On December 4, 2017, Houthi rebels in Yemen killed ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, their erstwhile ally and the country’s former president. It was a dramatic reversal: Parts of the national army loyal to Salih had fought alongside the Houthis for nearly three years in Yemen’s ongoing civil war. But shortly before his death Salih turned against the Houthis, making overtures to their opponents, the Yemeni administration-in-exile led by President ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and its backers in the wealthy Gulf Arab monarchies, primarily Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In remarks broadcast on Saudi-funded satellite channels on December 3, Salih accused the Houthis of intolerable “recklessness.” If the Saudis and Emiratis were to lift their blockade on Yemen, he continued, then “we will turn the page.” The next day, Salih was killed.
The Houthis’ history with Salih is far more complex than this concluding episode would imply. Until Salih’s ouster from the presidency in late 2011, it was his regime that had confronted Houthi rebellions, in six rounds of combat beginning in 2004. But another legacy of the wars of the 2000s is particularly salient for its influence upon global understanding of the current, catastrophic Yemen conflict—the Salih regime’s invention of the claim that the Houthis are “Iranian-backed Shi‘a.”
The first problem with calling the Houthis “Shi‘a” is that, technically, they are not Shi‘a, at least not in the way that most people understand contemporary Shi‘ism. Shi‘ism is distinguished from Sunnism, the other main branch of Islam, primarily by the Shi‘i belief that Muhammad’s rightful heirs as religio-political leaders, or Imams, of the Muslim community are the Prophet’s son-in-law ‘Ali and his progeny. Most Houthis are Zaydis, that is, members of a Shi‘i denomination that split off from the main body in the eighth century because of a dispute over recognition of the Fifth Imam. Zaydis do not believe, as most Shi‘a do, that the imamate must be handed down through a particular line of ‘Ali’s descendants. Today about 85 percent of Shi‘a worldwide, including the vast majority of Iranian and Iraqi Shi‘a, and the Shi‘a of Lebanon, follow what is called Twelver Shi‘ism: They believe that the Twelfth Imam was the last legitimate successor to Muhammad and ‘Ali, and that one day he will return from occultation, or hiding, to restore just rule and battle evil. Erasing the distinction between Zaydis and Twelvers—something akin to calling the Copts Roman Catholics—may not seem terribly consequential. But it has profound political consequences for the war in Yemen, given evolving alliance structures and the ambitions of regional powers, particularly the Saudis.
The second, larger problem with discursively equating the Zaydi faith with Twelver Shi‘ism is that it paints a picture of “natural” or “primordial” ties between the Houthis and Iran. President Hadi has emulated his predecessor Salih in asserting these ties, as have his Saudi and Emirati allies, who have regarded Iran as an implacable foe since the 1979 revolution that toppled the Shah and installed the Islamic Republic. This framing helps the Saudis and other Sunni-identified regimes channel popular discontent into resentment of Shi‘i Iran. It finds eager supporters in the United States and other Western governments that have also been hostile to the Islamic Republic. And it can go over well with global media audiences, who have been conditioned, in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war, to see nearly every Middle Eastern contretemps as a manifestation of intractable, centuries-old struggle between the two main branches of Islam.
But, for several reasons, it is wrong to code what is happening in Yemen as a Sunni-Shi‘i conflict. The Houthis are not an Iranian proxy but a predominantly local political movement founded in long-standing, Yemen-centric grievances and power struggles. Not all Zaydis and Zaydi practices can be placed under one umbrella; there is considerable diversity within the denomination. (Salih himself was raised in the Zaydi tradition.) Moreover, before the civil war broke out in 2015, the terms “Sunnis” and “Shi‘a” were not commonly deployed in Yemen.  Writing in 2009, journalist Hugh MacLeod noted that in contrast to many Western portrayals “the simple religious divide between Islam’s two main branches has traditionally gained little traction in Yemen.”  Yemenis primarily understood themselves as Zaydis and Shafi‘is, adherents of two Muslim schools of jurisprudence, or madhhabs, which historically had much in common with each other. Yemen expert Lisa Wedeen emphasizes: “From the mid-twentieth century onward, denials of madhhab identities have become standard in ordinary conversations in Yemen, where modern legal codes are often drawn and mixed from various, established schools of thought or where arguments in the salafi tradition are made to suggest that madhhab teachings are no longer adequate to the modern era.” 
Political Strategy, Not Religious Politics
How, then, did the Houthis become “Shi‘a”? The process started with instrumentalist political entrepreneurship, rather than doctrinal distinctions or cultural proximity. In the 1990s, Zaydi religious and political figure Husayn Badr al-Din al-Houthi and his followers—many but not all of them also Zaydis—founded a group called the Believing Youth as a reaction against both the discriminatory policies of the central Yemeni government and the rising proselytization of Saudi-funded salafis (puritanical Sunnis) in the Houthis’ home province of Sa‘ada.  The Believing Youth directed their efforts at denouncing Salih and his authoritarian regime. At the same time, the salafi groups arriving in northwestern Yemen from Saudi Arabia churned out propaganda that depicted “Zaydis as pawns of Iran in a global Shi‘a conspiracy that seeks to divide the Muslim world.” [5
In 2004, with tensions high in Yemen due to the US-led war on terror and the advent of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, war broke out between the Houthis and Salih’s regime. That summer, the regime’s anti-rebel rhetoric was fairly general, centered on accusations that the Houthis were a violent, anti-American outfit that was “inciting sectarian strife and spreading ‘deviant’ thought and ‘extremist ideology.’”  But the regime soon began aggressively promoting an explicitly sectarian narrative—describing the Houthis as “Iranian-backed Shi‘a”—that was adopted wholesale by English-language media despite a consistent absence of strong evidence. Nearly every New York Times article covering the rebels since 2008 contains a mention of Iranian support.  While the Houthis did borrow slogans and banners from Iranian revolutionary politics—such as “Death to America, death to Israel!”—these tactics should be understood as elements of local political strategy and part of the backlash against the US-Yemeni relationship rather than as signs of religious and geopolitical affinity. [8
The regime’s animus soon became so pronounced that the US Embassy in Yemen sent several cables to Washington to clarify the relationship between the Houthis and Twelver Shi‘ism. These documents consistently portray a Yemeni regime (led by Salih) intent on deliberately mischaracterizing the Houthis as a sectarian, terrorist organization linked to Iran and its supposed agents abroad, chiefly Hizbollah in Lebanon. One typical cable notes:
As tensions continue to rise in the Sa‘ada conflict between ROYG [Republic of Yemen Government] forces and the Houthis, ROYG officials and government-owned media, with an eye towards securing Western support, have ramped up statements asserting that the Houthis have joined forces with Hizballah…. Claiming that the Houthis and Hizballah share a common ideology and goals, the ROYG argues that the USG should view the Houthis as a terrorist organization on par with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). However, considering the ideological and political differences between the Houthis and Hizballah, such broad generalizations lack factual foundations.
The same cable continues:
Members of the ROYG, however, continue to characterize the Houthis as a radical Shi‘a group that takes issue with the government for sectarian reasons rather than for legitimate political grievances and, as such, finds a logical ideological partner in Hizballah. Ministry of Defense Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Ashwal told [the embassy’s political officer] on September 14 that the Houthis “are the same as Iran, the same as Hizballah; they share the same doctrine and ideology.”
The embassy’s dispatch ends with the comment: “ROYG officials have repeatedly attempted to convince the USG to classify the Houthi rebels as a terrorist organization, first by alleging AQAP connections, then ambiguous ‘Iranian influence,’ and now by claiming Hizballah collaboration.” 
Other observers also took note of the regime’s discursive strategy of blaming the Houthis’ rise on whatever outside actor they thought might grab Westerners’ attention. International Crisis Group reports on the fighting in Sa‘ada detail the Yemeni government’s efforts to depict the Houthis as aligned with Hizbollah and Iran. One report remarks that, “As described by the government, the Huthis have been spreading a fundamentalist religious creed, reflecting a shift from moderate Zaydism to Jaafarism (Twelver Shiism)” and that the government tried to situate the Houthis’ emergence in the context of the Iranian revolution.  A 2010 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report states:
The Yemeni government has sought to link the rebellion to the larger “war on terrorism” and garner international support by claiming the Houthis’ supporters include secular Libya, radical Sunni extremist al-Qaeda, Lebanese Hizbollah and Shi‘i Iran. The state has not yet produced evidence that the Houthi rebels are receiving outside military assistance, or proven its recent assertions that Iran is meddling in the conflict. 
In other words, in the late 2000s, Salih’s regime was experimenting with inaccurate and often self-contradictory narratives to convince the United States and other nations to support the Yemeni government’s campaign against the Houthis as part of both the war on terror and containment of Iran.
A Dangerous Misconception
The Arab uprisings complicated the situation. Following mass protests throughout 2011, Salih stepped down from the presidency as part of a Gulf Cooperation Council deal and Hadi was installed in his place. Salih and his loyalists (many of whom identify as Zaydi) eventually joined hands with the Houthis in opposition to the new dispensation. In the popular mobilization that followed, which had both military and non-violent components, these combined forces managed to seize Sana’a and, by January 2015, to compel Hadi to resign. Hadi soon fled the capital, first to his native town of Aden, where he renounced his resignation and decried a Houthi coup d’état, and later by boat to Saudi Arabia. The “Houthis-as-Hizbollah” and “Iranian-backed Shi‘a” language reemerged with a vengeance, including in local English-language outlets such as the Yemen Post. Yet even this newspaper (with offices in Saudi Arabia and the United States) had previously been skeptical of this storyline. One July 2014 article entitled, “The Houthis, the New Hezbollah of the Arabian Peninsula?” noted that “detractors of the Houthis have always been keen to portray the group as a vindictive, bloody and intolerant Shi‘ite faction, anxious to strip its members [of] any political legitimacy, preferring instead to concentrate on the Houthis’ militia heritage to prevent their transfer into mainstream politics.” 
In March 2015, the Saudis and other Gulf monarchies intervened militarily to reinstate Hadi as president, pitting that coalition, on one hand, against the Houthis and Salih’s forces, on the other. The Saudis, claiming to be battling an Iranian-backed, Shi‘i militia in a major geostrategic engagement, have bombed and shelled huge swathes of Yemen, causing at least 13,504 civilian casualties (4,971 killed and 8,533 injured) and destroying much of Sana’a.  According to UN estimates, the ongoing naval blockade has left more than 20.7 million Yemenis (of an approximate population of 28 million) in need of humanitarian aid and 17 million hungry and at risk of starvation. 
The Iranians did step up their involvement in Yemen following the Houthi capture of Sana’a, and certainly sharpened their rhetorical attacks on the Saudis from 2015 onward. However, the level of Iranian backing for the rebels is still overblown in media and policy circles.  Experts such as Sheila Carapico were still emphasizing in 2016 that the Houthis “get moral support from Iran, but nobody’s ever proven that they get material support from Iran.”  Programs to train and equip the Houthis, including by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanese Hizballah, have been limited; the Houthis received the majority of their heavy weapons from Salih’s forces and not from Iran.  To the extent that Iran is involved in Yemen, it may be a product of the very tall tales used to conceal the origins of the Houthi rebellion; in other words, the “Iranian-backed” part of the narrative may actually be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The “Houthis are Shi‘a” narrative should be seen for what it is—a carefully crafted piece of political rhetoric devised to gloss over important differences between religious denominations, to reinforce the false image of a war between those who identify as Sunni versus those who identify as Shi‘a, and to encourage foreign—and particularly US—military intervention in Yemen. It provides a dangerously simplistic mental short cut for policymakers who are unfamiliar with Yemeni history and politics. In so doing, it diverts attention from the massive humanitarian crisis caused by years of civil war and the US-backed Saudi-led coalition’s ongoing blockade and bombardment. The cynical use of sectarian language casts the conflict in Yemen as part of an epochal, region-wide struggle rather than a local civil war made more deadly for Yemeni civilians by Saudi and Emirati intervention.
“Killing Yemen: An Interview with Sheila Carapico,” Voice of the Middle East and North Africa (KPFA), April 4, 2016. https://soundcloud.com/vomekpfa-1/the-war-on-yemen-and-the-refugee-crisis
Guardian, November 23, 2009.
Lisa Wedeen, Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power and Performance in Yemen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), pp. 157-158.
Shelagh Weir, “A Clash of Fundamentalisms: Wahhabism in Yemen,” Middle East Report 204 (July-September1997.
US Department of State, “Fighting Fire with Fire: A Clash of Religious Extremisms in Sa’ada (09Sanaa1939_a),” October 20, 2009. https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09SANAA1939_a.html
J. E. Peterson, “The al-Huthi Conflict in Yemen,” Arabian Peninsula Background Note ABPN-006 (August 2008), p. 5. http://www.jepeterson.net/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderfiles/APBN-006_Y…
Wedeen, p. 153.
US Department of State, “Hizb Allah and the Houthis: Different Goals and Ideology (09Sanaa2079_a),” November 18, 2009. https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09SANAA2079_a.html
International Crisis Group, Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb (Sana’a/Brussels, May 2009), pp. 10-11. https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-pe…
Christopher Boucek, War in Saada: From Local Insurrection to National Challenge (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 2010), p. 6.
Yemen Post, July 13, 2014.
UN News Service, June 23, 2017.
 UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Accessed December 11, 2017. http://www.unocha.org/yemen/about-ocha-yemen
Stacey Philbrick Yadav, “The Limits of the ‘Sectarian’ Framing in Yemen,” Washington Post, September 25, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/09/25/the-limits…
“Killing Yemen,” KPFA.
Thomas Juneau, “No, Yemen’s Houthis Actually Aren’t Iranian Puppets,” Washington Post, May 16, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/05/16/contrary-t….