Here's the basic story: Yemen was ruled for a millennium by adherents of the Zaydi sect of Shi'a Islam. A 1962 revolution changed that, and the government has been Sunni-majority -- and according to some, anti-Shi'a -- ever since. (Greater Yemen would not be united as one country until 1990: South Yemen remained an independent, Soviet-aligned state from the time of the British departure from the region through the remainder of the Cold War.)
Yemen told outside powers Wednesday to stay out of its battle with a Shiite rebel group in its northwest amid concerns that Iran and Saudi Arabia are being drawn into the conflict.
The statement, carried by the state news agency Saba and attributed to a Foreign Ministry source, followed a statement of concern for Yemen's "national unity and territorial integrity" by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki on Tuesday.
"We welcome what Mottaki affirmed about Iran's position towards Yemen's unity and stability, and Yemen reaffirms that it definitely rejects the interference in its internal affairs by any party," the statement said. It said Yemen's battle with the Houthi, a Shiite Muslim rebel movement, is "an internal Yemeni affair, and Yemen can solve its issues without any interference from others."
When civil war broke out in 1994, the northern government was aided by Saudi Wahhabis in its efforts to quell the southern rebellion. Yemeni Zaydis accuse Sana'a of snuggling up too closely to the Wahhabis as a result, which is a problem for them for pretty obvious reasons. Since then, a succession of Zaydi religious and political leaders have railed against alleged anti-Shi'a discrimination by the government. This resentment boiled over into insurgency in 2004, when Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi -- leader of the Zaydis, hence the "Houthi insurgency" -- mobilized an armed group called Shabab al-Mumineen. He got got later that year, but his brothers have picked up the banner.
Now as you might imagine, there are outside players that have an interest in how this whole thing turns out. Yemen is a U.S. ally, however weak, and we're dependent upon that government to secure its own territory, aid in the fight against global terrorism, etc etc. (The more you learn about the specifics of the Yemeni situation, obviously, the less sensible it seems to consider insurgency and civil strife there as just another manifestation of some kind of global jihad. Not that any sensible people still look at the world that way anyway, but I digress...) The Saudis support the Yemeni government against the rebels for the same reason they're uncomfortable with Shi'a sectarians and revivalist movements in other neighboring countries: the monarchy fears anything that may inflame its own Shi'a minority and destabilize the Kingdom. And then there's Iran (and allegedly Hizballah, maybe?), which is thought to provide some support to its Shi'a co-religionists.
So now you've got a sort of surprising turn of events: Sana'a is getting bent out of shape at the Saudis, who support the Yemeni government, for going vigilante on the Houthis -- that is, for killing their shared enemy. But there's the whole sovereignty and territorial integrity thing, and it's bad PR for the world to see that Yemen is incapable of handling its own business. Ironically, in the long term the Saudi military might be negatively impacting the Yemeni government's ability to maintain whatever scraps of legitimacy it still holds on to and thus to effectively deal with its own insurgency. (Sound familiar, Pakistan watchers?)
Of course you've probably already picked up on the biggest irony of all of this, as far as U.S. policy goes: we support the Yemeni government, which in the past has received support from Saudi Wahhabis, in its efforts to quell a Shi'a insurgency (aligned with Iran and perhaps Hizballah) and secure its territory against al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorists... who are fundamentalist Sunnis (and sometimes maybe even Wahhabis).
If you're not with us, you're against us!
Oh yeah, and then there's this (since we're supposedly a COIN blog and all):
But none of this is our problem, right? Proxy war in the Arabian Peninsula always goes down smooth!
"This gets played off as Sunni-Shia, and it's wrong," says Hiltermann of ICG. "The Shia of Yemen are more Sunni than any other Shia in the world. And the Sunni of Yemen are more Shia than any Sunni in the world."
Despite some boilerplate anti-Western and anti-Israeli statements, the Houthis "don't have any serious ideology or set of grievances, for that matter," argues Hiltermann.
"It was just a few angry guys who in 2004 stepped out of the political process and started a little rebellion."
But the government response has aggravated matters. "Due to the heavyhanded techniques of the government, over time, this has grown into an entirely different thing," he adds. "Now the population has been bombed into a major grievance. Their houses are gone and they have no compensation, so now you have a real conflict."