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November 18, 2009
Saudi Arabia and Iran fighting proxy war in northern Yemen

A Yemeni government tank used against Houthi rebels in the north. Photo: Al Jazeera video

For the past 15 years, Dwight Bashir has worked on international conflict, human rights and religious freedom issues. He is a senior advisor for an independent U.S. commission focusing on international religious freedom. The views expressed here are his own personal views.

A war of words is heating up between Iran and Saudi Arabia over an ongoing armed conflict in northern Yemen between Shi’a Houthi rebels and Yemeni security forces. This week, Iran accused Saudi Arabia of state-sponsored “Wahhabi terrorism” in Yemen, while the most senior Saudi cleric accused Houthi rebels of being backed by Iran to spread Shi’a Islam in “Sunni Islam’s heartland.”

Both Yemen and Saudi Arabia accuse Iran of providing financial and/or military support to the rebels. Iran denies any kind of support for the rebels.

The conflict in Yemen is complex — with numerous interlocking factors, such as underdevelopment, limited resources, tribal tensions, political exclusion and security concerns. Some have posited that the conflict is exacerbated by the fact that Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaging in a proxy war on Yemeni soil.

The truth is that for 30 years both Iran and Saudi Arabia have spent billions of dollars exporting competing religio-political ideologies in the region and globally, while committing egregious human rights violations at home to defend and bolster their respective ideologies.

Ever since Saudi Arabia entered the conflict two weeks ago after Houthi rebels crossed into Saudi territory from northern Yemen and allegedly killed two Saudi border guards, tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have risen almost daily.

UN officials have estimated that, since 2004, as many as 175,000 people have been displaced in northern Yemen. And at least 240 villages in Saudi Arabia have been evacuated in recent weeks.

To better understand the conflict, it is important to understand religious demographics in Yemen. Between 40-45% of the Yemeni population of 23 million are Shi’a Muslims, mostly from the Zaydi school of Shi’a Islam founded more than 1,000 years ago.

Although Yemen’s majority is Sunni, Zaydi Muslims make up a majority of the population in the north where the fighting is taking place. In general, there are few societal tensions between Yemen’s Shi’a and Sunni Muslims.

The Yemeni government claims that Houthi rebels — considered a Zaydi militant group — have sought to develop a political faction modeled on Hezbollah in Lebanon, in order to undermine the government and impose Shi’a Islamic law. This is similar to how the Iranian government’s interpretation of Twelver Shi’a Islam is the law of the land in Iran.

The rebels follow the late Zaydi cleric, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi (hence “Houthi rebels”). Al-Houthi is a former Yemeni parliamentarian who was killed during a 10-week rebellion in 2004 against the Yemeni government in the northern province of Saada, where the fighting started more than five years ago. The rebels claim they are fighting against government repression, although they have never articulated clear objectives, political or otherwise.

Despite both the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels insisting that the conflict is not sectarian in nature, the Iranian government is doing everything it can to portray the conflict as two predominantly Sunni Muslim states, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, cooperating to massacre Shi’a civilians in Yemen. Despite the complexities, these Iranian claims are exaggerated, at best, and downright contrived at worst.

Some Zaydi Muslims in Yemen have been subject to discrimination and harassment for perceived or actual sympathy toward Houthi rebels. According to human rights groups in the region, some Zaydi Muslims not connected to the rebels have been inadvertently targeted by the Yemeni government.

Because Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been promoting competing religio-political ideologies, it is not surprising that both countries would fan the flames of sectarian warfare. Yemen is a fragile state with an active al-Qaeda presence that threatens regional security, and its government is fighting for economic and political stability.

To date, the international community has not played an active role in the conflict. With the spillover into Saudi Arabia, the international community must engage and help broker an end to the current crisis. If not, the conflict could quickly escalate and the region may be facing a new security reality that would likely have wider implications.

– Dwight Bashir

For more, view our Voices of Iran extended coverage page and listen to our online radio show on Baha’i faith and modern Iran.

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i think it is the time for yemen,iran and saudi arabia to solve out the differences because yemen is now facing another big threat that is for bringing an end to this problem, these states should cooperate with each other for the stability of the region


[…] Ever since Saudi Arabia entered the conflict two weeks ago after Houthi rebels crossed into Saudi te… […]


[…] with its own internal struggles. Its poverty, and the conflicts, have made it a primary area for a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran – which tangentially means the United States and Iran. This is particularly true given the […]


i want to need Saudi Arabia and Yemen war video’s any body give me??


To Paul Marrion

You have stated the case succinctly. The world does not understand the implication of the Sunni-Shia schism, and what it means in the Muslim world. It is not Jerusalem that is really of importance to them, but MECCA. However, whoever does get Jerusalem into Muslim hands will eventually get MECCA, that is, the rulership of some future Caliphate the orthodox Muslims pray for. The Shia clerics of Qoms want to rule the Muslim world the same way the Popes once wanted to rule Christendom. Maybe they feel nukes might help get them there.


The Shia Sunni conflict has been going on for nearly as long as Islam itself. It is a war of succession of the Caliphate which no longer exists.

Now is the time of the ending of worlds and the beginnings of the mythological Islamic successions for worldwide domination. Either Sunna or Shia will rule the entire world for the Islamic grand Caliphate and the Islamic Messiah.

We in the West haven’t a clue to the earth shaking importance of Islamic rights of succession. Will the world submit to Shia or Sunni is no less the equation in the Revolutionary Iranian Shia minds. Will the Messiah be Shia or Sunni?

This is what is going on outside of our knowledge in the Islamic world. Our future and our ends are being carved up by Islamic religious thinkers. Islamic aggression and world domination is no joke and is long planned. Do we have the critical thinking in leadership roles that are capable of seeing and with foreknowledge repell this well plotted end of the Christian and Jewish worlds.


[…] For the past 15 years, Dwight Bashir has worked on international conflict, human rights and religious freedom issues. He is a senior advisor for an independent US commission focusing on international religious freedom. The views expressed here are his …Read Original Story: Saudi Arabia and Iran fighting proxy war in northern Yemen – Worldfocus […]


Nice article,but the POV facts are at best subtly predjudiced (biased),with a sprinkle of myopia. Why is it that all communist countries are atheistic,and tolerate religion as a gratuitous fringe benefit to pacify the populus with a sure-footed army on the ready to squash [(any or all radical fanatics inciting change/rebellion/anarchy)] what they deem a threat to the state at moments notice[USSR (Russia),N.Korea,and China,etc.,as current example]. Unfortunately,western countries such as the once great world power… United States has gotten (a subliminal covert mystery awakening my own self consciousness)religion to dwindle from a strong Christian/Protestant/Jewish presence to a radically alarming new generation on the periphery of agnostics,or worse atheistic acceptance. If not for Latin Americans in the states,catholotism, and it’s monetary benefactor the Vatican would virtually be non-existent in twenty-years best! Why is it that the more freedom your afforded,…religion becomes a non-factor in a vibrant intellectual society,where science,and evolutionary theories trump spritual cognizance. This is todays western (USofA) countries adopted new mantra where ironically the free world reliquishes religion for ungodliness,without a fight,whereas in the rest of the world it’s a matter of life or death? How appropriate for a prayerless religious coupe in a country that’s cornerstone of democracy manifested, and was built on individuall religious beliefs. Ahh-yes,…a pure well thought-out propaganda program machine that miraculously has accomplihed this diabolical mission…fasinating how time never changes til the next religion foments death!!!


I think what most westerners are clueless about, is the struggle between Shiism and Sunna for control of the Muslim world. The target is not really Jerusalem. The target is Mecca. What the radical Ayatollahs want is Mecca. The struggle is like between the Catholics and Protestants for centuries. But in the West, it was democracy that won out. People got tired of religious wars and clerics running their lives. Jerusalem is only a means to an end. He who gets at least part of Jersualem back to the Muslims becomes the new Saladin. So Iran arms Hezbollah and Hamas to weaken Israel, and hopefully get them to concede Jerusalem, and the one who succeeds then becomes the darling of the Muslims everywhere. But the struggle between Sunni and Shia goes on by proxy around the peripheries.


Good article. However, insofar as it does not attempt to explain the reasons behind the international community’s silence on the issue, it is deficient.

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