that talk dirty about the Saudi monarchy.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.