Disorder on the Border

Saudi Arabia’s War Inside Yemen

In June 2004, the Houthis, a group of rebels in the Sa'dah governorate of northwest Yemen, began taking up arms against the Yemeni national army. They claimed, and continue to claim, to be defending their own specific branch of Shia Islam -- Zaydism -- from a Yemeni regime they say is too dependent on its northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, and its partner in the war on terrorism, the United States. Yemen's political and military leaders have labeled the Houthis a terrorist group supported by Iran. This smoldering civil war attracted little outside attention until last month, when, on November 5, Saudi Arabia sent its warplanes to bomb Houthi positions around the border, both on Saudi territory and inside Yemen. It was Saudi Arabia's first cross-border military intervention since the Gulf War in 1991.

This sudden escalation alarmed analysts in the United States and the European Union, as well as those in the Middle East. The conflict, they fear, could evolve into a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which perceive themselves as the contemporary standard-bearers of the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam, respectively. Equally worrying is that the latest attack could further destabilize the already fragile Yemeni state, which is confronted by a series of crises and a structural inability to govern its territory and population. In recent years, Yemen has rightfully gained a reputation as a safe haven for violent groups linked to al Qaeda.

The various actors involved in the Sa'dah conflict and the drivers of violence remain misunderstood. The Houthis are usually portrayed as a violent, anti-Western, and obscurantist group backed by Iran that seeks to restore the Zaydi imamate, a system of government that prevailed in North Yemen's highlands for centuries until the 1962 republican revolution. More nuanced accounts depict them as part of a wider, although marginal, movement that emerged in the 1980s to save Zaydism from what it perceived as a Sunni-backed offensive supported by the Yemeni elites. (The majority of these elites happen to be of Zaydi origin but no longer explicitly refer to that identity; the country as a whole is Sunni in majority.)

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