Yemen’s massive protests that began in January 2011 have reignited existing tribal, ideological, and political conflicts; one of these in particular has taken a very worrisome turn: the Houthi rebellion in the Saada governorate along the northern Yemeni border with Saudi Arabia. The rebellion has assumed an increasingly sectarian character and, over the course of the past year, has moved for the first time far beyond Saada. As the group of Shi‘i Zaydi revivalists known as the Houthi Movement seizes on the uprisings to expand the territory under their control, Salafi activists have stepped up in their opposition.

Armed conflict in Saada began in 2004 when militant members of the Believing Youth (al-Shabab al-Mu’min), an informal advocacy group for Zaydi culture and education, organized protests against the government that eventually spread to Sanaa. Violence broke out when the government attempted to arrest the group’s leader, Hussein Badr al-din al-Houthi, a former MP representing the al-Haqq party and son of Sheikh Badr al-din al-Houthi, a senior Zaydi scholar respected for both for his theology and his skill for resolving disputes among the tribes and clans of the northern provinces. Followers of al-Houthi (later known collectively as Houthis) expressed a mix of socio-economic and identity grievances; they protested underdevelopment in their governorate in addition to the dilution of Zaydi influence, while also accusing the government of tacitly supporting the expansion of Salafi activists in the area. And though government troops killed the founder on September 9, 2004, the rebellion continued.

Although many observers have rushed to describe the conflict as a new manifestation of the old Sunni-Shi‘a split, such an interpretation ignores both doctrinal and cultural practice in Yemen. Zaydism (adhered to by 35 to 40 percent of Yemenis, but overall a very small subset of the global Shi‘i community) is considered closer to the Shafi‘i school of Sunni Islam (followed by a majority of Yemenis) than other branches of Shi‘a. Some adherents of the more common “Twelver” sect of Shi‘a practiced in Iran and elsewhere even refer to it as the fifth school of Sunni jurisprudence. 

In addition, it is important to remember that the battle lines cut across sect. During the multiple rounds of military confrontation, a number of Zaydi tribes and clans fought alongside government forces; many government figures (including former President Ali Abdullah Saleh) are even of Zaydi origin, even though they no longer explicitly refer to that identity. 

A more accurate analysis of the conflict should recognize that the Zaydi-Shafi‘i distinction overlaps (for the most part, though not perfectly) with tribal cleavages at the center of Yemeni politics, and the sectarian distinction is simultaneously also geographical distinction. Almost all Zaydis belong to north-central highland tribes as do some Shafi‘is, though the latter make up the majority of lowland and urban populations. The overlap of sectarian differences with tribal and regional identities means that sect can always become a factor in rebel recruitment. 

This was not lost on Saleh’s regime, which for decades practiced “management through conflict” as the most essential tool of governance in the northern provinces. In the minds of the population in these provinces, the Yemeni state is no more than a “checkpoint state,” which appears along the highway in the form of few soldiers standing next to an empty oil drum, or a “garrison state,” which occasionally patrols the road that links the main districts of provinces. Critics of Saleh’s regime also accused it of manipulating sectarianism among tribes to receive financial and military aid from Riyadh, for which an autonomous Zaydi zone at its borders has always been a nightmare scenario. Saudi Arabia openly entered the fighting in November 2009 with the launch of a major military operation in response to Houthi incursions, raising concerns that such direct involvement would prompt greater Iranian intervention. Thus, the tangled roots of politicized sectarianism lie in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry in the region and Saleh’s politics of manipulation.

But over the past year, the conflict has also taken greater sectarian overtones. The Houthis have long complained of the spread of Salafism in Yemen, but only recently have they begun targeting Salafi religious activities directly. Their attacks and occupation of Salafi mosques have sent shock waves through the loose and non-hierarchical coalition of Salafi networks dispersed across the country. Salafi activism, which emerged in Yemen in the 1980s (imported by Yemeni migrant workers coming back from Saudi Arabia as well the thousands of Yemeni jihadists who fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan), does not have a single power base but is instead organized around teaching centers, charity organizations, and mosques. 

Confrontations reached dramatically brutal levels when Houthi rebels set siege to the town of Dammaj in Saada in mid-October 2011 and launched attacks on its famous Salafi-run Dar al-Hadith religious institute. The two-month siege prevented basic supplies, including water and food, from entering the town. Dozens of students at the institute, including a number of foreign nationals, were killed. 

Between 2004 and 2010, the conflict was characterized by low-level fighting between the Houthis and the Yemeni military—periodically escalating into more violent bouts. In the last year, however, the Houthis have capitalized on the withdrawal of the army to Sanaa (to strengthen the position of the embattled regime at the capital) by expanding their operations. And while not the first time the movement has tried to expand beyond Saada, this ambitious geographical reach is unprecedented. It now controls the entire Saada governorate as well as a large number of districts in the neighboring governorates: Amran, al-Jawf, and Hajjah. The movement appears to seek access to the small Red Sea port of Midi, which would allow maritime passage to weapons logistical support from Iran. 

While the scale of Iran’s involvement remains unclear, recent reports claim Iran is increasing its political outreach and logistical and financial support of the rebellion. Domestically, the Houthis have boycotted the GCC-led transfer-of-power deal signed last November—including February’s presidential referendum. They have also rejected calls by the transitional government, headed by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, to lay down their arms and participate in the political transition. Most recently, they announced they will not take part in the upcoming national dialogue because it has been “imposed by the US and other countries by force.” Unfortunately, there are no positive signs about the future of this conflict; as it becomes less localized and more sectarian, it also threatens to become increasingly internationalized.

Khaled Fattah is a guest lecturer at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. He holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of St. Andrews-UK.