UAE-Saudi differences risk boosting separatists in Yemen

UAE-Saudi differences risk boosting separatists in Yemen
5 min read
16 May, 2017
Comment: If the Saudi-led coalition is going to help maintain the unity of Yemen, it is vital that it irons out internal differences, writes Khalid Al-Karimi.
The former governor of Aden declared the Southern Transitional Council would run the south [AFP]

The speed at which the political turmoil is deepening in war-wracked Yemen is mindboggling. Yesterday's friends are emerging as today's opponents, and poverty, displacement, death and political turmoil are spiralling out of control.

Last Thursday, a dramatic development in Aden brought fresh complexity to the country's already protracted conflict. Former governor of Aden Aidarous al-Zubaidi declared the formation of the southern transitional council to run the south; a defiant move in the face of the internationally recognised government and the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen.

This significant political shift has one clear aim: To establish an autonomous south in Yemen. The southern people, particularly the separatist political elites, seem no longer able to bear the union with the north, and the declaration of this council at such a critical time is a clear-cut testimony.

Now, the legitimate government whose members reside in Riyadh, appears crippled. The government fled from Sanaa in March of 2015 in the wake of the Houthi takeover of the state. Last week, the government received another severe blow in the south.

The Yemeni government dwells beyond the borders of Yemen, and continues to lose influence every day. This latest development is another stark reminder of its fragility.

Aden: De-escalating the chaos

The prime minister of the Saudi-backed Yemen government expressed his unequivocal disapproval of the formation of the southern transitional council in Aden.

"The crisis in Aden could be either the beginning of addressing the problems, or the beginning of the defeat that will grow as days pass," said Ahmed Obaid bin Daghar.

The premier's statement urged the Saudi-led coalition to take action to restore the situation to normalcy in Aden. His government is incapable of curbing the tide of the secessionist sentiment associated with this emerging council on its own.

This significant political shift has one clear aim: To establish an autonomous south in Yemen

On seeing the Houthi's iron-fisted dominance of the capital Sanaa, Aden was dubbed the temporary capital of Yemen by the legitimate government. With the latest announcement of the southern transitional council, Aden is depicted only as the capital of the south.

Currently, the city remains calm, and there have been no further clashes between pro-government groups and secessionist enthusiasts since those after the council was declared.

When the government fled from Sanaa in 2015, the Saudi-led coalition bombed the Houthis day and night. The use of force was the coalition's sole mechanism for defending the government. Now, questions are being asked as to whether force will be used to counter the anti-government events in Aden.

  Read more: GCC: Aden-based Southern Transitional Council 'doomed to fail'

The political chasm between President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and many of the southern separatists is worryingly wide. When president Hadi sacked the former governor of Aden - the man who declared the transitional council - Hadi fundamentally opened a new wound in the south.  Currently, healing this wound is a complicated prospect, and the ceiling of southern demands is unrealistically high.

It would, however, be inaccurate to say that the legitimate government has no loyalists or supporters in Aden. It does, and this makes for the possibility of a confrontation between the two rivals unless tensions are defused.

In a bid to de-escalate the recent chaos in Aden, Saudi Arabia on Friday invited Al-Zubaidi, and southern former (fired) minister Hani bin Buraik to come to Riyadh. The invitation serves as definite evidence that the aspirations of the southern people are respected, but that the legitimacy of the internationally recognized government cannot be revoked in areas under the control of the coalition forces.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) articulated its rejection of the formation of the southern transitional council, emphasising "rallying behind the legitimacy to restore the power of the state, security and stability across the country".

The statement conveyed a strong message to the southern people that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries stand firmly against the separation of the south. However, this statement will clearly not extinguish the spark behind the formation of the southern council.

Conflict within the coalition

Earlier this month, President Hadi accused UAE of "behaving like an occupier" in Yemen. The rifts between Hadi and UAE intensified in February of this year when Hadi arrived in Abu Dhabi for discussions with the Emirati leadership.

The recent development in Aden could be the fallout of the previous tensions between the two. UAE is a key member of the Saudi-led Arab coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen, and it has considerable influence in the south.

When president Hadi fired Aden's former governor, UAE officials could not hide their ire

While the legitimate government of Yemen appreciates the UAE's role in the fight against the Iranian-allied militias, there are doubts over its real agenda. Though Saudi Arabia has emerged as the genuine leader of the coalition countries, some say the UAE its own plans, creating the threat of division and conflict within the coalition.

When president Hadi fired Aden's former governor, UAE officials could not hide their ire. The former governor was believed to be at the Emiratis' disposal, and sacking him was a bruising move.

High-profile Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, Dubai's head of security, commented on the sacking, saying, "Replacing Hadi is a Gulf, Arab and international demand."

Saudi Arabia however was not so furious about the governor of Aden's dismissal, a further difference in their stances. However the two superpowers of the coalition - KSA and UAE - may endeavor to camouflage  their contradiction with joint statements, the rift has grown conspicuously more solid.

Uncertainty regarding the future of Aden will remain, unless Saudi Arabia and the UAE come together to contain the consequences of the formation of the southern council.

In comparison to last year, the situation in Aden has improved somewhat. Any further chasms among the political and military partners would endanger the city, and invite further conflicts among the southerners themselves.

Khalid Al-Karimi is a freelance reporter and translator. He is a staff member of the Sanaa-based Yemeni Media Center and previously worked as a full-time editor and reporter for the Yemen Times newspaper. 

Follow him on Twitter: @Khalidkarimi205

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