Yemen. A Misleading Withdrawal From the Emirates

The United Arab Emirates has announced the withdrawal of its forces from Yemen. But behind the statements, there is a desire to find a new strategy to emerge from an endless war, which is not without tensions with the Saudi ally.

Supporters of the southern separatist movement in Aden on August 10, 2019
Nabil Hasan/AFP

Once again military developments have brought Yemen back to western headlines: the “withdrawal” of Emirati forces, fighting in Aden pitting separatist forces against those of President Hadi’s internationally recognised government, and increasingly frequent Huthi missile attacks on Saudi Arabian strategic locations. These are all taking place against the background of worsening tensions and dangerous confrontation between the US, the UK and their Gulf Arab allies on one side and Iran on the other. In the case of Yemen, reality is somewhat different from appearances as discussed below.

The Abu Dhabi strategy

This is not the first time the UAE has signalled its wish to end its military involvement in the Yemeni conflict. Announced in July, the withdrawal of most of its national military and materiel had taken place earlier, particularly in the Tihama whose main city, Hodeida, has been the focus of international attention since mid-2017. Future fighting will be left to the different (competing) Yemeni and Sudanese groups deployed there. This primarily political move has number of implications: first, at least for now, the coalition has abandoned the plan to remove Hodeida from Huthi control and turn it into another potential “temporary capital” of the country. Military attacks on Hodeida were interrupted at the end of last year by UN efforts to prevent a worsening of the disastrous humanitarian crisis. The December 2018 UN-sponsored Stockholm Agreement (between the Huthis and Hadi’s government) means that it is now politically extremely difficult for the coalition to resume the offensive thanks to a very small international presence from the UN Mission to support the Hodeida Agreement (UNMHA) established by the Security Council in January 2019.

Taking Hodeida was the coalition military strategy to end the three-year stalemate. Abandoning it requires a new approach which has not emerged either from the Saudi leadership or Hadi’s government. UAE official withdrawal is an explicit appeal for a new strategy. In any case, the Emiratis can return anytime, should they so decide.

The crisis in Aden, the “temporary capital”

Triggered by a Huthi drone strike on a military parade in Aden on 1 August, the situation in Aden soon deteriorated closely following the pattern of a similar conflict in January 2018. The Southern Transitional Council (STC) is merely one separatist faction among many; however, thanks to massive political, military and financial support from the UAE since its creation in May 2017, it has achieved considerable influence internationally and clout in and around Aden. The senior commander and militiamen killed in the Huthi attack were from the Security Belt, the STC’s military arm. Presented by the STC leadership as a “Northern” attack on the South, it was followed first by “harassment, looting and vandalism. . . against hundreds of northerners,”1 then by a military assault on the weakly defended Presidential Palace and various ministries. Reader must note that, until two days after this event, the Hadi Government’s head of Security forces in Aden was a close friend and ally of Aydaroos al Zubaidi, the President of the STC! To be quite clear: the President of the STC’s close friend was the Hadi government’s security chief, responsible for Aden’s security, while the STC’s Security Belt forces attacked the forces of his official boss, the President. No surprise then that the separatist forces control the many military bases in Aden.

Having declared victory on the eve of Eid al Adha, the STC strengthened its position by calling a massive popular demonstration supporting southern independence on 15 August. It did not take the step of declaring secession, as the Emirati-Saudi alliance in Yemen explicitly supports the “unity and integrity of Yemen.” An urgent meeting in Mecca between the Saudi and Emirati leaderships reaffirmed their joint policy of a united Yemen, while President Hadi called the STC action a “coup” comparable to that of the Huthis in Sana’a in 2015. STC justifications for its action were particularly convoluted: to gain favour with the Emiratis, they asserted that Islah (which has an Islamist “Brotherhood” component) was responsible for August 1 attack, an assertion which defies logic, given that it is both totally opposed to the Huthis and an essential party in the Hadi government!

Whether or not the Emiratis had advance knowledge and endorsed the STC “take over” of Aden, its outcome serves Emirati strategic objectives. In Yemen, UAE phobia for Muslim Brothers translates into undiluted hostility to Islah, an issue on which it differs with its Saudi ally, which focuses on the northern tribal element of Islah and supports its involvement in government while the UAE sees only its hated “Muslim Brother” component. In addition to encouraging the assassination of numerous Islahi militants by its southern allies, the UAE has arguably been at least as active combating Islah as in fighting the far more extreme Islamists of AQAP and Daesh, in addition to its explicit support for Security Belts and other Salafi militias. Under Saudi and Emirati pressure, the STC started withdrawing their forces from some of the civilian institutions they occupied. Other than the death of more than 40 civilians, destruction of infrastructure, and insecurity for thousands of residents of Aden (northerners and southerners alike), one likely short-term outcome will be seen in the reshuffle of the Hadi government. Expected since the resignation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs in early June, this reshuffle is clearly problematic. STC actions in Aden will help the UAE pressure for further marginalisation of the government.

Despite its “coup” in Aden, the STC has not challenged UAE authority by declaring southern independence, despite demands from its supporters. It is too dependent on the UAE to risk such a move, opposed by the UAE to maintain its good relations with Saudi Arabia.Without demanding STC withdrawal, the UAE leadership supports the emergency summit called by Saudi Arabia, which is delayed by new fighting east of Aden (in Abyan and Shabwa governorates) as well as incompatible conditions put by the parties for their attendance.

Huthi attacks on Saudi Arabia

Recent months have witnessed increasingly frequent, almost daily, Huthi attacks inside Saudi Arabia. Mostly drone-borne missiles, they regularly hit targets in the south-west of the country, including airports and petroleum facilities. They complement Huthi statements of willingness to end them in exchange for an end to Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, whose frequency is indeed dropping monthly. Other announcements emphasise increased Huthi technical capacity and ability to hit the UAE. These are taking place alongside continuing Huthi land incursions in Saudi Arabia, which demonstrate the weakness of Saudi border forces.

Both drone strikes and land incursions are designed to persuade Saudi Arabia to enter into negotiations. Their timing also suggests increasing coordination with Iran and demonstrate Huthi ability to create further problems for Saudi Arabia should the situation in the Gulf worsen significantly, following US “maximum pressure” on Iran and the recent naval confrontations in and around the Straits of Hormuz and beyond.

Unity under threat

Recent events in Aden have revived debate on the possible fragmentation of Yemen often explained by a “southern specificity”. Separatists define the South as the area which was, from 1967 to 1990, the only socialist state in the Arab world, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Prior to that, as a British Colony, this area was composed of about 30 political entities of varying sizes, ranging from the large Qu’aiti state in Hadramaut to the minuscule Upper Yafi’. Alongside the absence of major tribal confederations comparable to those found in the far north of the country, this history is the usual justification for southern specificity.

Separatists call for the re-establishment of an independent state within the former PDRY’s borders, but its sustainability is debatable: their lack of political cohesion is demonstrated, among others, by separatists’ inability to agree on a name for this future state and their continued use of the PDRY flag, despite the fact that none of them claim any allegiance to socialism. They are divided by a multiplicity of social, economic and historical differences, including political rivalries dating back to the colonial period and the various internecine conflicts of the socialist period; they also have rival relations with neighbouring states. Moreover, the limited natural resources are inequitably distributed within the area. A declaration of southern independence would rapidly lead to significant further conflict.

Although the North, the area of the former Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) was a single political entity for more than a century, concern with southern separatism conceals similar deep fissures in that area, which are equally challenging to unity. While the Huthis currently rule the area they control with an iron grip, with support from the tribes against the coalition, this temporary cohesion is based on a shared enemy (Saudi Arabia and the Southern, Shafi’i dominated Hadi government); it would not survive the end of the fighting. Here too, fundamental social, economic and cultural differences divide the populations of the highlands, those of coastal Tihama, the arid eastern region, and the southern highlands of Ibb and Taiz.

So disintegration, comparable to Somalia, is a real possibility and a main reason why a federal Yemen would be a sensible solution to avoid the re-creation of resourceless microstates, a model which only works in the UAE thanks to Abu Dhabi’s willingness to finance the poorer emirates. In Yemen, lack of resources precludes this option. However the federated regions need to be defined on the basis of social cohesion, economic resources and potential, as well as political solidarity, rather than on bureaucratically defined governorate borders.

UN failure

Between them these developments are significant, though unfortunately unlikely to bring the war to a rapid end. While fighting between Yemeni groups has intensified this year in previously dormant fronts such as in Dhala, the number of Saudi airstrikes is dropping monthly, possibly as a response to increased pressure by US Congress and European states to end military sales to Saudi Arabia. International focus on Yemen is reduced as the coalition’s main allies have other priorities: the US with Iran, the UK with Brexit, European states with various local concerns.

The UN and its Special Envoy are, not for the first time, out of sync with the situation. Having ignored other issues and focused almost exclusively on Hodeida and the humanitarian situation for two years, it is now faced with a situation where Hodeida is no longer the main crisis in Yemen. Response to the humanitarian crisis is affected by low funding (mostly because Saudi Arabia and the UAE are not fulfilling their pledges) but is also facing serious ethical issues with diversion of funds and aid, including by UN agency staff. Rather than transferring focus to the latest outbreak in the South, UN politicians would be wiser to take a broader approach and develop a medium to long-term strategy addressing the overall Yemeni crisis.

Uncertain strategies

The new UAE strategy does not necessarily mean a breach in the deep relationship which binds the Emirati and Saudi Crown Princes, effective rulers of their respective states, but it has certainly brought to the fore their strategic divergences. UAE “withdrawal” attempts to bring about a review of Saudi strategy. Whether it succeeds or not remains to be seen, largely because coalition options are limited by the nature and “legitimacy” of Hadi and his government, which also constrains UN actions. The next steps will be the proposed emergency summit and the reshuffle of the Hadi government which has been further weakened by recent events, both seem likely be delayed.

Internal Yemeni developments are at the heart of the matter: regardless of UAE or Saudi wishes, there are only three major significant political groupings in Yemen: Ansar Allah in the Huthi controlled part of the country and the other two are present throughout the country: former President Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) which, like most Yemeni organisations, is currently fragmented between those remaining in Sana’a under Huthi control, independents in exile, and factions loosely aligned with President Hadi. Some of its senior leaders have, in recent months, been involved in discussions with the Saudi and Emirati leaderships and may develop a stronger presence in the internationally recognised government which has, up to now, been characterised by weak representation of the multiplicity of Yemeni political and social forces. The other is Islah which remains a coherent and significant political force in Yemen, whether one likes it or not.

1UN OHRC statement 6 August 2019.