Half a Century After its Independence from the British, Yemen Now Faces a New Colonialism

This year, Yemenis celebrated the 51st anniversary of South Yemen’s independence from British colonial rule. But now decades later Yemen is facing a new colonization—this time by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. While five decades of independence have given way to something even worse than British occupation, the past four years suggest that this new colonialism will not last long.

For the past three years, Yemenis have not celebrated their Independence Day. Engulfed in a civil war since 2014, the country is now in the throes of an international military intervention led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to restore the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. This intervention has gradually become an occupation or another round of colonialism.  But will it last?

180 years ago, British colonial forces entered the city of Aden through the port of Sira, under the pretext of fighting the pirates in the Arabian Sea. In 2015, the UAE repeated the same scenario. The forces of Mohammed bin Zayed (Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince) entered the city through the port of Brega under the pretext of fighting the “Iranian expansion” in the Arabian Peninsula and securing international navigation in the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea.

Now in 2018, the UAE occupies large parts of western and southern Yemen, including islands, ports, a coastal strip, oil, and gas facilities; the rest of the eastern region is under Saudi control. The UAE’s occupation of Aden began after the city was “liberated” from Houthi control in July 2015. The UAE has since formed the Security Belt Forces in Aden made up of Yemeni resistance groups, and it has been repeating the same strategy in each city or province it controls.

The UAE has formed several armed factions with the help of local leaders in Lahj and Dali, two cities in southern Yemen. It has trained and armed local forces in more than one province, including the Hadrami, Shabanian, and Maharia elite forces. The Maharia is still unable to control Al Mahrah because of local forces’ opposition to this militia and the closeness of the province to the shared border between Yemen and the Sultanate of Oman.

Fearing that these entities would constitute a danger as one large united force, the UAE recruited only fighters from the southern provinces and linked their local leadership directly to the UAE-controlled military leadership in Yemen. This is the same strategy that Britain followed during colonization when it excluded people of the northern regions from enlisting in its loyal forces, despite the fact that northern Yemenis constituted a large proportion of the population of Aden.

The UAE’s occupation strategy, like that of the British  in southern Yemen, involves controlling both the country’s resources and population, employing the traditional colonization principle of “divide and conquer.” After World War I, Britain formed local Yemeni forces to relieve the burden on its troops in southern Yemen and to fight the newly established state in the north after the Turks had withdrawn from the country.

Now, driven by the desire to further erode the Yemeni sense of national identity, the UAE has adopted, through its loyal militias (including the Security Belt Forces and those under the command of militant Abu al-Abbas, for example) the same British moniker used to describe the south of Yemen: the “Arabian South.” The pro-UAE Southern Transitional Council, led by Aidarous al-Zubaidi, now is using the term “Arabian South” instead of “southern Yemen.” The council opposes President Hadi and has called for southern secession from Yemen.

On November 27, the Southern Transitional Council deployed its forces in Al-Oroud Square in Aden in which the independence day celebration would normally occur to prevent citizens from celebrating the 51st anniversary of independence on November 30.

Back in 2017 at the Southern Transitional Council’s celebration of Yemen’s independence in the interim capital Aden, General Aidarous al-Zubaidi called for the liberation of the south of Yemen. The participants chanted slogans against north Yemen, demanding that the Transitional Council free them from what they call “the northern occupation.” Al-Zubaidi seized this occasion to speak as a representative of Abu Dhabi. On behalf of the participants, he first congratulated the UAE on its Martyr’s Day anniversary (on the same date as Yemen’s Independence Day), which the UAE had announced via a decree issued by President Khalifa bin Zayed after the Emirati intervention in Yemen in 2015.

Celebrating Emirati Martyr’s Day on the same day as Yemen’s Independence Day has deep significance. The UAE maintains that the first martyr in its history died on November 30, 1971, during a confrontation with Iran to liberate the UAE Tunb islands. Somewhat tellingly, it has taken the UAE a long time to remember this particular event — the nation only recently began to recognize the holiday after its intervention in Yemen, an action it claims is focused on eliminating “Iranian expansion” in the region. The UAE has now conveniently linked the two events in an apparent attempt to justify its war in Yemen, which it has also portrayed as a national war to restore the UAE’s claim to islands under Iranian occupation. It is also an apparent attempt to eclipse the celebration of Yemen’s independence and the expulsion of the British.

The UAE’s intervention in Yemen seems strikingly similar to the final era before the British presence in the south of the country finally ended. There were widespread demonstrations and strikes before the Yemeni resistance expelled the British by force in 1967. Now, after almost four years of war, however, the UAE’s experience does not seem to be as long-lived as its 129-year-old British counterpart.

Last week, Saleh al-Harizi,  former deputy governor of Al-Mahra province, announced an angry revolutionary protest to take place in Al-Mahra province in eastern Yemen to coincide with the 51st anniversary of the evacuation of the last British soldier in Aden. Al-Harizi has been leading protest movements in the Al-Mahra province for months in opposition to the Saudi and Emirati military presence in the country.

Forces loyal to Saudi Arabia in Al-Mahrah killed three protestors who were protesting against Saudi military presence in the province. A number of pro-Saudi Arabia and UAE media outlets attacked Al-Harizi and accused him of smuggling arms and drugs, with the result that the media did not cover the angry protests he had called for.

For months, protests and other events which have been held opposing the Saudi and Emirati military presence have escalated in several Houthi-free Yemeni provinces. In early 2018, protesters in the streets of Aden, Taiz, Shabwa, Hadhramout, and Al-Mahra called for “toppling the occupation.” They burned pictures of Mohammed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman, leaders of the coalition. Yemeni activists have used the hashtag “No to the Saudi and UAE occupation” on social media.

Similarly, the celebration of the Yemeni Revolution anniversary on October 14, against the British colonial rule has been marked by many protests demanding the departure of Saudi and UAE forces from Yemen. Protests were expected to escalate on Yemen’s Independence Day in more than one Yemeni city.

The daily course of events in Yemen reveals the ongoing ambitions of the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The UAE continues to strengthen its role in southern Yemen and the Red Sea with international support and silence. To stop the destruction and occupation of Yemen and to end the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the international community will have to exert more pressure on the UAE and Saudi Arabia to end their present colonialism in Yemen.