With Saudi Arabia and other Arab Sunni powers carrying out airstrikes in Yemen and accusing their regional nemesis, Iran, of instigating the Houthi uprising in the country, Wikistrat asked its Senior Analyst Dr. Timothy Furnish, who is an authority on especially Shia Islam, Mahdism and other Islamic sects, to provide background on the conflict and explain to what extent Iran really is involved.
Dr. Furnish notes that Yemen has been a battleground for rival brands of Islam for over a millennium.
In the 900s, it was contested by dueling Shiisms: the (then-militant) Seveners, or Isma’ilis, from North Africa waged dawah and jihad against Fivers, or Zaydis, from Iran. (This was before Iran’s forcible conversion to Twelver Shiism by the Safavids in the sixteenth century.) The Zaydis won and established a militant Imamate in northern Yemen. The Ottomans occupied Yemen twice in order to safeguard the holy cities of Mecca and Medina as well as Red Sea trade. Both times, Zaydi insurgents forced them out, despite massive Ottoman efforts to delegitimize the Zaydi Shii Imamate.
In the 1960s civil war, staunchly Sunni Saudi Arabia (ironically) backed the Zaydis while Nasser’s Egypt supported the “republicans” who ultimately emerged victorious. After unification in 1990, the Sana’a government largely ignored the needs and demands of the 40 percent of the Yemeni population that was Zaydi, contributing to the sense of disenfranchisement felt by the main Zaydi tribe, the Houthis — which has now led to civil war again.
Iran has various aims in fanning the flames of the Houthi rebellion, Dr. Furnish explains:
- Leveraging “persecution” of Shia into regional geopolitical influence for Tehran-Qom;
- Appealing to, and exploiting, historical connections with Shia Muslims of Yemen and greater Arabia;
- Undermining and delegitimizing the Saudi government;
- Strengthening its strategic position on both sides of the Red Sea;
- Strengthening the anti-Israel Islamic front;
- Searching for allies wherever they can be found.
But Dr. Furnish also cautions that Iran neither created nor controls Yemen’s Zaydi discontent.
One might well argue, instead, that the Houthis Zaydi leadership is using Tehran more than the other way around.
For much of the last 1200 years, Zaydis have ruled over much of Yemen and they do have legitimate grievances against both the recent Sunni leadership in Sana’a and, of course, against Sunni jihadists like Al Qaeda and (allegedly) ISIS there.
Saudi Arabia’s reflexive theological and political fear of Shiism in the peninsula is understandable as well. Besides Yemen, there are large minority pockets of Twelvers in eastern Saudi Arabia and of Seveners in Najran.
Also, Mahdism has been a real fear since 1979, when Juhayman al-Utaybi declared his brother-in-law, Muhammad al-Qahtani, the Mahdi and their forces occupied the Great Mosque — a fear that has grown in recent years as Saudi Arabia has suffered a rash of “lone wolf” Mahdis across the kingdom.
Simply bombing Yemen is not going to stop such eschatological fervor, though, Furnish warns. If anything, it could drive more than just Houthis into Iran’s embrace.
Some means of redressing legitimate minority — Shia of all three denominations, that is — grievances must be part of the equation. Perhaps Oman, whose Ibadi Islam is tolerant of both Sunnis and Shiis and whose government is on good terms with Iran, can play a key role here.
Finally, Furnish urges Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to keep in mind that the self-declared “Islamic State” to the north is ultimately far more dangerous than the Zaydis to the south.