The Houthis: Sunni-Shiite conflict as a self-fulfilling prophecy

The Houthis: Sunni-Shiite conflict as a self-fulfilling prophecy

After failing to effectively confront Iran’s growing power in Iraq and the Levant, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s attempt to prevent Iranian meddling in their own sphere of influence seems to have reinforced the sectarian split in Yemen. This has given Iran a new opportunity to integrate the Houthi movement into its network of proxies.

History of a regional rivalry

Over the last two decades Iran has been tremendously successful in setting up a network of proxy groups throughout Iraq and the Levant. Confronted with their failures to prevent Tehran from creating a corridor to the Mediterranean, policy makers in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are anxious with the possibility of an Iranian meddling on the Arabian Peninsula itself.

Because Iran was so successful in using sectarian allegiances as a mobilization tool, the Arab great powers increasingly saw the geopolitical competition as being fought along sectarian lines. According to this logic, the Gulf coalition adopted a hawkish approach against any destabilization caused by Shiite populations in its direct sphere of influence. In the instance of the GCC intervention in Bahrain during the protests in 2011 this can be seen as a quick success, leading to the stabilization of the Sunni Al-Khalifa monarchy. In Yemen on the other hand, the coalition’s military campaign has led to a humanitarian disaster and strategically backfired due to a grave misjudgment of local power dynamics.

The Houthis as a special case

Even though a UN report suggested that the Iranian regime provided some degree of support to the Houthis since 2009, analysts argued about the nature of the Houthi-Iranian connection. While the mainstream media often described the group as an Iranian outlet, balanced assessments claim that their connections to Iran constituted a rather loose strategic partnership. This has been due to a mix of limited political ambitions, a specific religious doctrine and restraining geostrategic circumstances.

On the surface, the Houthis might seem similar to other proxy groups bound to Iran by their Shiite doctrine. Yet, as a Zaydi movement, a minority denomination within Shiism, its theological interpretations differ significantly from the Twelver Shia which is dominant in Iran and throughout the rest of the Arab world. The political roots of the movement also lay in reformism and the Houthis were seen as relatively open and tolerant for most of its existence. Most importantly in regards to this analysis, the group openly criticizes Yemen’s dependence on foreign powers and promotes attempts to free the country from external meddling. On the one side, this obviously puts them into opposition to the influential gulf powers who see the Arabian Peninsula as their sphere of interest. On the other hand, it sets them apart from groups like Hezbollah or the Badr Organization, who openly pledge allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader.

If these circumstances had been taken into account, fears in the gulf capitals would have been mitigated and the GCC could have seriously attempted to find a diplomatic approach to the Houthis. Considering that frustration with the political status initially led the movement to become more militant, a political compromise would have the potential to re-integrate them into Yemen’s political landscape. However, because of suspicions over Iranian support and the growing narrative of a sectarian conflict in the region, the Gulf powers reverted to military means.

From local conflict to proxy war

After the coalition’s 2015 military intervention, the momentum of the war reversed. Now, the pressure on the previously advancing Houthis ramped up. For the Shiite movement this marked a strategic turning point. The prospect of being part in a brokered peace was off the table; instead the most powerful Gulf monarchies had made up their mind on ending the conflict by crushing the group. From that point on, the Houthis were in dire need to obtain some deterrent against the coalition’s air power. Tehran has been more than willing to provide this in form of anti-aircraft weaponry and radar systems as well as missiles for retaliatory purposes. This has been indicated by the coalition’s frequent claims of intercepted Iranian deliveries that breach the UN-weapons embargo.

Over the last months, the pressure further intensified. The breakup of the Houthi-Saleh alliance in late 2017 which resulted in the killing of the former president left the group completely isolated. On top of that, the battle for Hodeida is now underway; so the pressure is not going to dwindle. All of this necessitates the search for more external support.

For Iran, a closer connection to Yemen’s Shiite rebels has always been desirable due to the strategic benefits that emerge from it. The obvious one is that Iran sits more comfortably than its rivals, considering the relatively low investments Tehran needs to further escalate the conflict. Simultaneously, Saudi Arabia and the UAE cannot simply cut losses and retreat, due to the proximity of the conflict. So Iran is able to bog down its rivals in a long and bloody guerilla war.

Furthermore, there are numerous options the Iranian leadership can integrate into its strategic doctrine. Sitting right at the Bab Al-Mandab, a Yemeni proxy would give the Iranian leadership an option to threaten-or actually attempt to block off another maritime choke point in addition to the Strait of Hormuz. There is already a growing concern over several incidents caused by Houthi missile fire within the narrow waterway. Also, Iran might be able to establish a missile threat against Saudi Arabia. Comparable to the one the country already holds against Israel through Hezbollah. Because of these factors, tightening its connection to the Houthis gives Tehran new strategic leverage.


Yemen has been a tragic example on how geopolitical rivalries can fuel certain conflict narratives. The perception Iran forced upon the foreign policy communities in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh prevented a more balanced approach. Now, the Houthis are unable to fight on without an external sponsor. As a consequence for them, being part in a mediated peace is hardly probable. With the rivaling powers getting more and more involved, a political compromise that would end the conflict is also more unlikely than ever before. Yemen transformed into a war theater that is part of a broader regional conflict. The coalitions growing military pressure on the Houthis ultimately opened Pandora’s Box on the Arabian Peninsula and a growing Iranian involvement in Yemen is likely.


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