The Houthis, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Alawite Baathists, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Shiite Wifaq Party in Bahrain have all felt the Saudi lash. Yet they bear little resemblance to one another ideologically or theologically. Two of them, the Brotherhood and AQAP, are strongly Sunni, though the Brotherhood is nowadays largely nonviolent. The Alawites are gnostics who are not usually recognized as Muslims, even by other sects of Shiism. The Zaidi Shiites of Yemen had been known for being close to the Sunnis and having good relations with them. The Bahrain Shiites belong to the conservative Akhbari school and hold that lay people can interpret religious texts for themselves—many have only pastors, rather than ayatollahs. What four of the five have in common is that they are populist movements of political Islam that challenge the status quo and challenge the Saudi monarchy and its claims of religious charisma deriving from support for Wahhabism and its rule over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In the case of Syria, the Alawites are the establishment, not rebels. But by allying with Iran, the Syrian Alawites have become associated in the eyes of some powerful Wahhabis with populist Shiite challenges to the regional status quo.
Saudi Arabia appears to have had its way in Egypt, where the officer corps is resurgent and the Muslim Brotherhood has been crushed, along with the progressive youth of the Tahrir movement. Likewise, the protest movement of the marginalized Shiite majority of Bahrain has been dealt with brutally by the Sunni monarchy, with Saudi help. But in Syria, the Saudi-backed faction has had no real success. And Yemen, rugged and inhospitable to outsiders, poses the greatest challenge of all.