Yemen has been engaged in a three-year civil war which is widely viewed as a proxy battle for influence between the region’s two largest powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Until recently, Riyadh’s staunchest ally has been the United Arab Emirates (UAE). But in recent weeks, both countries seem to have adopted differing approaches on how the war should continue and how it could be won.
Rival Yemeni factions have been battling for control of the country 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, an Iranian-backed rebel movement called the Houthis forced President Hadi from power when it seized control of the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. Hadi fled Sana’a and the government has been based in the port city of Aden on Yemen’s southern coast ever since.
From the outset of the war, Saudi Arabia and the UAE both backed President Hadi‘s internationally recognized government in its fight against Houthi rebels in northern Yemen.
But tensions between the two allies first surfaced 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.
It now appears as if the UAE has backed the STC, ostensibly going against its Saudi Arabian ally and the Hadi government. Hadi was not in Aden when clashes between the STC and his loyalists began – he was believed to be in Saudi Arabia, where he has spent much of the last three years.
“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.
Allies with different agendas
The UAE’s support of the STC may not be surprising, given that Abu Dhabi has generally focused its military efforts on southern Yemen, while Saudi forces have conducted similar 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 is a priority for Saudi Arabia, especially in Yemen.
Government representatives, meanwhile, are downplaying any talk of divisions 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.”
April Longley Alley, a senior analyst with the Brussels-based NGO International Crisis Group, told WikiTribune: “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.”
Yemen is ‘already divided’
The situation in Yemen has become a humanitarian disaster. The latest report by the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR said 22.2 million people are close to famine, with more than two 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.”