Saudi Arabia and the UAE compete for influence in the de-facto state of “South Yemen”

While the world has been distracted by Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, a series of potentially seismic events have been occurring in Yemen.  To be precise, the political chaos has transpired not in Houthi controlled Sana’a but in Aden, the de-facto seat of power for the internationally recognised government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.

The Hadi regime is directly supported by both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), while locally it has traditionally enjoyed support from the big-tent Southern Movement which seeks to restore South Yemen as an independent state, which would de-facto imply that Houthi controlled areas of Yemen would revert to a new North Yemen.

Now however, there is a schism in the south which could jeopardise the stability of the Hadi regime and also threaten the wider UAE-Saudi alliance which now forms the core of the Gulf Cooperation Council in the aftermath of the ongoing Qatar crisis.

The crisis in Aden revolves around Hadi’s Prime Minister Ahmed bin Daghr and his government, who have lost the support of the increasingly powerful Southern Transitional Council (STC), the political arm of the secessionist Southern Movement. STC’s influential leader Aidarus al-Zoubaidi has threatened to shut down the government in Aden if Hadi does not dismiss his entire government, while the military arm of the STC, the so-called Southern Resistance Movement has allegedly been involved in clashes with pro-government soldiers.

Al-Zubaidi clearly sees himself as a future Prime Minister if not President of a new South Yemen and it would appear as though the UAE leadership is also keen on re-establishing a state of South Yemen, possibly with al-Zubaidi as its leader. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE are technically still allies in the Yemen conflict, Saudi Arabia’s role is increasingly limited to one of blockading ports in Houthi controlled areas, while waging air strikes on Houthi targets in the north of Yemen. By contrast, the UAE is bankrolling the day to day logistical and political functions in Aden and by extrapolation throughout the borders of the former (and possibly future) state of South Yemen.

From an external perspective, the new rivalry between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is essentially a competition for the spoils of war, with the UAE seeking increased influence in the south, while Saudi still seeks to re-unite Yemen through destroying the Houthi dominated government in Sana’a. Realistically, the Saudi military campaign has been far less successful than the UAE’s bankrolling of the Aden regime. After a period of uncertainty following the assassination of Sana’a’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh in December of 2017, the General People’s Congress (GPC) of the former leader has largely remained committed to its alliance with Ansar Allah (aka the Houthi movement), with defections among the GPC to Aden remaining relatively insignificant.

The new Saudi/UAE schism over Aden also demonstrates that the UAE has adopted a more pragmatic approach which seeks to solidify the contact lines of the conflict as the guiding force in establishing a functional South Yemen that does not seek to define itself by attempts to subdue the Houthi militias in the north. This new ‘pragmatic revelation’ on the part of the UAE is almost certainly a response to the assassination of Saleh which many felt would cause the Sana’a government to collapse. Instead, Saudi forces continue to fight resurgent forces in northern Yemen with no signs of any military nor political solution to that element of the conflict.

The UAE by contrast, has embraced the Southern Movement which includes both Islamist and secular elements–some of which are deemed to be too secular for Riyadh’s liking. At this point, one should be careful not to overplay the spat between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The UAE’s de-facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan is seen as something of a mentor to Saudi de-facto leader Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. If a wider schism between the two countries opened, it could effectively end the Qatar crisis which relies on both the UAE and Saudi Arabia cooperating in their efforts to economically and diplomatically isolate Doha. Thus, both countries have an interest in reaching some sort of understanding over Yemen, before the rift widens beyond repair.

Ultimately, the only reasonable solution for Yemen is to at least temporarily re-divide the country between a UAE dominated South Yemen and a North Yemen controlled by the Houthi/GPC alliance. However, the biggest stumbling bloc to an otherwise pragmatic solution would be the fact that Saudi would almost certainly continue to blockade a new North Yemen, for fear of creating a would-be Iranian ally on its borders. Unless a wider international effort could be made to diplomatically break the Saudi blockade of the North, one could easily envisage North Yemen becoming a kind of Transnistria on the Red Sea–an entity cut off from all potential allies.

Ultimately, so long as Saudi Arabia is not willing to live with the fact that Sana’a is controlled by the Houthi resistance, the conflict in Yemen will continue to rage, even through the prism of a stalemate. However, if the UAE/Saudi spat over Aden does in fact widen, all bets are off. One could possibly see, the UAE take Aden while Saudi focuses its own efforts on the building of a ‘post-Houthi’ puppet state in Sana’a. For Yemen there will be no relief from the conflict any time soon.

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