In a recent article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Yemeni analyst and commentator Farea al-Muslimi explores the role of sectarianism in Yemen's current conflict. Al-Muslimi also gives a brief overview of the role religious identity has (and hasn't) played in Yemeni political conflicts since the mid-20th century. It has become common for foreign observers to classify Yemen's war as another manifestation of the apparent conflict along sectarian lines that is being played out in other parts of the region. But Yemen specialists generally take issue with this characterization, and say that sectarian rhetoric is new to Yemen's political scene. There's truth to that position, but it's not the whole story. In this article, al-Muslimi does an excellent job of tracing the peaks and troughs of sectarian framing across several decades.
While Yemen is home to two major religious groups, the Zaydi Shia Muslims in the north and the Sunni Muslims of the Shafi’i school in the south and east, the religious divide has historically been of limited importance. Internal conflicts have certainly been endemic to Yemen, but they have typically been driven by political, economic, tribal, or regional disparities. While these conflicts sometimes coincided with religious differences, they were rarely a primary driver. Instead, religious coexistence and intermingling was taken for granted by most Yemenis and seen as a normal feature of everyday life.
But with the outbreak of the most recent round of conflict after the 2011 Arab Spring, sectarian discourse has become more heated, reorganizing Yemeni society along sectarian lines and rearranging people’s relationships to one another on a non-nationalist basis. It seems that the trend of sectarian polarization that plagues the region, from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon, has finally arrived in Yemen.