In the complicated, brutal war to control Yemen, there’s been a crack in a critical alliance. Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government has been surviving in part because of backing from the Saudi Arabia-led Arab Coalition, which includes the United Arab Emirates (UAE). But that’s now in doubt.
Here’s the background
Until now, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been working together to support the Yemeni government against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the north. But earlier this summer, southern separatists began attacking Yemeni government forces hoping to control the southern part of the country with the goal to establish an independent South Yemen once again. Earlier this month, this Southern Transitional Council (STC) took control of military bases in Aden — the city where the government had set up its capital after Houthi rebels pushed it out of the north. Iran-backed Houthi rebels still control critical northwestern territories. And Hadi’s government has lost more strategic areas in southern Yemen to the STC, which has been trained and supported by the UAE.
That’s shaking things up. As a whole, the Arab Coalition wants to drive out the Iran-backed Houthis in the north. Although still part of the coalition and allied with Saudi Arabia, the UAE is supporting the southern separatists in Yemen for its own reasons. Here’s what’s going on.
UAE troop withdrawal
Last month, the UAE said it would withdraw its troops from the northern port of Hodeidah. In reassuring the international community that it had coordinated this with Saudi Arabia, it explained it was just trying to follow terms set down by a United Nations peace agreement in Stockholm in December. The UAE’s announcement came just as Iran was breaching its side of the nuclear agreement and allegedly attacking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. At the same time, the Houthi rebels published evidence for their drone attacks on airports in the Emirates.
In other words, by removing its military from Hodeidah, the UAE is backing away from Saudi Arabia and the United States’ hard-line opposition to Iran. In doing so, the UAE is signaling to Iran that it wants diplomacy instead of military confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz between the two countries.
What’s more, with UAE troops out of Aden, Abu Dhabi could act as a bystander when the STC — its proxies — pushed the Hadi-government forces out of the city. The violence was triggered by an attack on STC-loyal forces the day after a UAE-delegation visit to Tehran that was claimed by the Iranian-backed Houthis. Nevertheless, the STC began its attacks against the Hadi government, arguing that his government was behind the attack.
A fragmented south
Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen in March 2015 to restore the Hadi government and stop the Houthis from taking more strategic areas. The UAE, however, sent troops and equipment to Yemen in June 2015 because of its own interest in the port of Aden.
In 2016, to reestablish a sense of order in Aden, the UAE began to build up what became known as the Security Belt Force, which included recruits from the southern resistance. Formally under the command of Yemen’s government, the belt forces were widely recognized as state forces loyal to the southern separatist movement. By supporting the belt forces, the UAE empowered forces seeking an independent south.
To please the UAE, Hadi included members of the southern independence movement in local government around Aden. As a result, members of the movement became empowered to establish the STC in May 2017 to represent the south.
In January 2018, the STC had already challenged the government when their UAE-supported forces took control of nearly all of Aden and its military camps from Hadi’s government. To retain some power in the south, he had to rely on the STC. The STC in turn increased its influence over local state institutions as supporters were appointed to state positions. By taking control of Aden on Aug. 10, the STC was completing what it began in 2018. Although the southern resistance acknowledged Hadi as the legitimate president, it was always clear that the resistance defended the south to once again have independence.
The STC does not enjoy support equally in all southern governorates; with loyalties of armed groups and tribes scattered and shifting, the STC soon reached the limits of its military expansion in Shabwa, east of Aden. After the STC attempted to take control of vital oil and natural gas infrastructure, Saudi Arabia began to strengthen Hadi’s position on the ground by paying salaries to pro-government forces. If Hadi’s forces continue to strengthen and recapture territories in Aden from the STC, the UAE may lose its influence in Yemen.
Undecided power struggle
By supporting the STC, the UAE is risking its partnership with Saudi Arabia. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE present themselves as a united front, but the Riyadh-based support for Hadi pressures the UAE from his Riyadh exile to demonstrate its genuine commitment to the Arab coalition’s goals in Yemen. The embattled president blamed the UAE for the STC taking Aden and demanded that the UAE be removed from the coalition. In response, a former UAE security official went so far as to suggest that Hadi could be assassinated.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are trying to facilitate negotiations between Hadi’s government and the STC. Hadi’s government, however, refuses to participate in discussions until the STC gives back control of Aden and other southern areas. The STC will not accept anything less than being acknowledged as the representative of the south.
The situation in Yemen remains in flux. The UAE will show its commitment to Saudi Arabia and not make another bold move in Yemen unless its proxy forces are in a position of power on the ground. The Emirates will align itself with Saudi goals if Hadi is on top of the power struggles.
The STC’s military control over Aden jeopardizes the integrity of the Yemeni state; with the STC in the south and the Houthis in the north, Saudi Arabia would lose the war. As the situation in the south continues to change, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have direct influence on what a future Yemeni state will look like.
Mareike Transfeld is the lead researcher in the European Union-funded project “Rebuilding Peace and Security” at the Yemen Polling Center. She is also associated with the Center for Applied Research with the Orient and is a PhD candidate at the Berlin Graduate School for Muslim Cultures at the Freie Universität, Berlin.
Note: Updated Oct. 5, 2023.