As the war in Yemen rages on with 10,000 more coalition troops poised at the port of Hodeidah and thousands of Yemeni civilians now trapped on the southern outskirts, President Abd-Rabbu Mansur Hadi’s government has represented itself to Yemenis and the international community as the sole, legitimate representative of Yemen, a claim that the Houthi militias have continually rejected and tried to undermine. However, the Hadi government’s actions throughout the war in Yemen belie its claim that it represents the interests of Yemen or the Yemeni people.
At the same time that the Houthi militias continue to attack state institutions in their areas of control, the Hadi government is dismantling state institutions in liberated areas to make it easier for the militant allies, parties, and militias formed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to control those areas.
Although Saudi Arabia and the UAE claim that their military intervention in Yemen is intended to take back state institutions from the Houthi militias, their actions on the ground seem to be subverting any attempt to revive a unified Yemeni state in either the short- or long-term.
Instead, the current policy of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen appears to be to divide the country into multiple states and sectarian identities. Despite Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s eagerness to build consensus against the Houthi cause, the coalition has no clear nation-building project or vision for Yemen; it is motivated purely by economic and geopolitical self-interest.
In the north, the Houthis control Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and other cities including Amran, Ibb, Dhamar, al-Mahweet. The rebels also control many areas in Saada, Hajjah, parts of Taiz, al-Bayda, and Marib. Conflicting forces, factions, and parties hold power in the south and the rest of the northern region, and the UAE is taking advantage of this fragmentation in various ways.
First, the UAE has weakened the government of President Hadi by supporting rival parties in a number of southern provinces. One such party is the Southern Transitional Council party, which is calling for the secession of southern Yemen from northern Yemen. Additionally, the staunch Saudi ally has shown animosity toward the Muslim Brotherhood by pitting Salafist groups in Yemen against the Yemeni Reform Party, also known as the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood, on more than one front. Similarly, the UAE has allegedly signed agreements with militant and terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), to fight the Houthis in Yemen.
“After nearly three years of conflict, Yemen, as a State, has all but ceased to exist.”
“After nearly three years of conflict, Yemen, as a State, has all but ceased to exist,” concluded a UN Security Council report published in January of this year. “Instead of a single state, there are warring statelets and no one side has either the political support or the military strength to reunite the country or to achieve victory on the battlefield.”
Just two months after Saudi-led coalition forces took control of the coastal city of Aden in September 2015, the UAE began the first phase of its occupation strategy, thus sidelining the Riyadh-based Hadi government.
The UAE has established the Security Belt Forces (SBF) in Aden to achieve its occupation strategy. The SBF are paramilitary forces trained on UAE military bases in the Horn of Africa. They are a mixture of southern Yemeni militia fighters and Salafist religious groups, who are fighting for southern Yemen to secede from the rest of the country.
Currently, the UAE has allegedly formed ten militias, including the Hadrami, Shabanian, and Maharia elite forces with the SBF in Aden, Lahj, Dali and Abyan, as well as the forces of Tareq Saleh, the nephew of the late President Saleh.
Each of these ten UAE-backed militia forces controls a number of “liberated” Yemeni provinces and is vying for power over them, with the Hadi government or the Islah party. The UAE has assigned these forces the mission of “protecting” the provinces of Aden, Lahj, Abyan, Dali, Hadhramout, and Shabwa.
“The UAE finances, arms, and trains these forces, which ostensibly are going after Yemeni branches of Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (also known as ISIS),” according to Human Rights Watch.
Alliances in Yemen are often based on parochial interests, so they are not necessarily national or stable. “[M]ore than 10,000 [of these militia forces] are not official,” according to government sources at the Turkish Anadolu Agency. “They do not have military identification numbers in the national army . . . and the government does not grant them monthly salaries. They receive salaries from the UAE: 1,500 Saudi Riyals per month for commanders of military units and checkpoints and 1,000 Saudi Riyals for soldiers.”
Despite the fact that the UAE formed these forces and trained them to fight Houthi rebels and restore President Hadi’s legitimacy, in reality, the UAE is using them only to carry out its own covert agenda in Yemen. The UAE has also made sure to place its interests and agendas ahead of that of both its allies—the government of President Hadi—and its enemies, particularly the Islah Party.
From time to time, the UAE has used its loyal armed factions to fight the Yemeni government and settle accounts with its main enemy, the Islah Party. The UAE is also using these militias to undermine Yemeni sovereignty, which is represented by President Hadi’s government, over state institutions in the country’s supposedly liberated areas.
Months after the “liberation” of Aden, these UAE-backed militia forces carried out their first segregation campaign on the basis of regional identity through a series of arrests and forcible displacement of northern Yemeni citizens, using the threat of terrorism as a pretext.
The UAE-trained SBF carried out a series of raids on the Islah Party’s headquarters, where they arrested a number of its leaders in October 2017. The SBF even assassinated several imams during the period that they were in control of Aden.
The SBF also intercepted the convoy of Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid Bin Daghr and forced him to leave while he was heading to Lahj to inaugurate a technical institute on October 12, 2017. Additionally, the UAE deployed its armed forces and surrounded Bin Daghr during a visit to the province of Socotra.
Furthermore, on January 28, 2018, the UAE attacked the last military bases belonging to Hadi’s government and surrounded the presidential palace of Maasheq, where the government is based, before Saudi Arabia intervened and called for a truce. Neither the reestablishment of a legitimate Yemeni government nor the fear of Iran-backed militias appear to be the real goal behind the Saudi-UAE-led coalition’s military intervention.
In mid-October, President Hadi succumbed to pressure from Saudi Arabia and the UAE and issued a decision to “relieve” Bin Daghr of his position as prime minister; he appointed Maeen Abdulmalik, a close ally of the coalition, to replace him. As a part of President Hadi’s recent decision, Bin Daghr is also being investigated for “failure and corruption,” according to the official Saba Net news agency.
Although Bin Daghr’s government failed to provide the most basic services to the Yemeni people, the former prime minister is not solely responsible for this failure. All of the country’s ministers, even President Hadi himself, are to blame for the corruption and inefficacy that plagues Yemen’s national government.
Local media outlets claimed that Bin Daghr’s dismissal came as a result of a deal that President Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council struck to relieve tension between the two sides. The UAE-sponsored deal stated that the Council would stop escalating its conflict with the government in exchange for the removal of Bin Daghr as prime minister.
This is not the first time that a Yemeni prime minister has been “relieved” of their position since the beginning of the civil war in Yemen in 2015. In April 2016, Khalid Bahah was allegedly dismissed from his position as prime minister for the same reasons as Bin Daghr.
Although there were various reasons for Bin Daghr’s dismissal, the main ones were due to his condemnation of Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s agendas in Yemen. Similarly, he angered the two countries when he did not respond to calls demanding the departure of coalition forces from liberated areas. Bin Daghr’s ousting can be seen as a natural symptom of incurring the wrath of these powerful nations.
Prime Minister Abdulmalik’s recent remarks on local and regional news channels imply that he would only focus on preventing economic collapse and re-establishing services in Yemen, such as water, health, electricity. These public statements only serve to confirm the prevailing belief that Abdulmalik is a puppet leader who is leading a government with a limited scope of power.
Recently, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has played a major role in pushing the Yemeni war to the forefront of the international political agenda. It has also served to reawaken the conscience of members of the global community who have for the most part remained silent on the war crimes being committed in Yemen in exchange for multi-billion dollar arms deals with Riyadh.
Although Washington and London have long expressed their enthusiasm for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, the brutal murder of Khashoggi in Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul has changed their view of the ongoing conflict. The United Nations (UN) Envoy to Yemen welcomed this change and endorsed the U.S.’s call for peace and the return of Yemen’s warring parties to the negotiation table.
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström expressed her country’s readiness to host the Yemeni peace negotiations. The Houthis stated that they would only accept serious calls for negotiations, while the Yemeni Minister of Transport Saleh al-Jubwani said that any call for peace in Yemen would need to be based on international resolutions. The ball is now in the UN’s court.
Despite international pressure, it is clear that no decision can be made about the fate of Yemen without input from Saudi and the UAE. The future of the Yemeni government depends greatly on the decisions of these two countries. Without their buy-in, and absent direct pressure from Western allies, peace in Yemen could remain a hopeless dream.