Analysis |

A New Government Was Meant to Bring Hope to Yemen. But Then Aden Airport Was Attacked

The deadly attack exposes a tangled web of interests and agendas, with the roles of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia – and Israel – are as unclear as ever

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Smoke billows after explosions rocked the Aden Airport shortly after the arrival of a plane carrying members of a new unity government, Aden, Yemen, December 30, 2020.
Smoke billows after explosions rocked the Aden Airport shortly after the arrival of a plane carrying members of a new unity government, Aden, Yemen, December 30, 2020.Credit: SALEH AL-OBEIDI - AFP

Even though no one has claimed responsibility, the huge explosion that rocked the airport in Aden Wednesday, killing at least 26 people and injuring dozens more, was attributed to the Houthis.

The blast was well-timed to “welcome” the new Yemeni cabinet, which had just returned from Saudi Arabia after being sworn in before President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is living in exile in Riyadh. The government was established more than a year after the signing of the Riyadh agreement between the internationally-recognized Yemeni government and the secessionist group known as the Southern Transitional Council, which in April declared autonomy in southern Yemen.

The congratulations extended to Hadi and Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed gave the impression that a new age was about to dawn in the history of the bloody war in Yemen. But this was not the truly important reconciliation the country has been waiting for – which would take place between the Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government – but a move intended only to heal the violent rift between the government and a body that was once a part of it, before deciding to disengage and fight against it.

The sigh of relief was still premature, because many in the Southern Transition Council and some of the tribes that support it are still unsatisfied with the agreement. They fear that, as in the past, the new government will look out first and foremost for the interests of the northern tribes, and that it will take over the oil and gas fields in southern Yemen, leaving the southern Yemenis only crumbs. Moreover, the agreement, which promises generous economic assistance from Saudi Arabia, does not demand the removal of United Arab Emirates forces from the Socotra Islands, over which the Emiratis have taken de facto control. According to assessments in Yemen, the UAE also intends to establish military bases there that will also serve Israel.

According to preliminary reports, the explosion at the airport was caused by a mortar, missiles or explosive UAVs, all of which the Houthis possess. But the Southern Transitional Council also has missiles and drones, which it apparently received from the Emiratis. It is curious that it was the deputy head of the Southern Transitional Council, Hani bin Buraik, who hastened to halt accusations that the Houthis and Iran were responsible for the attack. He said there should be no hurry to blame the Houthis because “They are not the only side hurt by the Riyadh deal. ... Qatar and Turkey loudly denounced the agreement.”

Bystanders and a soldier stand near a damaged portion of the airport in the southern city of Aden after an explosion, December 30, 2020.Credit: Majid Saleh/AP

The mention of these countries is no coincidence. They are considered the nemeses of the UAE, which granted patronage, funding and weapons to the Southern Transitional Council, encouraged it to break away from the Yemeni government and is now being assisted by council forces in its rule over the Socotra Islands. A cloud of suspicions also hangs over the UAE itself. Over the weekend, a Yemeni newspaper, Watan al-Ghad (“Homeland of Tomorrow”) published a photo of the Yemeni attaché in the UAE, General Shallal al-Shaye, who was in charge of security in Aden, hastily leaving the airport in an armored car just before the explosions there.

While the reports on al-Shaye took wing, newspapers in Aden reported that Saudi forces in Yemen had arrested Abdel Nasser al-Bawa, a senior commander in the Southern Transitional Council’s military, on suspicion of involvement in the planning and execution of the airport attack. Al-Bawa, according to a report in Aden News, threatened the members of the new Yemeni government one day before the explosion, lest they dare harm the “national foundations” of the country and replace the flag of the southern “disengagement” with the flag of united Yemen.

Against the backdrop of rumors, suspicions and frame-ups, it is hard to know who could benefit from the explosion. The Houthis and Iran ostensibly have an interest in disrupting Saudi Arabia in its efforts to present the new government as an achievement and to flex its muscles ahead of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s entry into the White House. But the unhappy secessionists also have an interest in disrupting the Saudi action. Such a disruption will make it more difficult for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to prove that he can control things in Yemen and that without him, the United States has no one to rely on to extricate itself from this entanglement.

The weakening of Saudi Arabia means strengthening the UAE in southern Yemen and increasing the chances of the southerners, at least in their interpretation, of re-establishing South Yemen. Does Biden have a plan with regard to Yemen other than his desire to get out of it? In 2015, when President Barack Obama was in office, Gen. Lloyd Austin testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that he did not know what the Saudis’ specific goals were in Yemen, and that he would have to understand them in order to assess its chances of success. Austin is Biden’s pick as secretary of defense, and it seems that today too, five years after the war began and with a resounding defeat that cannot be concealed, the Saudis’ goals in the war in Yemen are still unclear to the United States. It is even less clear now who the United States will support in Yemen, and who it will act against.

Meanwhile, it seems that Israel, too, is starting to be seen as a party in the Yemeni conflict. Houthi intelligence chief Abdullah Yahya Al-Hakim recently warned that “The failure of the [Saudi] aggression against Yemen has led the enemy to be assisted by the Zionists, who have been called to interfere more broadly… and to the fall of some of the countries into the trap of normalization... Our eyes are open and are following the movements in the region of the Zionist enemy, which must understand well the seriousness of our warning against any foolish act or adventure that the results will not be good.” Welcome to Yemen.