The UAE is gradually eclipsing Saudi Arabia in Yemen

The UAE is gradually eclipsing Saudi Arabia in Yemen

6 min read
30 Jun, 2020
Comment: The STC's takeover of Socotra indicates that the United Arab Emirates has marginalised Saudi Arabia into a weaker position, at least for now, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
'Riyadh is in a dependent and vulnerable position' writes Fenton-Harvey [Getty]
After much jostling with Saudi and local authorities, the United Arab Emirates-backed separatist takeover of Yemen's remote island of Socotra effectively secured one of Abu Dhabi's primary objectives in the country, as it seeks influence elsewhere in south Yemen.

Following a previous takeover attempt in May 2018, UAE-backed forces partially withdrew after a Saudi-brokered deal. Yet their efforts to wrest control of the island continued, and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) announced control of Habido, Socotra's largest town, on June 20.

This development symbolises the UAE's gradual eclipsing of Saudi Arabia as a dominant external actor in Yemen - previously a limited player in the country - while Riyadh slowly loses influence through its ideal candidate, the UN recognised government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.

The UAE has long coveted the island as a platform to extend its maritime trade across the Indian Ocean and beyond, along with other ports in south Yemen including Aden and Mukalla. It built up the separatist STC with its founding in 2017, and supported its military wing the Security Belt and aligned militias across the south, as a friendly independent southern state would help secure these goals.

Socotra's unique nature - including the Dragon Blood Tree, along with over 700 species that are exclusive to the island - makes it an attractive location which Abu Dhabi can exploit commercially, having already run tourist trips there.  

The UAE, still valuing its ties with Saudi Arabia, will take more calculated than forceful measures to empower the STC

The takeover of Socotra inspired further STC activity elsewhere in south Yemen. Clashes continued in the Abyan Governorate. Saudi Arabia, on June 24 sent observers for the ceasefire between the Hadi government and STC, yet this broke down, and hours later the violence continued. The STC vowed that it was not going to accept government attempts to retake control.

It also staged anti-Hadi government protests across the south, including in the Hadramawt and Mahrah governorates. UAE-backed forces are also clashing once again with government forces in Mukalla, Hadramawt. Violence will likely continue until the STC secures more control and blocks Hadi's takeover in these governorates and elsewhere, like the oil rich Shabwah governorate, while Emirati support continues.

This violence comes after last November's Riyadh Agreement broke down, when the STC declared 'self-rule' from Aden in April. The Riyadh Agreement saw Saudi Arabia regain temporary control, and it eased fighting between the STC and Hadi government, which erupted last August following the STC's coup in Aden and subsequent Emirati airstrikes on Hadi forces.

Despite this apparent setback, the UAE still sought to undermine the deal and chip away at the government's control, as revealed by its ongoing support for separatist militias on Socotra and elsewhere in the south. Though it vocally opposed the declaration, it is not inconceivable that Abu Dhabi encouraged the STC's move, in order to legitimise its presence and undermine Hadi.

Though Saudi Arabia secured its ideal candidate - Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, after his electoral victory in 2012, the UAE wanted Hadi out. His declining influence now gives the UAE more of an opportunity to push for control over Aden, after Hadi in 2012 scrapped a Ali Abdullah Saleh deal with Dubai Ports World, which gave the UAE access to Aden's strategic port. 

Read more: What UAE's Mohammed bin Zayed seeks to gain from the coronavirus crisis

While both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have now clearly diverged in Yemen, their relationship should rather be considered as a "rivalry within a solid alliance". They have always communicated extensively, including when their strategies have split, and have largely managed to contain their differences.

However, there are quiet tensions, particularly as Saudi Arabia likely secretly resents the UAE's adventurism. Riyadh is now otherwise helpless to act, yet would still not want to fall out with Abu Dhabi.

After all, Saudi Arabia needed the UAE's help in south Yemen to support its intervention against the Houthis. This has left Riyadh in a dependent and vulnerable position, while enabling the UAE to secure its presence in the south, having entered the war in March 2015, then as a less influential actor.

While Saudi Arabia pursued its destructive and fruitless bombing campaign against the Houthis, the UAE, trained and equipped these separatist militias, establishing a more tangible on-the-ground presence, independent of Hadi's authority.

Emirati rulers joined a military service in Abu Dhabi in February, "welcoming home" their forces in an official ceremony. This spectacle gave the impression that it was moving out of Yemen, despite its ongoing support for the STC. Its more covert actions, while publicly supporting peace processes, enabled the UAE's actions to slip under the radar.

Continued Saudi and Emirati cooperation will prevent a huge outbreak of violence between Hadi and the STC. Yet the changing dynamics show that the UAE is gaining the upper hand, while Saudi Arabia's influence is slipping away.

The UAE only really seeks to secure a handful of various southern ports, including Socotra and Aden

Former Yemeni Minister of Transportation Saleh Algabwani meanwhile highlighted this crushing reality for Saudi Arabia. He tweeted on June 26: "When we evaluate the performance of the regional powers in the Yemeni war, we find that the beneficiaries are Iran and the UAE, however the loser is Saudi Arabia."

The UAE, still valuing its ties with Saudi Arabia, will take more calculated than forceful measures to empower the STC. Yet even if the STC struggles to secure full control over the south, and if its independence bid does not receive international recognition, the UAE only really seeks to secure a handful of various southern ports, including Socotra and Aden.

For now, it has marginalised Saudi Arabia into a weaker position. In a wider regional context, the relationship between current leaders Mohammad bin Salman and Mohammad bin Zayed is crucial for understanding this. It has been considered by many as a 'student-teacher' relationship. The craftier and more experienced MbZ uses the younger and brash MbS' overt foreign policy as a smokescreen for expanding the UAE's own influence.

In Libya, the UAE has overtaken Saudi Arabia as the more dominant actor between the two, becoming Khalifa Haftar's greatest backer. Meanwhile Abu Dhabi is building ties with Iran, and consolidating all but open relations with Israel, and is leading the antagonistic efforts against Turkey, placing it as a more influential actor over Riyadh.

Given the tide of the battle in Yemen, the UAE will likely continue to outmuscle Saudi Arabia, unless there is global pressure on the coalition for a genuine political solution.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.