Divergent Saudi and Emirati agendas drag Yemen deeper into chaos

Divergent Saudi and Emirati agendas drag Yemen deeper into chaos
6 min read
02 March, 2018
The war in Yemen has spiralled out of control as Saudi and UAE allies turn on each other in Aden, undermining the image of a unified Saudi-led coalition.
UAE-backed fighters have exposed rifts within the Saudi-led coaltion [Getty]

In late January, Southern Yemeni separatists took control of Aden, confining the government forces of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to the presidential palace. 

After forming the "Southern Transitional Council", southern groups turned against Hadi as he refused to sack his prime minister, Ahmed Obaid bin Daghr, accused by the separatists of mismanagement and corruption.

This was a heavy blow to the Saudi-Emirati coalition and their war efforts.

Last December, for a brief moment, it looked as if the coalition had achieved some political and military advantage over the Houthi rebels, after talking Yemen's former President Saleh into switching sides and breaking his alliance with the Houthis.

The coalition for the first time in nearly three years made limited progress, pushing Houthi allied forces out of some areas they had controlled.

But the Houthis immediately responded, killing Saleh and many of his supporters while taking full control over the capital city of Sanaa.

Just a month later, the uprising by UAE-backed southern separatists against forces loyal to the Saudi-based and internationally recognised government of President Hadi has turned Yemen's war from bad to worse, and added a new layer of complexity.

The next moves on either side, especially regarding Emirati strategy, could mark a changing point not only in the Yemeni war, but also across the regional balance of power

According to Giuseppe Dentice, associate research fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Centre at the Milan-based Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale, this indicates a divergence in Saudi and UAE agendas.

The next moves on either side, especially regarding Emirati strategy, could mark a changing point not only in the Yemeni war, but also across the regional balance of power.

Who backs whom?

If not so profoundly tragic, the Yemeni crisis would provide an excellent scenario for a political soap opera, with a number of actors switching sides, changing allegiances and rivalling each other in their struggles for power.

The latest events expose the contradictory policies within the Saudi-UAE coalition in Yemen, as well as divergent views over means and objectives in the war-torn country, as they evidently pursue different strategies and geopolitical targets.

According to Dentice, the United Arab Emirates appears more interested in a high fragmentation of Yemen,supporting Separatist forces in Aden and Salafi groups in southern areas against central authorities.

The UAE is most interested in gaining greater influence in southern Yemen and control over the strategic port of Aden, he says. Emiratis also aim to strengthen secular forces in the country at the expense of Islamist factions backed by Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, Riyadh is primarily interested in confronting Iran in Yemen - as all over the region - viewing the conflict as a geopolitical struggle between the GCC and Iran.  

Beside southern separatists, the UAE has also backed Yemeni ground forces loyal to the deceased former ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, and his son Ahmed Ali, a former commander of Yemen's elite Republican Guards, who vowed revenge against the Houthi militia after the death of his father.

Although Saleh Senior had allied with the Houthis, the UAE viewed him as the only political figure in Yemen influential enough to preserve Yemen's unity. But with Saleh gone, the value and strength of units once loyal to him are highly questionable, as many of Saleh's commanders and fighters in Sanaa have been eliminated, and the rest are laying low in fear of Houthi brutality.  

The Saudis, meanwhile, are the main supporters of internationally recognised President Hadi, but at the same time they have been closely aligned with Islah, an influential Islamic Yemeni party which has historic links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Emiratis have strongly opposed any manifestation of political Islam and have expressed a negative sentiment about Islah. Nevertheless, the UAE has made diplomatic efforts to reach a settlement with Yemeni Islamists. In mid-December last year, Mohammed bin Zayed reportedly met with al-Islah's chairman, Mohammed Abdullah al-Yidoumi, in order to find common ground and intensify pressure on their common Houthi foes.


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has also participated in talks, giving the impression of joint diplomatic cooperation with his UAE partners. The UAE has also engaged with moderate Shia forces and managed to trigger divisions among Houthi rebels after Sheikh Hamir Ebrahim, a prominent Houthi commander in western Yemen's Hodeidah province, urged his forces to defect to the GCC coalition - which has been presented as a great UAE diplomatic victory.

In a search for reliable allies, Saudis too have supported Ahmed Ali Saleh, but at the same time forged close ties with General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, commander of forces in Marib, and Hadi's current vice-president. The fact that General Ali Mohsen has in the past closely cooperated with Islah and some Salafist forces makes him an excellent ally for the Saudi side - which sees him as a serious candidate for a new Yemeni leader.

But it remains a major question whether two bitter rivals, Ahmed Ali and Ali Mohsen, can work together, although the possibility of tactical alliance against the Houthis, their common enemy, should not be completely excluded.

It remains to be seen for how long and how successfully Abu Dhabi and Riyadh can combine their unilateral diplomatic and military actions without stepping on each other's toes

UAE vs Saudi Arabia

Despite backing different groups, it is hard to expect that the Saudi-UAE coalition will dissolve completely, despite growing tensions among their allies and proxies, as both countries see Shia Houthis and Iranian influence as a common existential threat to their own and the wider region's interests.

However, it remains to be seen for how long and how successfully Abu Dhabi and Riyadh can combine their unilateral diplomatic and military actions without stepping on each other's toes. 

Dentice sees Saudis and Emiratis as competitors and adversaries in reaching their final goals, although the two Sunni monarchies are allies and partners in several regional issues - hindering Iran and Shia groups in the broader Middle East, containing Qatari ambitions in the Gulf, and fighting violent Islamist groups.

"Beyond this rhetoric based on the unity of purpose and the Arabic brotherhood, Saudi Arabia's relations with the UAE reveal a complex interaction with several implications in this changing regional system of balances," Dentice told The New Arab.  

Cracks within the Saudi-Emirati coalition may seriously affect their war efforts against the Houthis. Fragmented coalition forces are not powerful enough to challenge experienced Houthi fighters, and any meaningful offensive to push Houthis out of Sanaa or the strategic port of Hodeidah is currently unlikely.

The current situation offers an opportunity to the Houthis and their tribal alliances to reinforce and strengthen their positions around Sanaa and on other fronts.

Dentice says there has been no sign of a new strategy to end the conflict and the Saudis moment appear more interested in confronting Iran in theatres other than Yemen, including Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

Moreover, it is not very likely that the Saudi-UAE allies can win decisive advantage relying entirely on their Yemeni proxies, without greater Saudi-UAE support - including a ground offensive on Houthi positions. But Saudi Arabia is keen to end the war which has spilled into its southern territories and has already cost a massive amount of money.

Some analysts put the cost to Saudi coffers at between $66 million and $200 million per day. For Dentice, the Emiratis have become more involved in the conflict. Riyadh's troubles have opened a space for Emirati military and diplomatic manoeuvres and strengthened their negotiation position vis-a-vis Saudis and Yemenis:

"The Saudi-UAE coalition is divided and I think that the game is run by the UAE - that they may be responsible for any attempt to change or re-confirm alliances in the Gulf and in the Middle East."

So far, supporting quarrelsome allies to seize power without a clear political plan for the present and the future of Yemen has only contributed to a chaotic situation in the country and brought on a massive humanitarian disaster.

According to Dentice, without a large-scale political and shared solution, Yemen's conflict will not be solved.

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, terrorism and defence.