Since fighting erupted over a month ago in southern Yemen between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) following the death of Munir Al Yafi, a commander of the UAE-backed support forces in an attack on August 1, the Saudi–UAE rift has become increasingly visible by the day.
Initially, the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi coalition portrayed its intervention in Yemen as an effort to restore the legitimacy of Yemeni President Hadi’s government and to contain the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. However, today, it appears from the outside that the Saudi-led coalition is united; internally, however, each party seems to have its own ambitions, which are only gradually becoming evident.
“The Saudi-UAE rift in Yemen reminds us that this conflict has very little to do with sectarianism and everything to do with regional power rivalry and the pursuit of power. Yemen can never be stabilized until Saudi Arabia and the UAE are willing to play a constructive role in ending this conflict,” Nader Hashemi, director of Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Denver, told Inside Arabia.
“To blame the entire conflict on Iran, as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have consistently done, is nonsensical.”
When the fighting started in Aden, Saudi Arabia was completely silent for a few days, raising a significant question about its apparent failure to manage its own coalition.
When the fighting started in Aden, Saudi Arabia was completely silent for a few days, raising a significant question about its apparent failure to manage its own coalition. Had it been betrayed by its coalition partner, the UAE, and therefore not know what to do or how to react?
Regardless of the UAE’s motive or strategy, it is clear that Riyadh is now concerned about the clashes between the UAE-backed separatists and the Hadi government. On September 5, for example, when Saudi Arabia called on southern Yemeni separatists to cede control of Aden and voiced its support for the government, in a statement carried by the state news agency, SPA, the Kingdom refused any “new reality” imposed by force in the south, Reuters reported. It announced that any attempt to destabilize Yemen’s security would be seen as a threat against the Kingdom and would be “dealt with decisively.” This conveyed the Saudi’s express rejection of the Abu Dhabi-trained forces’ decision to go against the Saudi-backed forces.
So far, the UAE has not clearly condemned the separatists or evinced a firm position through its actions. However, on August 21, it rejected the claims, highlighting that it supported the separatists’ seizure of Aden.
“We regret hearing today allegations directed against the UAE regarding developments in Aden, which we categorically reject,” the UAE’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, Saud Al-Shamsi, wrote on Twitter.
This raises a number of questions: Are the separatists in control of their decisions? In other words, can they suddenly launch an attack against the Saudi-backed forces without the permission of their backers? Do they have the power to do so?
The answers to these questions could determine whether the UAE has actually stabbed its Saudi ally in the back. If it has not, and the allies have been proceeding in coordination, why did the UAE not order the forces that it is supporting to back off when Riyadh did?
All indications point to a significant disagreement between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on how to move forward in Yemen.
Clearly, all indications point to a significant disagreement between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on how to move forward in Yemen. Until they resolve what appears to be a strategic dissonance, things are unlikely to improve.
On September 8, somewhat surprisingly given the current discord, Saudi Arabia and the UAE issued a joint statement requesting that Yemen’s separatists and the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi halt all military actions in southern Yemen.
What complicates this situation is the difference in what is at stake for those on the ground and those sitting in the Saudi and Emirati royal palaces. While no heads of government in Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, who have the influence to speak and make decisions, have died, it is believed that there have been deaths in both the Yemeni government and the STC.
Therefore, the allies on the ground are unlikely to forgive each other for what has happened. Even if they were pressured from their backers to obey a ceasefire and sit at the negotiating table, this would not necessarily mean a lack of hatred between them. They will undoubtedly remain on guard, and any incident, whether deliberate or not, could break the ceasefire. Moreover, the manner of cooperation is unlikely to be the same given the diminished level of trust.
What remains to be seen is to what extent the fighting and continued coalition assaults, which unfortunately have caused thousands of civilian casualties and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, will endure.