March 2018 will mark the three-year anniversary since the start of the disastrous conflict in Yemen.
With at least 10,000 people killed, and over 22 million requiring some form of food assistance, the last three years have been among the worst in modern Yemeni history.
Although the third anniversary of this conflict appears no different from the last – the war continues with no clear path to peace – events over the last 12 months have fundamentally shifted the established dynamics of the conflict.
Yemen is now less of a coherent nation state, and better described as a bloody arena for the parties to the conflict to play out their own vested interests. Though Yemen has truly been a unitary republic in the proper sense of the term, with very divided politics and an entrenched tribal structure, the country has never been as fragmented and broken as it is today.
Only three months ago, the death of former president and dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh in early December 2017 brought about renewed optimism for the end of the war. Many hoped that Saleh’s death would act as a catalyst to unify the coalition led by Saudi Arabia (and supported by the United Arab Emirates) against the common enemy, the Houthi rebel group who took control of parts of the country in 2015.
But despite renewed military efforts since then, the Houthis have retained control of Yemen’s capital Sanaa, and its third largest city and most important port, Hodeidah. It was thought that the death of such a monumental figure at the hands of his own allies – the Houthis – would tilt the balance of war in favour of the coalition. But this has not been case.
Initially, the coalition was aided by defection of Saleh’s well-armed Republican Guards which, combined with a renewed push on Hodeidah and the loss of Saleh’s weapons, cost the Houthis some of their most crucial firepower.
The UAE is concerned that if Hadi is granted an outright victory, it will render Yemen a defacto Muslim Brotherhood controlled state not too far from its own border
Likewise, the internationally-recognised government of President Hadi made a number of attempts to legitimise its authority. Notable measures included the return of government ministries to Aden with a view to rebuilding state capacity destroyed by the war.
The return of high level ministers to Aden indicated to the outside world that Hadi’s government was serious about governing and rebuilding a state that can provide services to the citizens in the territories under its control.
However, a month or so later, it is now clear that Hadi and the coalition have failed to capitalise on the opportunity brought forward by the death of Saleh. Specifically, the coalition’s failure to recapture key cities, including Hodeidah and Taiz has scorched any hopes of a swift end to the conflict.
The trend in Yemen seems to be headed in a different direction. Rather than unification under the leadership of Hadi’s government, the months following the death of Saleh have marked a new period of instability and fragmentation.
The Houthis have become emboldened by the unshackling from Saleh, even threatening to block the strategic Red Sea shipping lane. The long-anticipated fall of Hodeidah from Houthi control has yet to happen, and is considered a perquisite to the overall defeat of the Houthis in the longer term.
The end of the conflict now appears to be a more arduous task than ever before. The role played by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – a key coalition partner to the Saudis – is key to understanding how and why Yemen’s small window for peace turned into contagion of increased division and prolonged war.
On the surface, the UAE is a fully paid-up member of the Saudi-led coalition fighting to defeat the Houthis and restore of President Hadi’s internationally recognised government in Sanaa.
In reality, the UAE has no real desire to see Hadi governing Yemen from Sanaa. To that end, the UAE utilised the power of its military proxies in Yemen to ensure this will not happen, even if the Houthis continue to rule for a little while longer.
The Southern Transition Council (STC), a major secessionist force supported by the UAE, engaged in fierce battles against Hadi’s forces in Aden in late January 2018, which resulted the capture of the city by the STC on 30 January.
STC forces even went as far to surround the presidential palace in Aden, with Prime Minister Ahmed bin Daghr and a number of senior government figures forced to stay inside until they were able to flee to Saudi Arabia.
The UAE’s long-running fear of the Muslim Brotherhood as an alternative to their model of authoritative rule is being played out in Yemen
For now, it is clear that such actions mean the opportunity to isolate the Houthis afforded by Saleh’s death has been wasted.
But in the longer term, the UAE’s support for secessionist groups like the STC – which incidentally is led by some controversial figures such as Hani Bin Breik – has serious implications for the unity of Yemen as we know it.
Notably, Bin Breik, the vice president of the STC and a Salafist figure, was previously a minister of state in Hadi’s government and his militia was key to the ‘liberation’ of Aden from Houthi hands earlier on in the conflict .
Similarly, Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, the president of the STC was also the governor of Aden until he was abruptly dismissed by Hadi in April 2017.
Both Bin Breik and al-Zoubaidi are committed to the secession of the South, and even as members of Hadi’s government, only ever took orders from Abu Dhabi.
The repercussions from the recent fighting between forces loyal to Hadi and the STC group have the potential to precipitate the end of the conflict, by permanently dividing a Northern Yemeni state controlled by the Houthis (or whatever successor authority), from a southern state led by the STC under the powerful influence of the UAE.
By sponsoring the southern secession effort, the UAE is seeking to advance its own interests in the country and region.
To start with, since Hadi claimed the UAE was acting more ‘like an occupation power in Yemen rather than a force of liberation’, the UAE has harboured a particular distaste for him.
The coalition and Hadi are locked into a loveless marriage made out of wartime convenience
The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and deputy supreme commander of the Emirati armed forces, Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) cannot afford for Hadi’s Islah party dominated government to succeed, even if that means the Houthis continue to rule.
The UAE is concerned that if Hadi is granted an outright victory, it will render Yemen a defacto Muslim Brotherhood controlled state not too far from its own border. The Islah control Hadi’s government, and hold many key positions in the cabinet, with Islah forces proven to be a key fighting force against the Houthis.
MbZ distrusts the Islah – Yemen’s equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood – which he sees as posing a seismic challenge to the ruling status quo in Gulf countries. The UAE’s long-running fear of the Muslim Brotherhood as an alternative to their model of authoritative rule is being played out in Yemen, with disastrous effects.
The Emiratis have shown how willing they are to defeat Islamist governed states in countries further afield such as Egypt, so it is only logical they would seek to quash any such attempts closer to home.
The UAE’s hunger for regional domination as demonstrated by their race to build military bases across the Middle East and East Africa, reflects how its interests are markedly different from those stated by its own coalition.
Yet the extent to which the Saudis support the UAE’s motives in south Yemen is in question. The Saudis are yet to make clear how they now view Hadi (who remains in residence in Riyadh) as the continued leader of the Yemeni government.
There had been rumours that the UAE was trying to convince the Saudis to ditch Hadi for Saleh’s son, but these reports were never substantiated.
More likely than not, the Saudis have accepted the Emiratis’ recent actions in Aden, as it seems unlikely the clashes would have taken place without Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) knowledge.
Yemen’s small window for peace turned into a contagion of increased division and prolonged war
Moreover, MbS is said to be a close personal friend of MbZ who has been very supportive of MbS’ quick rise to power in Saudi Arabia, even acting as an interlocutor with the Trump administration in Washington for MbS.
There are suggestions that the UAE is seeking to present the STC (and thus, the secession of south Yemen) as a viable alternative to Hadi, and as a means of ending the war while allowing the Saudis to save face.
It cannot be ignored that the STC has demonstrated itself as an able fighting force that is successful against the Houthis. Regardless of what is taking place behind the scenes, on face value, it does seem that MbZ has won the argument – at least for now – as the UAE has emerged unscathed from the recent STC seizure of Aden.
Perhaps MbZ framed the argument as part of the broader conflict against Qatar (to which both MbZ and MbS are committed), as any fallout between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi would play into the hands of Doha.
But by implicitly supporting secession in the South, the Saudis could be trying to give themselves some time to review how to move forward.
However, there is little in the way of options, and certainly none which would help the people of Yemen in the immediate term.
The Saudis have been supporters of a unified Yemen for over 20 years, to support the STC would be a massive departure from established policy, and the secession of the South is likely to be positive only for new southern elite. A divided Yemen would multiply its problems inordinately. Yet Hadi is deeply unpopular among Yemenis and, a mildly potent leader at best.
For better or worse, Hadi is the internationally recognised president of Yemen, a fact that remains unchanged by the clashes in Aden.
The legitimacy from which Hadi benefits on the international stage cannot be understated.
Until elections take place and Hadi is unseated, both the coalition and Hadi’s government are stuck between a rock and a hard place, for they are dependent on each other.
Hadi requires the fighting force of the coalition, and the coalition needs him to maintain their conduct in the conflict. After all, the coalition’s military action in Yemen is legally dependent on the consent of Yemen’ legitimate head of state.
So for now, at least, it seems that both the coalition and Hadi are locked into a loveless marriage made out of wartime convenience.
This means that not only is the conflict likely to continue, but so too, is this already long impasse.
The real question now, is what form the impasse will take in the coming months, a matter which is largely influenced by the decisions of Abu Dhabi.
In the midst of a brutal crisis, the prudent course of action would be to defer questions of independence and secession to a later date, preferably, post-conflict.
Indeed, it is practically impossible for any party to credibly declare independence at the current time, as Yemen does not bear the necessary democratic capacity to support such a conclusion.
Yemen’s problems are wide-ranging and multi-faceted, and it certainly has no capacity to hold credible and real elections or a referendum on independence in such challenging circumstances, whatever the UAE may desire.
As difficult as it may be, the UAE and Hadi must put aside their differences and personal agendas.
The fragmentation of the coalition caused by their rift serves the interests of the Houthis, and unnecessarily prolongs the suffering of the Yemeni people.
The coalition must refocus its attention on ending the conflict, and the international community must step forward to ensure that this can be achieved. Failure to do so would render them complicit in the continued hostilities, given their provision of technical and military support provided by the United States and the United Kingdom in particular.
Saleh’s death was a pivotal moment for Yemen, but one which resulted in very little positive change on the ground.
Although it changed the coalition’s internal equilibrium, in reality it gave rise to increased desperation on the UAE’s part, and a more vicious manifestation of its own contradictory self-interest. Indeed, if the coalition is unable to achieve its stated objectives in the conflict, it should at least be honest about its now evident ulterior motives.