The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and its Yemeni proxy, the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), have faced obstacles in their mutual ambition of wrecking Yemen’s fragile unity and sovereignty by re-creating an independent “South Yemen” that would become a surrogate state serving Emirati interests first and foremost.
While Abu Dhabi carefully maneuvers around its close ally Saudi Arabia, a lack of international support for the faction’s objectives forced the STC to renounce its “self-rule” declaration on July 29, only to withdraw from the Saudi-sponsored power-sharing deal with the government yet again later on August 26. Failed attempts to unify with Yemen’s government also showcase the STC’s reluctance to abandon its stated cause.
This is where the UAE’s asserted ties with Israel come in, following their normalization agreement on August 13: it will further upgrade their geopolitical cooperation. While analysts have speculated over several areas of regional alignment, including countering Turkey and Iran, Yemen could likely become a mutual point of interest for both the UAE and Israel.
Quite a telling indicator of this came from Hani ben Breik, the Vice President of the STC, who made several positive comments regarding the accord while showing receptivity towards Israel.
“I will visit the southern [Yemeni] Jews in their homes and I will go with them to Jerusalem and pray in the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” tweeted ben Breik. He also denounced the Palestinian leadership for rejecting the UAE’s move. These are clear signs of not only endorsing normalization with Israel, but also trying to win over its support.
Israeli newspaper Israel Today alleged in June that Israeli officials were in “secret talks” with STC figures.
Additionally, the Israeli newspaper Israel Today alleged in June that Israeli officials were even in “secret talks” with STC figures, describing them as “secret friends.”
“Surprisingly, at a recent press conference the STC expressed a positive attitude toward Israel, although the question of official diplomatic relations has yet to be discussed,” Aviel Schneider claimed in his article, citing unidentified political sources.
While these sources may attract skepticism, and specific details of this alleged communication are still unclear, it would not be surprising that support to this extent could eventually occur.
Stronger UAE-Israel Cooperation
In an early possible sign of stronger regional cooperation between the two states, and shortly after the normalization agreement, Israel’s Ministry of Intelligence announced a strengthening of cooperation with Abu Dhabi over the Red Sea, which borders Yemen. Here, Abu Dhabi seeks to secure trade routes, having built ports and military bases in the Horn of Africa across the Gulf of Aden and Bab al-Mandab Strait.
Meanwhile, the UAE has backed the STC since its creation in 2017, to represent the southern independence cause, which has existed since 1994, following the unification of Yemen’s north and south in 1990. Yet Abu Dhabi really aims to use the faction to gain control of the port of Aden, South Yemen’s historic capital, as well as other ports such as in Mukalla and Socotra. This would vastly bolster its global maritime trade and establish a wider sphere of influence along the Red Sea and Horn of Africa.
Abu Dhabi really aims to use the faction to gain control of the port of Aden, South Yemen’s historic capital.
Abu Dhabi has been alone in supporting southern secession. There are suggestions that Russia may provide backing to revive the Soviet Union’s historic ties with an independent South Yemen, though this is largely speculation for now. Currently, winning over Israel’s cooperation would be a significant boost, and would help Abu Dhabi secure a necessary ally for its objectives in Yemen.
The UAE reportedly transported Yemen’s remaining Jews to Abu Dhabi, following the normalization agreement. While a purely humanitarian gesture at face value, as the Houthi rebels had long endangered Yemeni Jews’ lives, this also helps the UAE gain further favor with Israel over its Yemen policy.
Would Israel Back the STC?
In the past, Israel has intervened in Yemen. During North Yemen’s civil war from 1962 to 1970, after Egypt-backed republicans overthrew the Zaydi Imamate, Israel provided support to the deposed royalists, who also received Saudi Arabian and British backing, among other regional allies. This largely aimed to counter Egypt, which, under the rule of Gamal Abdul Nasser, was a leading Israeli adversary at that time.
More recently, Israel has backed certain separatist factions. It was the only country to support Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish government’s independence referendum in September 2017, defying its close ally the United States’ stance, which refused to recognize an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.
Another notable case is South Sudan, where Israel strengthened ties with its independence movement during the 1967 war with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, after Sudan supported Egypt’s war efforts. It also reportedly sent South Sudan’s leaders weapons, surveillance equipment, and training after its 2011 independence, which were used in the government’s brutal civil war started in 2013.
Both movements also displayed openness towards Israel, which seeks to gain allies against unfriendly governments by supporting separatist causes. Israel could therefore naturally join forces with Abu Dhabi in helping the STC, which has also showed warmth towards Israel.
A greater concern for Israel in Yemen, which may precede any support for southern Yemen’s independence, is the Houthi rebels.
A greater concern for Israel in Yemen, however, which may precede any support for southern Yemen’s independence, is the Houthi rebels. The faction has expressed great hostility towards Israel, while deploying their antisemitic proclamation: “Death to America, death to Israel, God’s curse on the Jews, victory for Islam.”
In 2018, Israel threatened to send a military presence to the Red Sea after the Houthis attacked two Saudi vessels there. Prior to this, the Houthis threatened to close the Bab el Mandeb strait at the mouth of the Red Sea, through which a significant amount of global trade passes. Though Israel cited concerns that Iran, which backs the Houthis, could drive the Bab el Mandeb’s closure and threaten Israel’s shipping, such drastic action was always unlikely. Though as Iran’s support for the Houthis has grown, Israel may perceive future tensions with Iran over Yemen, should Tehran consolidate further its influence.
While the UAE has built closer ties with Iran in the last year, pragmatically looking to de-escalate tensions with a traditional rival, Israel would still perceive the Houthis as a threat, which could make it more cautious over engaging in Yemen.
Ultimately, Yemen’s situation remains unpredictable, with the Riyadh Agreement – designed to unify the separatist STC with Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government – continuously faltering. Should the STC eventually outmuscle the Hadi government, while proving it can act as a counterbalance to Houthi influence, this could pave the way for Israeli support.
However, like Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), whose overwhelming victory effectively collapsed after receiving no wider international support, the STC will not achieve full success without greater global backing. It partly depends on Saudi Arabia’s stance too, as Israel would seek to avoid offending another state with which it has built secret ties.
Even if Israel did back the STC, it alone would be sufficient for bolstering the faction’s political aims. Though achieving this may fall under Abu Dhabi’s broader strategy of lobbying for the STC, given its courting of Russia. Only time will tell how effective this potential pro-STC alliance could be.