UAE's true ambitions in Yemen take another blow

UAE's true ambitions in Yemen take another blow
5 min read
07 Nov, 2019
Comment: The deal agreed this week is just one of many obstacles to UAE's malign ambitions in Yemen, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
The deal sees the STC officially fall into the fold of the Saudi-led coalition [AFP]
A deal agreed on Tuesday to end a deadly standoff between Yemen's government and the separatist Southern Transitional Council will likely complicate STC's long-term vision for an independent southern state.

Ultimately this is also a hindrance to the STC's Emirati backers, who have sought to divide Yemen and weaken the government for its own geopolitical ambitions.

The Saudi-brokered deal brings together the STC and President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi's government, following a split in the coalition last August. After Saudi troops arrived in Aden on 14 October, Riyadh-backed forces effectively took control of the temporary southern capital.

The deal states that STC-linked forces including the Security Belt and the Elite Forces should be incorporated into the government, reunifying the coalition against the Houthi rebels; their initial opponent at the war's outset in March 2015.

Despite the fragility of the deal, it will be a temporary breather after fighting erupted between the two sides following the STC staging a coup in Aden on 10 August, then attempting to seize control of the entire south. 

While there was some speculation over a fallout between coalition allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, due to their support for rival factions, a pronounced rift never materialised. Rather, both states sought to compromise, in order to maintain their otherwise strategic alliance, as the deal shows.

Abu Dhabi doesn't just face obstacles in Saudi Arabia; it has encountered opposition from within Yemen itself

Having publicly lauded the agreement, while hiding any ulterior motives, the UAE is conceding ground on its ambitions to separate Yemen's south from the north, and to control Yemen's southern ports. After all, falling out with Riyadh would delegitimise its intervention in southern Yemen, which was only possible under the guise of joining Saudi Arabia's coalition against the Houthis in March 2015.

The UAE has trained and supported the STC and its militias as a tool to fulfil its southern ambitions. The STC's merger into the government, while not ending the UAE's influence in Yemen, would certainly hinder it.

As a more pragmatic regional actor, the UAE seeks to prevent criticism and a backlash against its Yemen policies by voicing support for Yemen's unity, while maintaining its alliance with Riyadh. Had the fighting continued, further scrutiny would have surrounded the UAE's role in the violence. Now, it seeks to preserve its fallacious image as a 'peacemaker' there instead.

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In agreeing to compromise, this deal will hinder Abu Dhabi's ambitions in Yemen, as it has sought to weaken Hadi's influence, who had terminated Abu Dhabi's control over the Aden port in 2012. Particularly as there is currently a shortage of international support for its secessionist aims.

For now, the UAE will seek to maximize its control in the south, as supporting the deal will give the STC more of a stake in the country's politics.

The STC has yet to renounce its calls for southern independence, arguably seeing the agreement as a chance to secure autonomy.

Yet given Hadi's determination to regain control of the south after having lost the north to the Houthis, future disagreements are likely. So even if the deal breaks down, such a scenario could still give Abu Dhabi more of an opportunity to renew covert support to the secessionists, which it has not ended.

Further Emirati pushes to gain influence in the country's politics could attract an increasingly high-level backlash

Despite staging a 'withdrawal' from Yemen on 28 June, the UAE continued to support the southern separatists. Shifting from its usual covert role, it even launched airstrikes on government forces in late August to consolidate the STC's coup, despite pledging a drawdown. While it is now trying to maintain its relations with Riyadh, past trends indicate the UAE may well alter its position again.

Yet Abu Dhabi doesn't just face obstacles in Saudi Arabia; it has encountered opposition from within Yemen itself. Particularly from prominent local leaders, who now see Emirati influence as malign, and not in the interests of the Yemeni people or the country's stability.

Chief sheikh of the island of Socotra, Issa Salem bin Yaqut, stated to the US Congress in a visit to Washington in September that he feels UAE's influence is sabotaging the country. He reported Socotra islanders feel that the Emiratis are an unpopular force there, and that they are prepared to resist its influence.

This could pose a threat to Emirati attempts to occupy the island of Socotra, and its aim of boosting its maritime trade, where its militias have a significant military presence.

Yemen in Focus: UAE-backed separatists, Saudi-backed government sign power-sharing deal ending Aden's 'mini civil war'

Furthermore, the emergence of the Southern National Salvation Council (SNSC), announced by former under-secretary of Mahrah province, Sheikh Ali Saleh Al-Huraizi, could add further obstacles to Emirati aims in Yemen.

Al-Huraizi is outspoken in his criticism of Emirati and Saudi influence in Yemen, particularly as they have played a geopolitical game of chess to control the Mahrah governorate. Now, his faction could hinder STC control over the south, even if they abided by the deal's terms.

Mahrah's current ruling elites, favourable to Oman, make it difficult for Abu Dhabi to secure full control over the south. There are also other pro-independence southern factions which oppose Abu Dhabi's influence, or which support governorate autonomy rather than the STC's agenda.

Further Emirati pushes to gain influence in the country's politics could attract an increasingly high-level backlash. Even if these voices are not yet consequential enough to fully stem the UAE's objectives in southern Yemen, they can further highlight within Yemen, and to international observers, that Abu Dhabi is playing a malign role.

While the international community insists on turning a blind eye to Yemen, as it has done throughout this war, Yemenis themselves can contribute to turning the tide of the UAE's ambitions, which time and time again appear to go unnoticed.

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.