Saudi Arabia, UAE have lost the plot in Yemen

Saudi Arabia, UAE have lost the plot in Yemen, but it's good news for Russia
6 min read
02 Sep, 2019
Comment: A crumbling Saudi alliance in Yemen could see Russia enter the fray, writes Giorgio Cafiero.
A deadly Saudi-led coalition airstrike on a prison facility killed over 100 detainees [Getty]
In light of recent United Arab Emirates (UAE) airstrikes against targets in Aden, the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen appears to be beginning to crumble.

In the wake of Yemeni government forces accusing the UAE of targeting them, and Abu Dhabi officials defending their actions as strikes against "terrorists", the actors that have been - at least nominally - allied in the fight against Houthi rebels are having an increasingly hard time maintaining even a semblance of unity.

This complicated "civil war within a civil war" in southern Yemen is in flux, and it is naturally difficult to predict how Aden and other parts of southern Yemen will look after the dust settles. 

Nonetheless, it is a safe bet that the struggle for Aden is unlikely to end any time soon, given how high the stakes are for the various parties involved. After losing Sanaa to Houthi rebels in 2014, Yemen's UN-recognised government established Aden as the administration's temporary capital. Thus, if Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi's government fails to retake this strategic city, it will be seen as having lost its "legitimacy".

By the same token, if the Abu Dhabi-sponsored Southern Transition Council (STC) cannot maintain its grip on Aden, its own claims to be the legitimate governing entity in southern Yemen will be severely weakened. As violence rages on in Aden, the prospects for Saudi Arabia and Hadi's administration on one side and the UAE and STC on the other finding a new understanding that can pave the way for some grand compromise will dim. 

Read more: Yemen in Focus: Could Yemen conflict crack the Saudi-UAE alliance?

The outcome of intensifying clashes between the STC and Hadi's government will help define the Yemeni nation-state moving forward, while also testing the Abu Dhabi-Riyadh alliance. If such fighting between UAE-backed separatists and forces loyal to the UN-respected Yemeni government escalates further, it will be increasingly difficult for the Saudi leadership to accept the costs of either continuing to remain in Yemen or exiting the conflict.

Put simply, there will be no easy options for Riyadh. And divergent strategies and conflicting interests in relation to southern Yemen will also impact Emirati-Saudi coordination vis-à-vis other crises in the region, from the Libyan and Syrian civil wars to the blockade of Qatar and policies aimed at countering Iranian influence.

Global ramifications

Against the backdrop of much discussion over the growing rift in the Saudi Arabia-UAE alliance, it would be misguided to ignore how the US and Russia's geopolitical competition factor into the equation. Much like in Syria and other regional wars, the escalating crisis in southern Yemen is one where Abu Dhabi appears to be moving closer to Moscow, while Riyadh remains far more aligned with Washington.

It will be increasingly difficult for the Saudi leadership to accept the costs of either continuing to remain in Yemen, or exiting the conflict

Although Russia's leadership has refrained from overtly siding with the STC against Hadi's administration, experts contend that Moscow views the southern secessionists' takeover of Aden and the real possibility of Yemen being split along North-South lines as a means to expand Russian influence in the greater Arab world. In Aden, the Russians may consider establishing a naval base at some point in the future.

Based on the history of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) being the Arabian Peninsula's only pro-Soviet regime - as well as STC delegations visiting Moscow, which undeniably factor into the growing Moscow-Abu Dhabi partnership - it is easy to imagine Russia profiting from a fragmented Yemeni state.

The fact that many South Yemeni elite above a certain age once studied in the Soviet Union and their contacts with important figures in Russia have lived on past the USSR's implosion, factor into Russia's clout in southern Yemen, as Mark Katz explains.

Such soft power dynamics should not be dismissed in assessing Russia's view of southern Yemen's long-term potential role in Moscow's grander Middle East foreign policy.

Doubtless, as more actors - from the UAE to Qatar and Turkey to China - continue confidently asserting their power in the Red Sea, Russia is keen to avoid being left out of this race for geopolitical influence in this strategically-prized body of water.

The US position regarding Yemen's territorial integrity is at odds with Abu Dhabi's vision for the country. Last month, the Trump administration came out strongly denouncing efforts to split Yemen, highlighting Washington and Riyadh's alignment on the fundamental questions of Yemen's territorial integrity.

Shortly after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Khalid bin Salman, the Crown Prince's brother and the Kingdom's vice defense minister, he tweeted: "Very important for the unity, stability, and prosperity of Yemen that the Yemeni government and STC resolve their dispute."

Washington's lack of cohesive strategies regarding the tension in southern Yemen could easily play further into the hands of Russia

Regardless of Washington's interests - stated or otherwise -  facts on the ground may constitute a new reality: By virtue of how weak Yemen's UN-recognised government has become, and how many in southern Yemen oppose Hadi, it is far from guaranteed that Yemenis will maintain their country's internationally-recognised borders that were established nearly three decades ago.

For too long, the international community failed to appreciate the extent to which grievances on the part of many southern Yemenis needed to be addressed in order to bring stability to the impoverished country.

Many in southern Yemen (as well as Houthi fighters in the north) strongly disagree with the "legitimacy" granted to Hadi by the international community. After all, Hadi was voted into power in 2012 for two years with a presidency that non-Yemenis decided to extend, leading many in the war-torn country to see him as illegitimate, particularly given his exile in the Saudi capital throughout much of this civil war.

Washington and Riyadh have blindly supported Hadi without understanding the reasons why millions of Yemenis reject his leadership, and this will not bode well for US or Saudi interests in southern Yemen.

For too long, the international community failed to appreciate the extent to which grievances on the part of many southern Yemenis needed to be addressed

By the same token, the UAE is also making its own enemies in Yemen (and elsewhere) and Abu Dhabi's actions in the country will likely result in millions of Yemenis believing that the Emiratis have been a stumbling bloc to peace in Yemen. 

With Yemenis divided over questions about their country's (dis)unity and the role of al-Islah, the UAE will remain a divisive actor in the broader Yemeni conflict.

Nonetheless, it's clear that Abu Dhabi is willing to break with its close allies - Riyadh and Washington - in pursuit of its own interests, even if that counters the international community's perceived interests in Yemen's post-1990 unity surviving the ongoing escalation of violence in Aden.

Not unlike the situation in Libya, the US faces a dire situation in Yemen, with divisions between its Arab Gulf allies bubbling to the surface.

Much like elsewhere in the tumultuous Middle East, Washington's lack of cohesive strategies regarding the tension in southern Yemen could easily play further into the hands of Russia, especially as President Vladimir Putin and those in his inner circle are determined to restore the clout  the Soviet Union lost when the Cold War ended.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero

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.