For more than 10 years, the Houthis have been grabbing headlines since they launched a mass uprising against Yemen's government. Since 2004, government forces have fought against the tribal militia from the north, who say they are defending themselves against oppression.
The decade-long conflict escalated in recent months when the Houthis didn't respect their part in an agreement called the ”Peace and National Partnership Agreement” and entered the country's capital, Sana'a, took over key buildings and institutions, and placed current President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi under house arrest.
Now, as Saudi Arabia carries out a military operation on Yemen to drive the Houthis out, even more media outlets are turning their attention to the situation.
But with Shia Muslim-majority Iran supporting the Houthis and Sunni Muslim-majority Saudi Arabia dropping bombs on them, the press has pushed a simplistic narrative that the conflict boils down to the religious divides between the two largest denominations of Islam. Even Al Jazeera's video channel AJ+ reported the Houthis to be Shia.
However, the reality is more complex than these 42 seconds make it seem.
Not all Houthis are Shia Muslims
Houthi was originally the name of a family or a clan in Yemen, not a sect or a religious group. Later, a movement of rebel fighters called Ansar Allah (meaning God Helpers or God Supporters) adopted it as their name, after their founder and main leader Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi was killed in 2004, which in a way sparked the so-called Houthis insurgency. There is a controversy over the current number of members and the people who are fighting with them.
Yemeni blogger Atiaf Al Wazir in a post entitled “It's not a Sunni-Shi’a Conflict, dummy” pointed out that not all people who belong to the Houthis are of the Zaidi sect, a school of Shia Islam, as has been reported:
While no statistics have been collected on the composition of Ansarullah, commonly known as Houthis; it is believed that many of their members are Zaydi but also come from various religious schools of thought in Shi’a and Sunni Islam, including Ismaili, Shafiʿi, and Ja’afari. Many Sunni tribesmen and soldiers have also joined the Houthis and fight along their side. In fact, prominent Shafi’i leaders like Saad Bin Aqeel, a Mufti of Ta’iz, are amongst Houthis’ leaders and in fact presented a Friday sermon at one of the sit-ins prior to their advance into the capital.
Al Wazir also argues that “not all Zaidis are Houthis. Well-known Zaidi scholars and religious centers have been divided on their stance towards the Houthis.”
British-Yemeni journalist Abubakr al-Shamahi explains the Zaidi sect more in depth:
Zaydism (Zaydiyyah) is a school of thought within Shia Islam. It is named after Imam Zaydi Bin Ali, who was killed in an uprising against the Ummayyads. Although it was once found in places such as Iran and North Africa, Zaydis are now only found in significant numbers in Yemen. A Zaydi Imamate ruled many parts of northern Yemen for 1000 years, up until the last Imam was overthrown in 1962. Traditionally, places like Sana’a, Dhamar, Hajja and Amran are Zaydi, and the heartland is Sa’dah. A common saying referring to the Zaydis is that they are “the Sunnis of the Shia, and the Shia of the Sunnis”, indicating that there is not a huge difference doctrinally between Zaydis and Sunnis (or at least it has been perceived that way).
While they are called “Fivers” because they accept the first four Imams recognized by Twelvers and Isma‘ilis (“Seveners”) and recognize Zayd ibn ‘Ali as the rightful successor to his father ‘Ali Zayn al-‘Abidin while other groups recognize his brother Muhammad al-Baqir, they do not then insist that all rightful imams must descend from Zayd. In fact, the Zaydi doctrine of the Imamate differs enormously from other Shi‘a. The Zaydi legal school is very similar to that of Abu Hanifa in Sunnism, and some have listed Zaydi law as a “fifth school” of Sunnism, except for the doctrine of the Imamate.
Zaidis make up about one-third of the population of Yemen.
Tribes or Sects ?
Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, against whom the Houthi rebel movement began, belongs to a tribe called Al Ahmar. The Al Ahmar tribe counts among its members Shia and Sunni Muslims. That said, both the late Houthi leader Badreddin al-Houthi and Saleh are technically Shia.
President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih is himself a Zaydi, as is a considerable part of his power base. He comes from a small tribe in the larger Hashid tribal confederation. The Hashid and the other big Zaydi confederation, the Bakil, used to be referred to as the “wings of the Imamate” when Zaydi Imams still ruled in what was then North Yemen.
Al-Shamahi seems to agree with that opinion:
For one, the al-Ahmars are traditionally Zaydi, just like the Houthis. I can’t vouch for the religious identification of each individual Ahmar, but I’d say that many of their tribal fighters will still, at least loosely, identify as Zaydi. Ali Abdullah Saleh, who fought 6 wars against the Houthis, was also Zaydi. So is this Zaydi on Zaydi fighting? A Zaydi civil war?
And so as Al Wazir explains:
[…] if this was a sectarian issue, Saleh (who is technically Zaydi) would not have engaged in six wars with the Houthis from 2004 – 2010. It appears that today’s former enemies have formed a temporary alliance. This indicates that these conflicts are political in nature.
Al Wazir was referring to the fact that ex-President Saleh, who was ousted after more than three decades years in power, during the 2011 Yemen revolution, is alleged to be helping his former adversaries in their quest to topple the government.
It also happened to be that al-Houthi had personal connections with the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has also added a sectarian angle to the Yemeni conflict.
Here's the takeaway. Part of the conflict in Yemen is between Houthis, a tribe and not a religious sect, and the Ahmar tribe. Both have Sunni and Shia members and allies. Two of the prominent leaders of these tribes are both Shia, with the difference being that one has close ties to Iran while the other has close ties to Saudi Arabia. Ideologically, Yemen's Shia are closer to Saudi Sunnism than to Iranian Shiism.
Now Saleh and the Houthis currently headed by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi seem to be singing the same song, making it look like tribes and sects are uniting for the time being. And for the time being, Yemeni blood, from all sects and tribes, will keep flowing.