November 13, 2009 | 8:22 am
After years of teetering on the edge of stability, Yemen appears to be losing control of a minority rebellion on its northern border, raising concerns that the fighting could ignite regional tensions and possibly become a battleground for a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In Yemen, extreme poverty, water shortages and a history of civil strife have helped foster extremism and weaken the central government, which increasingly relies on its oil-rich neighbor to the north, Saudi Arabia, for aid and military support. Many members of Yemen’s Zaidi sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam whose followers make up about a third of the country (including the president) and a majority in the north, claim that Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative interpretation of Wahhabi Islam has influenced the government to marginalize Shiites.
In August, the Yemeni government launched Operation Scorched Earth against Zaidi Shiite rebels in the north, known as Houthis. Although the government has denied the crackdown is religiously motivated, the struggle has broken down along sectarian lines, with the Houthis accusing Saudi Arabia of providing military support to the government and the government accusing Iran of supporting the rebels.