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Saudi-UAE divided over southern Yemen

Supporters of Legal Government hold the portraits of Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi during a protest against the Yemen peace plan proposed by the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed in Ma'rib, Yemen on 3 November, 2016. (Ali Owidha - Anadolu Agency)

The United Arab Emirates’ support for the newly formed Southern Political Council (SPC) has introduced a new political shift and tension within the Saudi-led coalition. The new dynamic in the conflict has undermined original political goals for Yemen’s sovereignty; supporting President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s central government. Now, there are three governments: the Iranian-backed Houthi group governing Sana’a, the transitional government led by Hadi and the newly formed SPC in the south.

Southern Yemen’s calls for secession are not a new phenomenon, it officially organised an opposition to the central government in 2007 under the umbrella Hirak movement. Although the group supports Hadi’s fight against the Iranian-backed Houthi group, it primarily seeks to break away due to economic and political marginalisation. This is a direct threat to Hadi as it undermines the country’s unity, a notion that the Saudi-led coalition intervened to protect and restore.

Read: Who’s fighting the war in Yemen?

The announcement of the formation of the Southern Political Council (SPC) on 11 May led by the former Governor of Aden, Ali Aidarous Al-Zubaidi, caused tension between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The SPC includes 26 southern leaders. Hadi criticised the UAE’s support for the new body, claiming the Emirates is “behaving like an occupier” not a “liberator”.

Hadi’s sacking of Al-Zubaidi and Hani Ben Brik, two former ministers of Aden who have great affinity with the Emirates, caused tension with the UAE. Although Hadi welcomes UAE involvement in the war against the Houthis, it is becoming clear that the UAE has stark differences in its vision for the future of Yemen. The head of Dubai’s security criticised the Hadi government, claiming the first steps to end the Yemen conflict is to “end Hadi’s reign”.  The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rejected the SPC, declaring it “doomed to fail”, with the Kuwaiti Deputy Foreign Minister Khalid Al-Jarallah adding it was a “negative development” for the Yemeni conflict, although he added that Kuwait would support the body if it brings peace to Yemen.

Al-Zubaidi set off to Saudi Arabia last week in a bid to form diplomatic talks with Saudi Arabia, but it was nothing short of a waste of a journey, as Saudi officials ignored his arrival. The diplomatic trip was a “trap” as Saudi Arabia constrained the new president’s activities at a time when southern Yemenis were seeking direction. Saudi media was reporting that the SPC announcement was a “coup” which placed Al-Zubaidi in a vulnerable positon. Officials in the kingdom rejected and ignored Al-Zubaidi, sending a chilling message that Riyadh will not recognise the legitimacy of his presidency.

Read more: Yemen War: US-Saudi battlefield alliance quandary

As a result of Saudi Arabia’s treatment, reports have said that Al-Zubaidi would dissolve the SPC if Hadi reinstates him as governor of Aden or offers him an equivalent ministerial post.

With the UAE supporting the SPC, is this the beginning of the end for the Saudi-led coalition?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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