Too often depicted as yet another arena in the proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, the Yemeni conflict has much more to do with a domestic struggle for power rather than sectarian – and supposedly archaic – rivalries. But with the opening of a new round of conflict after the 2011 Arab Spring, and even more after the 2015 Saudi-led intervention, the conflict underwent a dynamic of “sectarianisation”, or politicization of religious identities. Thus, it is possible to affirm that sectarianism, rather than being inherent to the conflict or the country, has been “activated”.
This politicization of religious identities reflects a trend which is underway in the region since the 1979 Iranian revolution – which gave way to a sort of contest for influence and legitimacy between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia – and which has intensified since the 2003 U.S.-led intervention in Iraq. The invasion of the country, the subsequent annihilation of the Iraqi state structures and the reversal of the balance of power between Sunnis and Shiites, paved the way for the lethal mixture of insurgencies, failing states and sectarian violence which reverberates still today.
In the case of the Yemeni conflict, the Houthi rebels have been equated with Iran on the basis of a common belonging to the Shia side of Islam. This equation is wrong in many respects.
First of all, the Houthis are not a strictly religious group. Of course they are part of highly diverse Zaydi revivalist movement, but its objectives have always been political. The origin of the conflict between the Believing Youth – the original nucleus of the Houthi movement – and the government is considered to be the January 2003 shouting of “God is great! Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse upon the Jews! Victory to Islam!” by Believing Youth militants (a dissident faction in Hizb al-Haq party) in a Saada mosque, at the presence of then-president Ali Abdallah Saleh. From then on, the Houthi rebellion has been centered on opposition to president Saleh, his security alliance with the United States and to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia’s interference in the country’s affairs.
Second, even if the majority of its members are Zaydis, they count among them Sunnis too; vice versa, among their political opponents there were also Zaydis, such as former president Saleh.
Third, Zaydism is a very peculiar form of Shiism, sometimes considered closer to Sunni Islam rather than to Twelver Shiism, which is the form of Shiism practiced in Iran, upon which ayatollah Khomeini built his Velayat-e faqih doctrine, paving the way for the establishment of an Islamic Republic. Moreover, the Zaydi Imam must be physically present in the political community and he must be a sayyid (proceeding from the religious élite). From a theological point of view, the major differences between Zaydis and Twelvers concern the identity of the fifth Imam – Zayd ibn Ali according to Zaydis, Muhammad al-Baqir according to Twelvers – and the fact that Zaydis do not believe in the infallibility of Imams. Moreover, Zaydis are less ardent than other Shia in their condemnation of early Sunni caliphs, giving them a higher degree of tolerance towards other interpretations of Islam.
Fourth, coming to the realm of political allegiances, Iran’s involvement in the Yemeni conflict on the Houthis’ side is a widely debated issue and the actual scale of Iranian interference remains unclear. One of the few certainties is that Iranian support for the Houthis – being it military, financial, or moral – is not justified by a common belonging to the Shia faith, nor by an outdated desire – on the Iranian side – to export the revolution. Indeed, it can be argued that Iranian support for Houthi rebels seems much more a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than a deliberate attempt by Tehran to appropriate a domestic rebellion for its alleged hegemonic purposes.
As Anna Gordon and Sarah E. Parkinson aptly argue, the Houthis were not “born Shia”, instead they “became Shia”. This, according to Gordon and Parkinson, was due to a precise and deliberate attempt by former President Saleh and, since 2015, Saudi Arabia and its allies, to portray the Houthis as a Shia rebel group supported and incited by Iran and Hezbollah. Saleh’s – and today Riyadh’s – strategy was to highlight the threat of a Shia takeover, playing with the well-established fear of Iranian expansionism in the region, thus bringing the U.S. and Western allies to support the Yemeni government in its effort to retain power.
Moreover, the spread of chaos and the gradual collapse of the state leading to the expansion of jihadist groups – the chiefest among them being al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State – stirred sectarian hatred in a country where until a few years ago Sunnis and Shiites used to pray in the same mosques. Since 2015, AQAP has embarked in an attempt to “recast southerners' historical fears of a takeover by northerners as a sectarian battle of Sunnis vs. Shiites”, thus deepening the sectarian rift.
To sum up, it is profoundly wrong to characterize the Yemeni conflict as the result of a centuries-old hatred between Sunni and Shia; it is equally wrong to portray it only as part of the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. At the same time, it is naïve to neglect the importance of ideology – in this case religion – in such a complicated conflict. In looking for possible solutions to the crisis, it is urgent to come up with means to “deactivate” sectarian hatred. Otherwise, the risk is an even deeper polarization of society leading to an even bigger proliferation of violent groups, since – as the Iraqi experience has shown us – the seeds of ethnic and sectarian hatred, once planted, are difficult to eradicate.
 International Crisis Group, “Yemen: Defusing the Saada time bomb”, Middle East Report n. 86, 27 May 2009
 Barak A. Salmoni-Bryce Loidolt-Madeleine Wells, “Zaydism: Overview and Comparison to Other Versions of Shi’ism”, Appendix 8, in Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen: The Houthi Phenomenon, Rand Corporation, 2010, pp. 285-295
 Elisabeth Kendall, “Iran's fingerprints in Yemen. Real or imagined?”, Atlantic Council, Issue Brief, October 2017
 Anna Gordon, Sarah E. Parkinson, “How the Houthis became Shi’a”, Middle East Research and Information Project, 28 January 2018
 Elizabeth Kendall, “What's next for jihadists in Yemen?”, Washington Post, The Monkey Cage Blog, 23 February 2018