Yemen’s Other War

Saudi Arabia and the UAE fight it out by proxy in the South

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Abdelmalek al-Houthi, leader of Yemen’s Ansarallah movement, must have rubbed his hands in glee when fighting broke out in the southern city of Aden – temporary capital of the ‘legitimate’ government – between forces of the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the Presidential Protection Force (PPF) commanded by President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s son.

Clashes raged on Sunday and Monday in several districts of Aden, including Crater and Khor Maksar, and extended to the vicinity of the presidential palace in Maashiq, leaving at least 14 people dead and 161 wounded. The high casualty toll was tragic, but the significance of the fighting goes beyond that, due to the identity of the combatants and their respective backers and its possible medium- and long-term repercussions.

The clashes were about far more than the STC’s demand for the replacement of Prime Minister Ahmad Obeid bin-Daghr and his government, which it accuses of corruption and incompetence and of neglecting southern Yemen and failing to improve its inhabitants’ living conditions. The Council, headed by the Aidarous al-Obaidi – who was sacked by Hadi as governor of Aden but remains popular there — wants to revive the independent state that existed in the South before it merged with North Yemen in 1990. It also has the backing of the UAE, which due to its military intervention has the first and last say in southern Yemen nowadays.

The UAE has never been on good terms with Riyadh-based President Hadi, and was not at all happy when he sacked former prime minister Khaled al-Bahhah, who currently resides in Abu Dhabi, and replaced him with Bin-Daghr. When Hadi tried to visit the UAE last year to patch things up with its leadership, he was treated with contempt. When he arrived at the airport he was greeted by a low-ranking intelligence officer, and — according to news reports that have not been denied — was then taken to see Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Zayed, who met him in an hallway and gave him a thorough dressing-down without even offering him a seat.

Aden is now the scene of a proxy war between Hadi’s Saudi-backed supporters and the TSC’s followers backed by the UAE. The clashes reflect a long-running but unacknowledged dispute between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, the two key members of the Arab coalition that has been fighting for the restoration of ‘legitimacy’ in Yemen. It is a travesty of the truth to attempt to deny this, as UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gergash has been doing on his Twitter account. In one Tweet he insisted: “The UAE position on what is happening in Aden is clear. The UAE supports the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia. No consolation for those who seek strife.”

Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s differences in Yemen are multi-faceted. Chief among the reasons for them are Riyadh’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islah Party, its military alliance with the group on the Taiz and Aden battlefronts, its adherence to Hadi and Bin-Daghr, and the appointment of Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar – known for his pro-Brotherhood leanings — as deputy premier and armed forces commander in the place of Bahbah, the UAE’s man.

The UAE supports the independence on the South and the establishment of a secular state on its territory. It wants to confine its efforts in Yemen to achieving that goal and accords it top priority, even if it does not say so publicly. But Saudi Arabia sees the biggest threat facing it as coming from the Houthi-controlled North, where it faces a war of attrition on its southern border and the threat of ballistic missile strikes on its cities and military bases.

The clash of priorities has sharpened as the war has dragged on – in March it will mark the start of its fourth year – and the rift between the two allies has widened. A crucial event was the killing in December of former president Ali Abdallah Saleh, just days (reportedly) after he agreed to a UAE-brokered deal which entailed breaking his alliance with the Houthis. Saleh’s death thwarted the Arab coalition’s hopes of turning the balance of power on the ground against the Houthis so as to bring them back to the negotiating table to reach a political settlement from a position of weakness.

The clashes in Yemen may have been halted after a truce was agreed, but any truce is likely to prove temporary. The STC is pursuing a long-term strategy based on patience, incremental steps and counting on the time factor.  Its

forces now control about half of Aden and, according to independent media reports, its plan is to gradually take over the remaining half.

If Aden were to break with ‘legitimacy’, as a first step, and then with the North, that would not mean the revival of South Yemen in the form in which it existed prior to 1990, either in geographic or demographic terms. Aden’s secession could trigger the breakaway of other southern provinces such as Hadramout and Mahra. It is no longer farfetched to envisage a return to something like the ‘sultanates’ that existed in southern Yemen before and during the British occupation.

The war that was launched three years ago to preserve Yemen’s unity and restore its ‘legitimate’ government has begun to achieve diametrically opposite outcomes. The country has been carved up in accordance with the relative power of rival militias and the interests of the foreign powers meddling in its affairs. As for the return of the ‘legitimate’ president — whether to the permanent capital Sanaa or even to the temporary capital Aden — that looks unlikely if not impossible in the foreseeable future.

The clashes in Aden mark the start of a new phase in the crisis that has been ravaging Yemen. The crisis has spawned multiple crises, and a new round of proxy wars is now looming, unless a miracle occurs. Regrettably, this is not an age of miracles, but of catastrophes and conflicts. And as the heavyweights fight it out, the victims are the starved and besieged good people of Yemen.