Five Questions on...Religion and Conflict in Yemen

Backgrounder

Five Questions on...Religion and Conflict in Yemen

Thanos Petouris

01 Oct 2014

As the Shia Houthi movement consolidates recent gains in the Yemeni capital Sana'a, Thanos Petouris of the School of Oriental and African Studies explains the broader context by answering five questions on religion and conflict in Yemen.

Five Questions on...Religion and Conflict in Yemen

1. What is the religious map of Yemen?

"Demographically Yemen isn't a particularly diverse country and the same applies to its religious makeup. Broadly speaking it is divided between a Zaydi Shia community which makes up 35% of the Muslim population of the country and 65% Sunni part belonging to the Shafi'i school. Both communities are geographically determined which means that Zaydis are predominantly occupying the northern highlands between the centres of Sa'dah and Sana'a and the Sunnis the rest of the country between the Red Sea coast down to the Indian Ocean and its borders with Oman.

"The particularity of the Yemeni case is that the Zaydi Shia are very close to Sunni Islam in terms of their religious practices. Therefore, one cannot distinguish between them and the Sunni inhabitants of the land as sharply as in other parts of the Middle East."

2. Why are political grievances increasingly framed in religious terms?

"In the case of the local al-Qaeda franchise, the so-called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or Ansar al-Sharia, the Partisans of Sharia, as they call themselves, we are of course not talking about political grievances. Here we are dealing with a group that has been able to capitalise on the inability of the Yemeni state to provide for its citizens, and also on the devastating effect that American counter-terrorist policies have had on local communities, in particular drone attacks against what they call "militant Islamists".

"In the case of the Houthis, we are dealing with a group whose origins are deeply political and have to do with the consistent attacks the Zaydi community in Sa'dah received from both the regime and radical elements of the Islamist al-Islah party. The local response was naturally to rally around a common religious identity in order to respond to these threats."

3. What effect did the 2011 youth uprisings have on political Islam?

"The 2011 youth uprising in Yemen was a catalyst for the explosion of deeply rooted regime rivalries in the country. At the outset of the uprising the Islah party, whose member Tawakkul Karman received the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 seemed to be gaining in momentum and to be becoming the major beneficiary of the uprising and the new political situation. However, as the political transition took its toll on the traditional political forces that had supported the so-called Gulf Cooperation Council agreement (GCC) and they progressively lost legitimacy because of their inability to provide tangible results out of it.

The Houthi movement emerged as an uncorrupted political force.

"The Houthi movement emerged as an uncorrupted political force that hadn't subscribed to the GCC plan. This doesn't necessarily mean of course that al-Islah and its Muslim Brotherhood contingent has been eradicated or outrightly defeated but today it certainly finds itself in a difficult position because some of its main political forces have been defeated by the Houthi ascendancy."

4. What do Houthi gains mean for the country?

"In the short term I believe that the Houthi advance on the capital Sana'a and the imposition essentially of their own political terms on President Hadi, means that all political forces both inside and outside the country will refocus their efforts on reviving the Gulf Cooperation Council agreement and providing the public with tangible political and economic results.

"I also believe that the Houthis, at least according to their rhetoric, have come in to reinstate the demands of the 2011 youth revolution for a civil state and for a proper political transition which will involve democratic reforms, which for the past couple of years have really stalled in Yemen.

"The longer term is much more difficult to determine and as recent events have shown unexpected developments can take place any time in Yemen. But I believe that everything will depend on the ability of the Houthis to forge longer lasting alliances with other political forces, as well as their willingness to reconcile themselves with their main adversaries such as the Islah party and of course at the end of the day with the success of the GCC plan."

5. What will become of Yemen’s Federal Plan?

"The original Federal Plan, as it was decided after the conclusion of the National Dialogue process in Sana'a involved the splitting up of the country into six federal regions, four in the north and two in the south. The recent advance of the Houthis into the capital has cast doubt on the implementation of that plan, and I believe that the advance of the Houthis was actually a symptom of the provisions of the original six-region plan. That is because the original plan was dividing the Houthi strongholds into three different regions, stopping them from expanding their control over them.

"On the other hand, the Houthis have recently indicated that they are willing to support and work together with the Southern Secessionist Movement, or al-Hiraak as it is known, which would also indicate that they might be willing to think of a Federal Plan of two regions, which is what the Southerners would also support."

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 

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