“A civil war within a civil war,” is how the International Crisis Group (ICG) — an independent NGO — has described the situation in Yemen. The observation summed up perfectly the chaos that inevitably follows misguided military intervention in a country where tangled politics guarantees that friends and foes alike will shift as quickly as the sand under ones feet.
It was the fighting within the anti-Houthi coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the port city of Aden earlier this month which prompted the ICG to raise the alarm over what appears to be a new stage in the Yemen war.
When the Gulf States intervened in the conflict in 2015 the goal was simple: restore the government of the internationally-recognised President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and defeat the Houthi rebels who had taken control of Sana’a, the Yemeni capital. The conflict morphed into a proxy war with the two main Gulf powers, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, on one side and Iran — accused of arming the rebels — on the other.
The military intervention, predictably, did not turn out the way that the Saudis and the UAE had intended. Not only did it trigger what the UN has described as the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis, with more than 10 million people pushed to the brink of famine, but it has also turned allies against allies.
In the latest clashes between local armed groups that were once members of the anti-Houthi coalition, fighters allied to the UAE struck against government forces in the interim capital of Aden and Abyan province. Dozens are reported to have been killed. Doctors Without Borders said that one of its hospitals in Aden received 10 dead and 41 wounded people. Others reported that at least 25 were killed and 150 were wounded.
The attack came weeks after the UAE-backed rebels ousted the Saudi-backed government from Aden, widening the rift between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, which are supposed to be allies. Their disagreement is said to be due to different interests and views on how to end the conflict. The Emiratis, according to analysts at the ICG, want to hold talks with the Houthis in southern Yemen, while the Saudis are said to favour ramping up the fight against the rebel forces. Their strategies also diverged because the UAE is said to be highly suspicious of the Hadi government, which led it to conclude that the Southern Transitional Council (STC) separatists are more effective allies.
While these differences have been simmering for some time the situation seems to have reached breaking point. Yesterday’s air strikes reflect the deep division between forces loyal to the Saudi-backed Hadi government and the STC, which is armed and trained by the UAE. How wide the rift will go is unclear, but it’s unlikely to affect relations between the Gulf allies on other major geopolitical issues. They see eye to eye in their opposition to political Islam, for example, as well as the isolation of Qatar and the controversial normalisation of relations with Israel.
In Yemen, however, where the UAE is already trying to wind down its presence, the coalition is likely to become more fragile. The opposition to the UAE could not be stronger; the Yemen government has laid the blame for this week’s attack squarely on Abu-Dhabi. “The Foreign Affairs Ministry holds the UAE fully responsible for this blatant attack,” said Mohammed Al-Hadhrami today. Yemen’s Deputy Foreign Minister rebuked his country’s nominal Gulf ally and added that these attacks are being “committed beyond the law and international norms.”
In a further reprimand of the Emirates, other Yemini ministers called on Hadi to make a formal request to the Saudi leadership to end the UAE’s participation in the Riyadh-led coalition and “restore legitimacy in Yemen.” The letter signed by 23 ministers urged the President to withdraw the Yemeni Ambassador from Abu Dhabi and suspend diplomatic relations between the two countries.
After calling on the UN Security Council to “stand up against what the UAE is doing in Yemen,” the ministers made several demands. They urged the Saudis to integrate the different military units within the Ministries of Defence and the Interior, and to hand over to the recognised Hadi government all of the camps captured by militias belonging to the STC. Their demand seems to be motivated by their desire to unite the various factions and find a resolution to the entangled military alliances.
Signalling their intention to take further measures against the UAE, the ministers insisted that this would include their “right to take legal action” against the Emirates government, a move that is likely to further escalate tensions between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. They also expressed their desire to prosecute members of secessionist groups backed by the UAE. The ministers who signed the letter demanded that “the legal cover of those that had rebelled against the [Hadi] government should be lifted.”
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