The eruption of fighting by rival factions in Yemen’s southern city of Aden on January 28 provides distressing additional evidence that Yemen’s war is best understood as a series of mini-wars reflecting the intersection of diverse domestic drivers of conflict and Gulf regional fragmentation.
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. 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.
The protests reveal a widespread disaffection with all existing political factions. New slogans calling for the “death” of “the dictator” and for a “referendum” alternated with those in favor of the Pahlavi monarchist regime that ruled Iran before the 1979 revolution. This public enunciation of an all-or-nothing approach to political change in Iran is an unexpected development, and is indicative of a new level of rejectionist “blue” alienation, especially among Iranian youth.
An examination of women’s struggles to gain the right to vote in Kuwait, and ongoing efforts to promote women’s football in Qatar, provide useful in-depth case studies. They cannot predict the future course of change in Saudi Arabia, but they illustrate the need for ongoing political engagement and social activism to secure gains, and the limitations of state-led efforts to remake isolated aspects of Gulf societies while failing to reckon with the complex web of social regulations that underpin present gender divides.