Yemen’s problems are our problems, but not for the reason you think

By Ian Bremmer

When Yemen makes international headlines, it's usually because outsiders look at the unrest there as yet another proxy conflict between regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Iran. It's one more version of the Sunni vs. Shia Middle East story. The Saudis are supporting Yemen's government in a fight with Shia Houthi rebels financed and trained by Iran. The Saudi, Yemeni, and Iranian governments each have their motives for feeding this simplification.

The Houthis are a Shia rebel group in northern Yemen, centered in the city of Saada. They've warned for years that they've been politically and economically marginalized by Yemen's government, and Houthi rebels launched a rebellion in 2004. There have been six rounds of fighting since. In August of this year, the Yemeni government, with Saudi support, launched another battle against the Houthis, and the conflict has spilled across the border into Saudi Arabia, where Houthis have fought pitched firefights with Saudi forces. In response, the Saudis have launched bombing raids on Houthi positions inside northern Yemen. Tens of thousands of people have fled the expanding conflict zone.

The spike in violence is now getting the regional attention it deserves-but for the wrong reasons. Yemen's weak government already has its hands full with a growing threat from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and increasing secessionist pressures in the south, adding to the risk that Yemen will become a failed state. The refugee problem is creating a risk of social unrest inside Saudi Arabia. These are serious issues. Less serious is the fear, fanned by both Saudi and Iranian officials, that Iran wants to use the Houthis to create an Arabian version of Hizbullah, a direct Shia threat to Saudi territory. The Saudis are playing up this threat to justify cross-border attacks into Yemen. Yemen's government is using the threat to justify its willingness to accept Saudi attacks on Yemeni soil and to gain Western military support and financial help. Iran feeds the story to pose as increasingly influential within the region.

The Houthis, though, have no reason to play along. They follow the Zaidi form of Islam. They're technically Shia, but theologically and historically distinct from Iran's Twelver Shia majority, which has cultural connections in Lebanon and (to a lesser extent) in Iraq -- but not in Yemen. The Houthi rebels need guns and cash and can't be picky about where they get them. If Iran is willing to sell, they're willing to buy. That doesn't mean they will use them to advance Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia's backyard.

In Yemen, at least, all militancy is local. Few outside al Qaeda relish the idea of the world's largest oil-producer sharing a border with a failed state. That's a risk worth worrying about, but it's not a good reason to over-simplify a complex political, economic, ethnic, religious, and social problem into some sort of regional proxy war between Sunni and Shia.