When the forces of the Southern Transitional Council this week captured the southern Yemen city of Aden, which until now had been controlled by the Yemeni army, it looked as if Saudi Arabia had sustained another defeat in the war it started in Yemen three years ago.
After all, in the zero-sum game the Saudis have been playing with Iran since 2015, every loss on the part of the Yemeni government headed by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi means a loss for the Saudis – and every loss for the Saudis is therefore a gain for Iran.
The dozens of dead and hundreds of wounded in recent battles, many of them civilians, may be nothing more than “collateral damage” to the Saudis and Western countries, most notably the United States, that look on from afar, despite Yemen’s strategic importance. But actually, this latest campaign shows the extent to which the standard view that the war is a battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran – or, in its more broadly generalized form, between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims – is distorted.
It is not only Saudi Arabia and Iran that have appropriated the Yemeni front as an arena for the battle they are waging against one another. The United Arab Emirates is also trying to force the hand of Saudi Arabia (its ally in the Arab coalition that includes nine countries), with southern Yemenis fighting northerners in an effort to reestablish South Yemen as an independent country. Then there’s the fight among southerners themselves, in a campaign over tribal control that has its origins in the civil war the country experienced before and after Yemen’s unification in 1990.
This is a war over the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, which is one of the Middle East’s strategic commercial shipping routes; over oil production in Yemen’s southern desert; over the bridgehead to the Horn of Africa; as well as efforts to shape the crumbling country.
Some 10,000 people have been killed during the Yemeni war and more than 50,000 wounded have fought for their lives in a country in which half of the medical clinics and hospitals are not functioning. More than 3 million of the country’s 11.5 million citizens have been rendered homeless. About 8 million of them are at risk of severe hunger, and about 2,200 people have died of cholera. It has been difficult to get humanitarian assistance to those who need it, both because aid organizations have no money and because of the blockade the Saudis have imposed on ports in the south. And every aid convoy must undertake a perilous route in order to reach its destination.
The Southern Transitional Council that conquered Aden relies on fighters called the “Security Belt” forces. They have been trained and funded by the UAE, which supports the council’s leader, Aidarus al-Zoubaidi – one of the senior leaders of South Yemen from the period of the civil war. About a year ago, Zoubaidi created the council with the aim of having it serve as an alternative leadership to Yemeni President Hadi and his prime minister, Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr, whom Zoubaidi accuses of corruption, of responsibility for the country’s economic crisis and of being unable to stabilize the security situation.
Hadi, who is living in Saudi Arabia and doesn’t dare return to his homeland, has already lost his capacity to run even the southern districts where his government is ostensibly in control. Separatists have imprisoned the prime minister and several members of his cabinet in the presidential palace in Aden, and recently the Saudis and UAE have tried not only to come to a reconciliation agreement between the council forces and forces loyal to the government, but first to settle the diplomatic misunderstandings between them.
While Saudi Arabia hopes to establish a unified Yemeni state, to be led by a joint government for the north and south, the UAE seemingly seeks to establish an independent country in the south – or at least a federation based on two governments, which would ensure the UAE’s continued influence over southern Yemen and the port of Aden.
Window of opportunity
On Thursday, senior officials from both countries did declare that they are partners in the war against the Houthi rebel movement and to halt the influence of Iran, and that they see eye-to-eye on Yemen’s future. On the ground, though, things look different.
The UAE views the Yemen war as a window of opportunity to establish its standing and influence in the Middle East and – no less importantly – to expand its economic power.
Through a Yemeni government that controls the port of Aden, the UAE can regulate the scope of global trade through the Bab-el-Mandeb strait and at least ensure that Aden doesn’t compete with the ports of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. A foothold in Yemen would also provide it with important economic leverage to expand trade with countries in Africa. Furthermore, as a bonus, patronage over Yemen could neutralize the power of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, which is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
And here there’s another twist in the two countries’ policies: Saudi Arabia, which has declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, cooperates with the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, which leads the recognized government of Yemen. The UAE, meanwhile, has actually embraced the Salafi factions, some of which are fighting among the separatists.
As a result, any attempt to portray this war as part of a Sunni versus Shi’ite confrontation will come up short against the many contradictions it has created – contradictions that obliterate accepted perceptions regarding the nature of religious conflicts in the Middle East.
But the UAE itself is not built on the model of Saudi Arabia or Iran, and will find it difficult to assist and direct an entire country. That’s why it prefers to divide Yemen into two countries. But Saudi Arabia believes that establishing two states – with the northern one becoming Houthi (i.e., under Iranian control) – is a strategic threat to its own border.
These diplomatic aspirations are not subject only to the decisions of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, though. Yemeni political movements and military forces will still have to decide what solution is desirable or possible from their perspective.
It’s here that another complication arises, namely that it’s difficult to find a common thread that will permit an end to the war. Even if there is agreement on an independent state or an entity that’s part of a federation in southern Yemen, any such step will require reconciliation and consensus between the southern forces and within those southern forces themselves.
So, for example, President Hadi relies on tribes from the Abyan region, while Southern Transitional Council leader Zoubaidi is supported by tribes from Dhale. Despite that, these two leaders are both from the south. Hadi, whose son is the commander of his government’s army, hopes to establish a unified country, while, as noted, his rival has visions of an independent South Yemen. And even if the two reach a consensus, they will have to divide senior positions and budgets in such a way that will satisfy the groups that support each of them.
Such a division is a major stumbling block that has already produced violent confrontations between rival groups and tribes in Yemen – the very thing that initially sparked the civil war between the Houthis and the elected government after the Arab Spring rocked the regime of then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saleh, who initially joined the Houthis in the fight against Saudi Arabia and the recognized Yemeni government, was killed by Houthi forces last December, after announcing his intention to shift direction and fight on the Saudi side against the rebel movement.
Despite the danger that Yemen would spin out of control and with a large presence of Al-Qaida forces in the south, neither the United States nor any other Western country currently has a diplomatic plan – or the diplomatic or economic leverage – to advance a solution. Washington supports the war that Saudi Arabia is conducting, which it views as an appropriate battle against the spread of Iranian influence in the region. At the same time, though, the war is interfering with U.S. President Donald Trump’s war on terror.
In the absence of a strong central government that can deploy an effective army, it is impossible to pursue the fight against Al-Qaida forces controlling large tracts of southern Yemen. As both Washington and Riyadh see it, reconciliation between the north and center – which is subject to Houthi control – and the government is a concession to Iran and a diplomatic setback.
After Saudi Arabia and the United States were excluded from the Syrian arena by Russia, Turkey and Iran, Yemen remained the geopolitical stage where the prestige of Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could be tested.
Such diplomatic considerations are of no interest to the millions of Yemenis who are simply trying to find food or medicines. They are following reports of the expected dispatch of food, of land crossing points being opened or closed – through which they may get their next meal – as well as the funding that donor countries and the United Nations have allocated to the assistance that has been so difficult to deliver.
The UN may have just called the war “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world,” but that doesn’t seem to have affected anyone other than the citizens of Yemen itself.