Yemen has been engaged in a three-year civil war widely viewed as a proxy battle for influence between regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran. Until recently, Riyadh’s strongest ally has been the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which now seems to have differing military approaches on how the war should continue and how it could be won.
Rival factions have been battling for control of Yemen since the breakdown of a political transition that began in 2011 when longtime authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, handed over power to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.
In 2014-15, an Iranian-backed Houthi movement forced President Hadi from power when it seized control of the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in the north and key government installations. Hadi fled Sana’a and announced a reformed government based in the port city of Aden on Yemen’s southern coast.
From the outset of Yemen’s war, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have backed President Hadi‘s internationally recognized government to fight the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen.
Tensions heightened in late January when an anti-government separatist group known as the Southern Transitional Council (STC) seized Aden after two days of heavy fighting. Formed in 2017, the STC wants an independent south Yemen, which was unified in 1990.
To further complicate the war, the UAE backed the STC, ostensibly going against its Saudi Arabian ally and the Hadi government.
“In Aden, the UAE technically betrayed Saudi Arabia … technically,” said Sami Hamdi, a geopolitical analyst and editor-in-chief at London-based The International Interest. “In terms of alliance it’s betrayal, because, remember, the Saudis do not want to split Yemen. Saudi wants to keep Hadi in power.”
In effect, there are now two rebellions waging war against Hadi’s government – the Houthis in the north and the STC in the south – with Saudi Arabia supporting Hadi, the UAE supporting the STC, and Iran supporting the Houthis.
Allies with different agendas
The UAE’s support of the STC may not be surprising, given that Abu Dhabi has generally focused its efforts on southern Yemen, while Saudi forces have conducted operations in the north.
“The two countries don’t necessarily share the same concerns in the region,” Hamdi told WikiTribune. “For example, the UAE does not see Iran as a major threat.”
Countering Iranian influence in the region is a priority for Saudi Arabia, especially in Yemen.
According to April Longley Alley, a senior analyst with the Brussels-based NGO International Crisis Group, Saudi Arabia is also “closely aligned with the Sunni Islamist party, Islah, which has links to the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The UAE views the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat and is wary of Islah (Carnegie).
The UAE “has worked to limit (Muslim Brotherhood) influence on the ground,” Alley told WikiTribune. “Over the course of the war, the UAE has invested heavily in the south. ”
“In the south, the best fighters on the ground were a combination of separatists and Salafis,” she said. “This was what was available, so this is what the UAE worked with. Over time they have trained and strengthened these groups.
“While the UAE’s official position is pro-unity, in practice their actions on the ground have made separation, or at least southern autonomy, more possible in the future.”
Government representatives, meanwhile, are downplaying the division between Saudi Arabia and UAE.
On February 1, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash dismissed rumors of conflict within the Saudi-led coalition, saying on Twitter (in Arabic): “It’s important to confirm to those who like creating division that the UAE’s position is the mirror image of the Saudi stance.”
“What we see is the UAE and [Saudi Arabia] attempting to paper over differences between the two sides so that they can maintain, at least while the war with the Houthi continues, the myth of a unified front under an internationally recognized government,” said Alley.
Yemen is ‘already divided’
The situation in Yemen has become a sprawling conflict. The latest report by the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR said 22.2 million people are in need of food and aid, with more than 2 million internally displaced persons.
According to the UN, more than 9,245 people have been killed and 52,800 injured since March 2015, with Saudi-led coalition air strikes the leading cause of civilian casualties.
“In practice the country is already divided and in some ways there is a de facto separation between the north and south,” said Alley. “Where it goes from here is still unclear.”