Yemen: UAE-Saudi problems over their allies continue

Summary: conflict between UAE-backed separatist STC in the south and Saudi-backed Hadi government – wider implications.

Once again we thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for close to 15 years, and has written about political, social and economic issues.  She works as a freelance rural development consultant. Her book Yemen in Crisis: autocracy, neo-liberalism and the disintegration of a state was published by Saqi books in October 2017.

The new open conflict between the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and Hadi’s officially internationally recognised government is far from over. The ‘emergency Summit’ announced on 12 August after the equally emergency meeting between the Saudi leadership (both King Salman and his Crown Prince) and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, effective ruler of the UAE, during Eid, following the take-over of Aden by STC forces is yet to happen. After an initial trip to Saudi Arabia, the leader of the STC Aydarus al Zubaydi

President Al-Zubaidi heads to Saudi Arabia

President of the Southern Transitional Council, Supreme Commander of the southern armed forces, President Aidaroos Qasim Al-Zubaidi (source STC)

returned empty handed having refused to meet with the government, both sides having put unacceptable preconditions for the meeting. No direct meetings have yet been held between the two sides, despite the work of a Saudi-Emirati mediation committee. In addition to the fundamental disagreements between the two Yemeni parties, it is equally clear by now that each is supported actively by its coalition partner and therefore the rift between the Saudi and Emirati leaderships is a serious threat to their overall alliance.

Recent events have openly pitted UAE supported forces against those supported by the Saudis, including active participation by forces from both these states. The most murderous example was the Emirati air attack on the Aden/Abyan border on 29 August killing more than 30 and wounding hundreds of government forces.  Given the terrain, there was no protection possible for the victims:  the UAE assertion that these were ‘’terrorists” will have fooled few Yemenis.  The victims were local ‘resistance’ forces from Abyan and Shabwa who opposed the STC takeover largely because there is no love lost between the Dhala’/Lahej based STC forces and people from Abyan and Shabwa.

Should the rumoured UAE-ordered replacement of the commander of the Abyan Security Belt be confirmed, further clashes are to be expected in this area, with an uncertain outcome.  The STC’s military strategy in August revealed its underlying weakness and inability to control areas east of its strongholds in Aden, Lahej and Dhala’.  It was promptly repelled from Shabwa;  in Hadramaut rival separatist groups stated their lack of support, and the leaders of al Mahra continue to try their best to keep out of the fight, but that  governorate is now under Saudi, rather than Emirati, influence. Observers must understand that discussing these issues in terms of governorates is a misleading simplification: the population of Abyan, for example, is clearly divided between its western lowlands, the Yafi’ highlands, the mid-land plateau, and the eastern wadis, each of which has very different political alignments.  Although some of the first two may be aligned with the STC, the latter include President Hadi’s home area where people are actively anti-STC, the extremely independent Bakazem tribe, as well as an AQAP presence in the remote wadis and mountains.

Mutual accusations by the Hadi government, the STC and others of involvement with terrorist groups, ie AQAP and Daesh, are all to be treated with considerable scepticism, given that they all, starting with former president Saleh and continuing with both Saudi and Emiratis, have had close contacts and at least occasional collusion with these groups. They are mainly useful to appeal for US and other western support, but can also be involved in struggles like the current one, both in propaganda and militarily.

The absence of fighting in recent days is mainly an opportunity for both sides to re-organise and re-stock.  UAE commitment to support the STC and its ‘Security Belt’ forces is blatant:  as recently as 4 September while ‘indirect peace negotiations’ were being held in Saudi Arabia between the two Yemeni sides, reinforcements of UAE tanks and heavy armour were handed over to the STC in Aden. Saudi Arabian reinforcements to Shabwa enabled Hadi’s forces to defeat those of the STC with great speed. The STC is unlikely to regain control of Shabwa where the local Security Belt forces exclude the main militarily and politically powerful tribal groups.  It is also an area which can be easily reached by the government aligned forces in Mareb.

Official statements from the coalition members have emphasised their cohesion and agreement, in direct contradiction with their actions.  However a few pointers are of interest: on 5 September  Saudi Arabia issued an official statement reasserting  support for the Hadi government and refusing any “new reality” imposed by force in the south, adding that attempts to destabilise Yemen’s security are considered a threat against the Kingdom which “will be dealt with decisively”.  The Emiratis, while materially supporting the separatists, have also continued to claim full compliance with Saudi objectives: quoted in the Saudi press, Gargash tweeted on 7 September that the UAE supports Saudi Arabia’s call for Yemeni parties to dialogue, adding that Saudi Arabia is leading the Arab coalition with complete patience and competency, and the UAE Saudi partnership is firm “The common challenges we are facing are in safe Saudi hands and we stand by its call for dialogue”.  Most recently on 8 September a joint Saudi-Emirati statement attempted to cover their differences, welcoming the two Yemeni sides’ willingness to discuss (despite the fact that they have not yet sat in the same room).  Most importantly it reasserted support for the Legitimate Government, and Yemeni unity. There have been considerable criticisms as it treats the Hadi government and the STC as equal parties, and the Hadi government has not commented.

Interestingly, the joint statement explicitly asserts that the two states will continue providing humanitarian assistance to the country’s liberated governorates.  This helps further understand why both the UAE and SA have failed to provide their pledged contributions to the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan,  which is why it is only 34% funded well into the third quarter of year.  Indeed both states have been involved in both food distribution and infrastructure reconstruction in the areas under their control, to the extent that in some places humanitarian supplies are used to feed livestock, while only a few miles away people are starving!

The wider implications of this conflict are considerable.  The US has renewed its interest in the situation in Yemen, discussed in detail in a 4 September article on the Arab Center Washington website and this may lead to significant changes in US policy in the region. Former US ambassador to Yemen Feierstein has been explicit in criticising the UAE position, declaring it illegal for the UAE to do anything other than support the internationally recognised government.

Alongside other divergences with the UAE over Iran, the Saudi position has lost its dominant position in the debate, and this has weakened MBS’s position as an important world player. Iran in particular is an issue which the US will take into consideration in its own strategy, now dominated by Trump’s re-election priorities, regardless of the war mongering of Bolton and Pompeo.

Internationally, this crisis has further marginalised the UN.  Its Special Envoy’s focus on Hodeida since taking up his post 18 months ago has been overtaken by events.  Hodeida is no longer the main issue in Yemen, regardless of now the third agreement between the Huthis and the Hadi government on a ship in the Red Sea, which might or might not be implemented.  Transferring his attention to the STC would give the impression that he and the UN are merely fire-fighting without a strategy. What is needed from the UN is an active and imaginative strategy which could address the country’s major political issues, and later its fundamental social and economic problems.

The new balance of power between the Hadi government with Saudi support and the UAE and STC will be clear with the reshuffle of the Hadi government: expected since the resignation of the foreign minister in June, the UAE and STC want to use it to strengthen their position and exclude (or at least reduce) Islahi influence within the internationally recognised government and in particular they want Vice President Ali Mohsen to be replaced; the Saudis want to keep him as he provides the main military forces and political support against the Huthis in the northern and eastern parts of the country, ie along their border.

Events in the past month have demonstrated the closeness of the relationship between the STC and the UAE: although the STC tries to present itself as an independent entity, in reality without UAE support it would to sink to the level of the many other separatist groups. However weak on the ground, the Hadi government has some military clout as well as international recognition, its major asset, and is effectively under Saudi orders.

Meanwhile, as has been the case throughout this war, the profiteers are enriching themselves from the war economy and the majority of Yemenis are increasingly desperate for peace and reconstruction.  And of course, the Huthis are sitting back and enjoying the chaos of their opponents.

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