The military intervention in Yemen by Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies raises the risk of fighting by proxy, with strings being pulled by the Saudis on one hand, the other being the main regional Shiite power Iran.
US regional researcher Katherine Zimmerman underscored that the Saudi intervention was not a decision taken in haste.
“The reason why Yemen is so important is because historically it has not been a sectarian country, and the Iranian position which has grown in Yemen over the past couple of weeks and months is much stronger and therefore much more of a threat to the Sunni states in the region.”
In Yemen, the different groups of faithful have prayed side by side for centuries — not like in Iraq or Syria. Around 60% of Yemenis are Sunni, 40% Shiite.
There are subgroups, of Sunni Shafi’i, Maliki and Hanbali.
The Shias are mostly Zaidi but also Twelver, Ismaili and Houthi, who are a smaller minority.
The Houthis seized the capital Sanaa last September and extended their control southward to Aden, claiming to be leading a non-religious revolution on behalf of the whole Yemeni population.
One Houthi militia fighter told journalists: “We are here to provide security and stability and to protect freedom and services for everyone.”
President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, elected in 2012 to lead a democratic transition, was forced to flee the country in the face of the Houthi campaign. With Saudi backing, he called on Yemen’s army to rally to his side.
Conditions were building for a civil war.
Zimmerman said: “The forces that would have backed President Hadi will align with the Saudis and use this to their advantage. The problem is it’s not going to be a two-sided civil war. We will see a Houthi faction, a pro-Hadi faction and also al Qaeda trying to take advantage of the conflict to further its own gains in Yemen.”
Yemen is the Arabian peninsula’s territorial base of operations for al Qaeda, the most active base of the network founded by Osama bin Laden.
In the chaos, the radical self-proclaimed Islamic State movement has been moving into Yemen as well. It said it was behind the attack in Sanaa on 20th March, in which some 140 people were killed at mosques where Shiite Muslims went to pray.