Unfortunately, the trivialization of Middle Eastern conflicts by claiming they are a “result of a centuries-old hatred between Sunni and Shi’a” has been a trend across western media. The portrayal of Yemenis as sectarian knaves looking to kill one another for mere religious differences for the past millennia works to propagate an orientalist image of them as a backward people. The representation of the Yemen War as a continuation of historical grievances is misleading and inaccurate for two reasons: historic friendly relations between the two sects and the recency of sectarianization of Islamic politics.
It is a well-known fact for scholars and academics who have studied Yemen that sectarian conflicts were incredibly rare in Yemen for over a thousand years. In fact, Yemen never developed the notion of a Sunni or Shi’a mosque. It is said that the only way you could tell a Shafi’i (Sunni) from a Zaydi (Shi’a) is by the place of their hands in prayer. Intermarriages happened all the time, and not only among laymen but also among the Zaydi elite and Shafi’i scholars like the Ba’Alawis. Yemenis, living together for centuries, had developed an equilibrium of informal institutions (culture, norms, and mores) that harbor pluralism and push away sectarian bigotry.
It is also inaccurate to suggest that the war in Yemen is a proxy war between Saudi and Iran for sectarian reasons. Zaydi theology and legal theory are both closer in totality to Shafi’i Ba’Alawis (Sunnis) than they are to Twelver Shi’a in Iran and Iraq. Historically speaking, Zaydi Shi’a have had more conflicts with Twelvers than Sunnis, since the Safavids forcibly converted Zaydis to Twelverism and caused mass immigration of Iranian Zaydi communities to Yemen. The new ostensible solidarity between Shi’a only occurred after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 for political reasons: spreading Islamic liberation theology and removing the Israeli occupation. Many Sunni groups joined Iran in these efforts, including HAMAS and Fat’ h in Palestine. More recently, the Islamic Shafi’i Council and the Islamic Sufi Council, both Sunni religious organizations, stand in support of the Houthis against the Saudi coalition.
To sum up, it is profoundly wrong to characterize the Yemeni conflict as sectarian or only as part of the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. At the same time, it is naive to neglect the importance of ideology – in this case, religion – in such a complicated conflict. The informal institutions set up by Zaydis and Shafi’is, like avoiding sectarian disagreements in public and avoiding referring to each other derogatorily, as a whole, were slowly disintegrated by Saudi’s forceful propagation of aggressive Salafism into Yemen since the early 1980s. Marieke Brandt in her book “Tribes and Politics in Yemen: A History of the Houthi Conflict” discusses several destabilizing effects of the Salafi ideological invasion of Yemen, that was extensively monetarily backed by Saudi Arabia. Salafism, unfortunately, came with aggressive proselytization and disrespect of both Zaydi and Sufi Sunni figures. The foreign culture of Salafism, after several years, disrupted and eventually disintegrated the pluralism present in Yemen across most of its history. Zaydis were suppressed from speaking their minds, and Yemen’s Sufis were damned as hell-bent deviants. Due to the pro-Saudi government’s control of education, Saudi’s agenda of propagating Salafism in Yemen to gain Yemeni support was successful to a certain degree.
The one takeaway from this piece should be that sectarianism did not predate and cause destabilization. On the contrary, foreign destabilizing ideas and institutions were forced on the Yemeni people that collectively disrupted an equilibrium formed after centuries of local and communal cohesion. Corrupt institutions and policies cause fractionalization, which causes social and economic stagnation and failure. Not the other way around.