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