The past week has witnessed remarkable developments on the Yemeni scene, the most prominent of which was the signing of a surprising agreement for military and security cooperation and combating terrorism, between the UAE and Yemen, on the side-lines of a visit by the Minister of Defence, Lieutenant General Mohsen Al-Daari, and the Minister of Legal Affairs, Ahmed Arman, and on the other side was the UAE Minister of Justice, who signed the agreement, on behalf of the Emirati Minister of Defence Affairs. This is a dangerous indication of the possibility that the Coalition Supporting Legitimacy will disintegrate and the two countries of the coalition will resort to making bilateral agreements with a fragile, weak and fully controlled authority.
This agreement may appear, on the surface, to reflect strong and distinguished relations between two equal countries but, in fact, it is not so at all. It reflects an urgent Emirati desire to legally re-adapt its troublesome mission in Yemen, which has been associated during the past years with a hostile agenda, which allowed for its participation within the Arab Coalition Supporting Legitimacy, but its goal was nothing but a selective fight against political parties and currents absorbed within the legitimate authority and the national movement for change. This is far from the goals that the coalition sought to achieve, which include defeating the Iranian-backed Houthi coup, restoring legitimacy and returning Yemen to the path of peaceful transition.
The legal adaptation is reflected in the nature and roles of those who participated in and signed the agreement, such as the Yemeni Minister of Legal Affairs and the UAE Minister of Justice, although the agreement is of a military and security nature. This is because the fight against terrorism that Abu Dhabi wants to open its mission in Yemen to focus on based on this agreement, is a process that will certainly involve an infinite number of transgressions and violations.
The matter does not need to be confirmed. During the past years, we have seen the serious violations committed by the UAE that crosses all lines. It used hired killers and mercenaries from different countries, and it was doing all this under the umbrella of the coalition, and the result is the dark chain of secret prisons that witnessed systematic operations to torture and kill Yemenis, under the pretext of combating Al-Qaeda and Daesh. However, the facts have proven that most of those who ended up in these prisons were subjected to all these violations for political and ideological motives, as revealed by reports by local and international human rights organisations and investigative reports by a reputable international news agency.
Through this agreement, the UAE wants to push its role and its associated indiscretions, violations and crimes under the umbrella of the coalition and start over. Most importantly, it wants to reinvest its local military tools and bases that still exist in Yemen, separately from the coalition, and within the framework of Abu Dhabi's own agenda.
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Abu Dhabi will remain committed to its claims about combating terrorism in Yemen, and this will make it reuse its military tools and bases in Balhaf (Shabwa) and Al-Rayyan (Hadramout), in addition to the available security and military control capabilities that are available without fear of accountability. It is continuously keen to fortify its role with the American umbrella, and with the logistic participation of Washington through liaison officers stationed at Al-Rayyan base on the coast of Hadramout governorate, and at Al-Ghaydah base in Al-Mahra governorate, in the south-east of the country.
It can invest its influence in the south of the Red Sea, particularly in the port of Mokha, Bab Al-Mandab, the Mayyun base and in the Socotra archipelago, in strengthening its role as a controller in this important strategic strait, and in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, through regional and international solidarity that the UAE seeks to build and through which it can strengthen its regional and international position.
A very important question comes to mind at this point, related to the magnitude of the UAE's impact on the future of the relationship of the coalition led by Saudi Arabia with the legitimate authority, and whether this step will prompt Saudi Arabia to re-adapt its role in Yemen as the UAE did, based on the fact that the Kingdom has the opportunity to control the legitimate authority and redirect it in a way that serves the interests of Riyadh, first and foremost.
There are a series of steps taken by the Saudi-Emirati coalition during the last period, the most prominent of which is reducing the coalition's military role in Yemen to almost nothing. This is despite the continuation of battles between the legitimate forces and the Houthi militants. The difference, however, is that the Iranian-backed militants are acting with the capabilities of a state, and they benefit from the advantages of the collapsed truce that remains unrenewed until today. Such capabilities include flights, the continued supply of oil derivatives, which is a large economic advantage, in addition to customs, tax and communications revenues and the advantage of controlling the largest demographic bloc.
On the other hand, the legitimacy, represented in the Presidential Leadership Council and the government, does not have an effective and strong authoritarian hierarchy connected to a respectable chain of command with the military apparatuses. Their loyalties are split between regional states or warlords who were forcibly integrated into the divided and inconsistent Presidential Leadership Council. Meanwhile, this authority moves away, under pressure from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, from the national army, the only military structure that is linked to the legitimate authority. There is no support, no backing, no salaries and no respectful relationship.
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This is in addition to the production and export of oil, stopping after the Iranian-Houthi attacks with explosive drones on ports and oil tankers in the Gulf of Aden, which means that the most important source of revenues with which the legitimate authority covers operational expenses and covers part of the large bill for importing basic materials from abroad is gone.
Given the vague path of international mediation that is looking at the possibility of establishing peace based on dealing with the de facto forces produced by the unfair coalition war, I do not rule out Riyadh rearranging its relations with the legitimate authority in Aden, as the UAE did.
It will be possible for Saudi Arabia and the UAE to work, intentionally, to establish the legitimate authority as an active party to the conflict, and nothing more, which will eventually push for a settlement in which the shares of the rivalling parties will be determined according to their military capabilities and geographical influence, and the revenues obtained from levies. This is in addition to their ability to withstand the confrontations with the rest of the de facto sectarian and regional forces and those associated with dreams of restoring Saleh's tattered regime.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 11 December 2022
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.