Seizure of temporary capital seen as blow to Saudi Arabia
The five-year-old conflict in Yemen just got more complicated. Separatist forces backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) took control of the port city of Aden, the seat of the internationally recognized government and thew country’s temporary capital.
Yemen’s interior minister accused the UAE of backing a “coup.”
Elana DeLozier, a research fellow at The Washington Institute, told The Media Line that what took place in the war-torn nation should come as no surprise.
“A split between the Hadi government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) was bound to happen at some point. The difference between the two parties is that the Hadi government is in favor of maintaining the unity of Yemen whereas the STC wants independence for the south. Yet, the government and the STC both oppose the Houthis, so they have been fighting together toward that goal.”
Experts say the taking of Aden may be a sign that the Saudi coalition is cracking and about to break up as clashes in the port city saw Saudi-backed government troops battling against the UAE-trained Security Belt Force.
The Security Belt is largely compromised of forces which oppose President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.
Until now, both Saudi and UAE backed troops to fight Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who seized the capital Sana’a in 2014. The UAE had ordered a withdrawal of some of its forces in June amid Western pressure to end the war.
Thair Abu-Rass, a Washington-based expert on the Middle East, told The Media Line that what transpired over the last few days will have major implications.
“The separatists who took Aden are supported by the Emirates which should lead to a fracture in the Saudi-UAE alliance.”
But the UAE downplayed speculation of a rift with Riyadh and sent Abu Dhabi’s crown prince to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The visit was seen as an attempt by the UAE to do damage control.
“The UAE and Saudi Arabia call on conflicting Yemeni parties to prioritize dialogue and reason for the interest of Yemen,” the Emirates News Agency quoted UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan as saying after the meeting.
Abu Dhabi didn’t say whether it will ask the southern separatists to hand over control of Aden to government forces as demanded by Riyadh. The head of Yemen’s separatist movement said he is willing to join Saudi-brokered peace talks but didn’t offer to withdraw from the city.
DeLozier said the fighting between STC forces and fighters loyal to Hadi will likely hamper Saudi efforts to defeat the Houthis.
“The Saudis and Emiratis have gone about the war in Yemen differently with the UAE supporting the STC, while the Saudis have supported the unity of Yemen.
“Now that the STC has the upper hand,” DeLozier continued, “they are not declaring all-out secession but instead requesting to be part of UN-led talks on the future of Yemen. If this remains the case, it will buy a bit more time for Yemeni and regional actors to figure out what to do with the secessionist desires.”
The Houthis control Yemen’s most populous areas. Hadi is based in Saudi Arabia, but his political loyalists, troops and allied parties had run Aden until the separatists overran government bases there.
While the split between the UAE and Saudi Arabia may make defeating the Houthis impossible, Abu-Rass said that would be acceptable to both the Saudis and Emiratis.
“Both countries have an interest in dividing Yemen if they cannot defeat the Houthis,” he said. “They can guarantee an independent (Sunni majority) state in South Yemen. It allows both countries to become the de-facto rulers of the eastern shore of Bab-el-Mandeb, a strategic strait connecting Asia to Europe that will grow in relevance as Asian economies continue to expand. Therefore, both sides have much to gain from dividing Yemen.”
The Saudi-led intervention was engineered by the crown prince in an effort to stop the growing influence of Iran in the region, but it has turned into a military nightmare and human catastrophe amid a lack of international support.
DeLozier said that the Saudis are exhausted military and financially from the war and are eager to find a way out, but they don’t want to be seen as losers.
“I have no doubt the Saudis would like the war to be over, but they would also like to win it, or at a minimum, find a face-saving way out. I have long argued that the Saudis and Houthis should talk directly,” she added. “They are neighbors living on two sides of a border, so they will at some point need to find a mutually acceptable arrangement between them. If the Saudis and Houthis can [reach a detente] – including a de-escalation, a border policy, prisoner exchanges, and perhaps even reconstruction funding – it is possible the Houthis will reorient from Tehran to Riyadh.
“This becomes harder with every day that passes,” DeLozier noted, “but co-opting the Houthis would offer a face-saving way for the Saudis to extract themselves from the military aspects of the war and create a foundation for Yemeni-Yemeni talks about the future political shape of the government.”
Abu-Rass said he wouldn’t be shocked to see Riyadh talking directly to the Houthis’ main backer, Iran.
“I do believe the Saudis are interested in a solution. The problem is they have no strategic gains to bring to the negotiating table. Therefore, I won’t be surprised if the Saudis and Emiratis approach the Iranians directly, instead of having to deal with a militia like the Houthis. I don’t take out of the realm of possibility a relative rapprochement between the Gulf Arabs and Iran. Obviously, the Saudis would need US approval to improve relations.”
The United Nations and World Food Program, which handles commercial and aid imports, have pulled some staff from Aden.
Since 2015, the war in Yemen has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people and pushed an already poor nation close to famine.