Analysis

A New Front in Yemen’s Civil War Might End Up Bolstering Iran

New alliances between rebels in Yemen means Saudi Arabia could dangerously clash with the UAE, possibly resulting in the rebirth of a South Yemen

UAE-backed southern Yemeni separatist forces are seen with supporters in Aden, August 15, 2019.
Fawaz Salman / Reuters

“We have no intention of leaving Aden,” said the leader of Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council, Aidroos al-Zubaidi, whose forces have taken over the port city. The transitional council, set up in 2017 following a dispute with Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, sees capturing Aden as a step toward its goal of setting up an independent state in southern Yemen.

On Thursday, thousands of people gathered in Aden’s main square for a “million-man march” to show that residents of southern Yemen are determined to break apart the union between the country’s north and south that was forged in 1990 and reestablish an independent state of South Yemen.

As trade unions and civil society organizations put it in a statement, “We are gathering today in Aden, the capital of the South, in Freedom Square, for the victory of the dignity of the South and its free national will towards the restoration of its independent sovereign state with its internationally recognized borders before 21 May 1990.”

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The conquest of Aden, the takeover of its government buildings, the ouster of its senior civil servants and the violent clashes that claimed the lives of around 40 people and wounded hundreds herald not only a new war developing in Yemen – this time within the forces that oppose the Houthis’ takeover of northern and central Yemen – but also a disagreement that is becoming a real conflict between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

At first glance, this dangerous development seems to be due to strategic and ideological disagreements between the UAE, which supports, finances and trains the transitional council’s forces, and Saudi Arabia, which seeks to reestablish a united Yemen after ousting the Houthis. Both countries are part of a coalition set up by Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2015 to fight Iran’s growing influence in the Arab world. Its other members are Egypt, Bahrain, Pakistan and Sudan.

The Saudis and Emiratis shared the goal of stopping Iran, as did the United States, until the Houthis began attacking targets in the Persian Gulf, including ports and oil tankers, and Tehran threatened that any attack on Iran by America, Israel or other Mideast countries would turn Saudi Arabia and its partners into targets. Following these attacks and threats, the UAE decided to change its policy, withdraw its forces from Yemen and increase cooperation with Iran on maritime security in the Gulf.

Additionally, Dubai – one of the emirates comprising the UAE – sent an economic delegation to Iran to arrange visas for Iranian businessmen who may want to invest in Dubai, as the emirate is currently mired in an economic crisis. In exchange for all this, the Houthis promised to stop attacking Emirati targets.

The Saudi prince and Emirati ruler Mohammed bin Zayed both deny that they have any disagreements. But no great tidings emerged from the latter’s visit to Saudi Arabia this week, where he met with Salman and his son following the southern separatists’ capture of Aden. Mohammed bin Zayed said he and Prince Mohammed see eye to eye on the need for peace and a solution to the Yemen crisis, but he declined to urge the separatist forces to leave Aden.

The takeover of Aden by Zubaidi’s forces may be the only gain the UAE can reap from the war in Yemen. If the southern movement succeeds in setting up an independent state, it will owe a major debt to the tiny Gulf state that supported it.

Supporters of Yemen's UAE-backed southern separatists march during a rally in Aden, August 15, 2019.
Fawaz Saman / Reuters

Saudi Arabia, which cultivated Hadi’s government, has been forced to cooperate with the religious Reform party, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, because it’s Hadi’s political base (though he’s currently living in Saudi Arabia). This not only creates an internal contradiction because Saudi Arabia, like Egypt, defines the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. It also treads on the corns of its neighbor, the UAE, which has fought the organization on every front and would rather join forces with Salafi organizations in Yemen.

Hating the Saudis

The dispute between the two countries and the battle within the Yemeni forces they’re supporting against the Houthis have recently resulted, according to the southern separatists, in Saudi Arabia bombing separatist bases and civilian population centers. The separatists charge that Riyadh has even recruited the Houthis to help in this. It’s hard to verify the latter claim, but the very fact that it’s being made shows how deeply the separatists loathe Riyadh.

On the flip side, some Yemeni analysts say this dispute may actually help advance a diplomatic solution because the Houthis and the separatists could work together if the Houthis agreed to support the establishment of an independent state in the south. That state would then cooperate with the Houthi government that has taken over the Yemeni capital of Sanaa.

Such a solution could allow the Houthis to benefit from oil revenue, or at least guarantee them a regular supply of oil, since most oil production is in the south. It would also clearly be advantageous for Iran, mainly because Saudi Arabia would be forced to leave Yemen, while the UAE – which would be the southern state’s patron – would stop fighting Tehran’s influence in the north. Saudi Arabia’s difficult situation internationally, and especially in the United States, could accelerate such a solution.

According to unverified reports, around 3,000 Saudi soldiers have been killed in the war in Yemen and 20,000 have been wounded. The war is also thought to have cost Riyadh tens of billions of dollars or even more.

Additionally, the U.S. Congress has sought to freeze arms sales to the kingdom, though President Donald Trump has thus far vetoed it. And Britain actually might suspend arms sales to Riyadh, depending on the outcome of a lawsuit being heard in a British court that challenges such sales as a violation of British law. The legislation in question bars arms from being sold if they might harm civilians either deliberately or accidentally.

It’s true that withdrawing from Yemen would be an admission of defeat that could dramatically undermine Mohammed bin Salman’s status and spur his rivals to try to oust him as crown prince. But they already have a long list of military and diplomatic failures for which Mohammed is responsible, including the failure to oust President Bashar Assad in Syria; the bizarre resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri during a trip to Saudi Arabia, which was swiftly retracted once Hariri returned to Lebanon; the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir in Sudan; and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Any weakening of Prince Mohammed’s status would send shivers down the spines of Israel’s decision makers and intelligence officials, as it would deal a direct blow to the Israeli-Saudi alliance against Iran. But the Saudis’ record in the war against Iran hasn’t been particularly impressive. Not only have many of Mohammed’s failures resulted from his efforts against Iran, he has declared that he’s not interested in a war in the Gulf.

Saudi Arabia is important for implementing sanctions on Iran, mainly due to its ability to make up for the global shortfall caused by slashing Iran’s oil sales. But that role could be played by many other countries.

Southern tribes

The resurrection of South Yemen as an independent state isn’t a new idea. In 1994, four years after Yemen’s unification, disagreements within the unity government led the southern tribes to set up the Democratic Republic of Yemen. That state was dismantled soon afterward under international pressure, so the union was saved.

But that union was always a façade, as the southern tribes suffered economic and political discrimination at the hands of Yemen’s then-president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. They nominally participated in the government, but parliament was dominated by Saleh’s loyalists, and southerners were last in line to receive government or army jobs.

Only in 2011, when Saleh was ousted during the Arab Spring, did a chance emerge for the southern tribes to receive a fairer shake. Hadi’s election as president in 2012 created optimism in the south, which saw him as one of their own. He was born in the south and held senior positions in the South Yemen army until being forced to flee to the north in 1986, after his faction of the Yemeni Socialist Party lost a civil war with another faction of the party.

Two years after becoming president, Hadi found himself embroiled in a bitter political fight over his plan to make Yemen a federal state comprised of six autonomous provinces. The main opponents were residents of the north, one of the poorest regions in Yemen. The north is also home to the Houthis, who had declared war on the government over economic issues back when Saleh was still president.

Today, the Houthis are seen as Iranian agents, mainly because they belong to the Zaydi sect, a breakaway from Orthodox Shi’ism. But their war actually began over the federal plan, which would have dealt the poor northern regions a major economic blow, given that all the oil was in the south. The Houthis considered this plan a Saudi-American plot aimed at undermining Yemen’s weakest regions and making them dependent on Hadi’s government, thereby ensuring their support for it, since it would control the allocation of funds.

When the Houthis went to war against the regime in Yemen, it was actually Iran that advised them to try to agree on a solution. Are the Houthis really Iranian proxies or are they local tribes with local interests who are willing to accept any source of aid to fulfill their aspirations? Are Saudi Arabia and the UAE fighting in Yemen against the Houthis based on the claim that they’re Iranian agents, or are they attempting to expand their hegemony to Yemen?

So far, these questions haven’t received any real public debate, but it seems answers will soon be needed. Lacking a military victory and because of the change in the UAE’s policies, it seems Saudi Arabia too will try to find a respectable way to withdraw as part of an agreement that will force it – and the United States – to recognize the status of the Houthis. If reaching such an agreement takes too long, in the meantime the south too might establish its own autonomous framework. It’s doubtful any plan to deal with this possibility has landed in the White House.