As of the afternoon of the 28 January, clashes between the UAE backed Southern Transitional Council’s fighters and authorities loyal to the Saudi backed government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi as well as his Prime Minister Ahmed Bin Dagher continue in the de-facto “South Yemen” capital of Aden.
While the Saudi/Emirati alliance is being severely tested by events on the ground in Yemen, Saudi state run media is playing down any would be conflict of interest between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Al Arabiya news is accurately stating that the history of a Southern Movement dates back to the early 1990s, specifically to the 1994 Yemen Civil War when Saudi Arabia supported southern secessionists against the then government in Sana’a led by slain former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. While tensions in the former “South” continued to burn even after the Southern defeat in 1994, it was not until 2007 that the Southern Movement formally established itself as a separatist political movement. In this sense, the Saudi regime is sticking with a narrative which blames local actors for today’s “coup” against Dagher and possibly also against Hadi, in an attempt to downplay the clear rift between Saudi and the UAE.
At the same time, Qatari state run media has been running a story under the headline, “Qatar’s Emir sends condolences to UAE”. This story relates to the death of the mother of UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Qatari state run media also states, “This cable of condolences is the first direct cable to be publicly announced between Qatar and the UAE since the beginning of the crisis, in which Kuwait assumed the mediator role”. Another story posted in Al Jazeera hours after the “condolences” article describes the civil unrest in Aden without overtly taking a side between the UAE backed STC and the pro-Saudi government. As of 16:30 Abu Dhabi time, none of the major state-run news websites in the UAE are running any stories on Yemen, nor is the privately owned English language though closely state monitored Gulf News website.
The following conclusions can be reached:
Saudi Arabia has admitted there is a crisis and is alluding to a sense of anger at the fact that Aden has descended into open political violence. However, Riyadh is not yet ready to take aim at its putative UAE ally in spite of the UAE’s well-known links to the Southern Transitional Council and its leader Aidarus al-Zoubaidi.
At the same time, official Qatari media are running with a story indicating the early stages of reconciliation between Doha and Abu Dhabi after the UAE and Saudi Arabia led 2017’s diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.
The fact that official Emirati media outlets are saying nothing about the situation in Yemen is indicative that they are keeping their cards close to their chests, while the ‘deep state’ waits until a tangible outcome of the “coup” in Yemen takes shape before siding with what could still be a losing Southern side. Such an outcome could come within the next 24 hours.
Qatar, which was unceremoniously kicked out of the Saudi led coalition in the war on Yemen in the wake of last year’s diplomatic boycott, is now in something of an enviable position vis-a-vis both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. A Saudi-UAE row could easily descend into a wider civil crisis in both regimes were anti-Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) Emirs in the UAE could side with the anti-MBS “royal opposition” in Saudi Arabia, while MBS’s alleged mentor Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ) could exploit the situation and purge the wider UAE ‘deep state’ of his opponents.
This is just one of many possible scenarios that could play out if an official schism between the UAE and Saudi Arabia were to take shape. It also appears that cooler heads in the ‘deep states’ of both the UAE and Saudi Arabia are keen not to allow the long burning ‘southern question’ in Yemen to destabilise their respective countries. The embarrassment of a long burning conflict in Yemen, the poorest state in the Arab world, destabilising the richest states in the Arab world, would clearly be too much for many throughout the GCC. Nevertheless, such a prospect cannot be ruled out.
At such a juncture, Qatar could volunteer to broker an accord between the Southern Transitional Council and the Hadi/Dagher regime in Aden which would also be an accord between the rowing Saudi and Emirati ‘allies’ by extrapolation. Qatar would naturally only agree to such a thing if Saudi and the UAE both agreed to drop the anti-Qatar boycott which also includes the largest Arab state, Egypt. Saudi’s close relationship with Egyptian President el-Sisi could theoretically restore relations between Cairo and Doha with one text message from Muhammad bin Salman to el-Sisi.
Economically, Qatar has weathered the storm of being ‘cut off’ from its neighbours far better than many initially anticipated. The Qatar crisis has only increased Turkey’s influence in the Persian Gulf via its partnership with both Iran and Qatar and furthermore, many in Qatar, in spite of its Salafist constitution, have expressed open gratitude for Iran’s understated yet consistent support for Doha throughout the crisis.
As a result, Qatar has expanded its ‘geopolitical portfolio’ while Saudi’s war in Yemen goes from one failure (the inability to defeat the Houthis in Sana’a) to another (the apparently forthcoming victory of Southern forces in Aden). At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s attempt to destabilise Lebanon has backfired, as once and future Prime Minister Saad Hariri returned to Lebanon from captivity in Riyadh and took as place at the head of a government that still includes Saudi’s nemesis Hezbollah.
Qatar is therefore in a stronger diplomatic situation than Saudi Arabia in general terms and in respect of southern Yemen. Given that the conflict in Aden is a political rather than a religious/sectarian conflict, Qatar is well suited as a Salafist state to broker an agreement that sees some Salafist factions on both sides, in spite of the traditionally secular nature of the Yemen’s Southern Movement.
The question for Saudi Arabia is how much pride is it willing to swallow in order to accept the seemingly inevitable formation of a government in Aden that answers first and foremost to the UAE and not Saudi? At the same time, Saudi authorities must also ask themselves how much they are willing to normalise relations with Qatar in order to save face in Yemen?
While predicting the moves of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is not an easy task, he ought to make amends with Qatar in order to claim a role in a peaceful accord over Aden. That way, Saudi can somewhat honestly take new ownership of the narrative and say, ‘We reached an agreement over Aden and our relations with Qatar and the UAE are once again healthy and respectful’. This would allow Saudi Arabia to focus squarely on its violent mission in the de-facto re-established ‘state’ of Houthi controlled North Yemen. While the war in “North Yemen” is going badly for Saudi Arabia, here too, Qatar could possibly broker a compromise.
Saudi Arabia will never allow a genuinely sovereign North Yemen to flourish because this would mean that Iran would have a close fraternal Houthi ally with its own legitimate state on Saudi’s borders. However, if Qatar brokered a deal whereby Qatari ships rather than Iranian ships would supply an official recast North Yemen, Saudi could save face knowing that a small Salafist Arab power rather than a mighty Shi’a Islamic Republic was acting as a kind of customs clearing house for a Houthi controlled North Yemen. Iran too could be satisfied if Qatar remained on good terms with Tehran, even after a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. There is nothing to indicate this is not possible from the Iranian perspective.
Based on the fact that Qatar and the UAE are once again in contact, albeit over the apolitical issue of sending condolences to the diseased mother of a President, the issue is largely in Saudi hands. It is up to Muhammad bin Salman to swallow his pride and allow a pragmatic “win-win” settlement to take shape in Yemen. This would also serve to allow Muhammad bin Salman to concentrate on domestic issues which continue to burn in the wake of the Great Saudi Purge of 2017. His ultimate choice may determine what kind of leader MBS will be as he matures into his role as the de-facto strongman Saudi leader.