While striving together to defeat the Houthi rebels, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are vying for influence over Yemen’s future
Last update: 2022-04-22 09:57:48
In Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula’s only republic, a country ravaged since March 2015 by civil war (albeit with indirect regional involvement), Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Sultanate of Oman are increasingly at odds. United in their struggle against the Houthis, the Zaidi Shia rebels from the North of the country supported by Iran, the Saudis, Emiratis and Omanis are divided over Yemen’s future. Ports, civil infrastructures, military bases, local militias, Qur’anic schools and humanitarian aid are all ingredients of a dispute that could, especially in southern coastal areas, evolve into future hostilities, playing on the separatist and/or autonomist temptations of the majority of southern Yemenis, and intertwining with the increasing politicisation and militarisation of Salafism.
In war-torn Yemen, the geopolitical rivalry between neighbouring monarchies, all Sunni Islam states (with the exception of the Ibadi Sultanate), is insidiuosly bubbling under the surface. Unlike what happened with the post-Arab Uprisings Intra-Sunni competition, Qatar is not involved. Today, those seeking the territorial, political, military and religious control of Yemen are mainly the Saudis and the Emiratis, officially allies and leaders of the military Arab coalition that is fighting the Houthi rebels. Within this framework, Oman, too, with its usual discretion and without backing local armed groups, is trying to boost its influence in the eastern areas of the country in response to the more assertive Saudi Arabia, which, in turn, is seeking to counter the hegemonic ambitions of the Emirates.
Since the beginning of the conflict, Saudi Arabia has focussed its attention on the bordering northern part of Yemen and the fight againts the Houthis. At the same time, the UAE has concentrated their efforts on the south of the country, building up local army units in in areas without any government – or from which the rebels have been dislodged – and countering Jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This task sharing (with the Saudis in charge of air strikes and the Emiratis tackling land operations) has become a geopolitical sharing-out. The few areas that have not been affected either by the war itself or by the Houthis, such as the island of Socotra and the eastern region of Mahra, are nevertheless meeting with external interference and increasing militarisation fostered by third parties.
Support for rival governments
The Saudis and Emiratis are also siding with two rival ‘governments’. Saudi Arabia supports the Yemeni executive recognised by the international community, that of the president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi (whose mandate expired, however, in 2014, before the conflict had begun). Hadi fled to Aden after the Houthi coup in Sana‘a (January 2015) but is now based in Riyadh.
The Saudis, who aim to establish a united but federal Yemen, are the main backers of General Ali Mohsin Al-Ahmar, a man close to Islah, the party that includes the local Muslim Brotherhood. An ally of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and now Yemen’s vice-president, Ali Mohsin is reorganizing, from the north-eastern semi-autonomous region of Mareb, what remains of the Yemeni army.
The UAE, for their part, are unofficially allied with Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council (STC), which was set up by the former governor of Aden, Aydarous Al-Zubaydi. Self-proclaimed in 2017 as a governing body, with its seat in Aden, and with clear secessionist claims, the STC is the institutional evolution of the Southern Movement founded in 2007. The many organized local militias, trained and financed by the Emiratis (like the Security Belt Forces in Aden, the Hadhrami and Shabwani Elite Forces in Hadhramaut and Shabwa), combine Salafi sympathies and secessionist ambitions, in support of the STC. As noted by the United Nations Panel of Experts, these militias, institutionalised by President Hadi in 2016 and, thus, legitimately within the sphere of official security forces, actually answer to the UAE and not to the Yemeni government. This potent combination of southern secessionism and armed Salafism, encouraged by the anti-Muslim-Brotherhood-inspired backing of Abu Dhabi, is the main byproduct of the strong economic-military penetration of the Emiratis in Yemen.
The regions of southern Yemen are home to a broad spectrum of identities. United against the Northerners represented by Saleh and Ali Mohsin, who have never been forgiven for the reunification of 1990 (seen as an annexation) and the subsequent socio-political marginalisation, they are, however, divided over matters of local governance, administrative boundaries and the distribution of natural resources (oil, gas, arable land). It is onto this stage of converging/diverging interests that the monarchies of the Gulf are stepping, forging geopolitically-motivated local alliances.
An Emirati ‘Silk Road’
From the coasts of southern Yemen, the UAE are laying their maritime ‘Silk Road’, with the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb as its most strategic point. A gateway to the Horn of Africa and the western waters of the Indian Ocean, the area is dotted with ports like Al Mokha, Aden and Mukalla, which are currently managed under license or are being built, and which provide shipping with an alternative to the Strait of Hormuz by way of Fujairah. The area also has military installations along the coast of the Hadhramaut region and on the islands of Perim and Socotra. The presence of proxies (the institutionalised militias) highlights the centrality of the military dimension in Emirati policy today.
The complex web of support involving Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Muscat is potentially dangerous for Yemen: as early as in 1986, southern Yemenis were already fighting a bloody civil war, which claimed 10,000 lives. When talking about the ‘South’, we should, moreover, bear in mind the significant regional and/or tribal differences, even though the socialist experience of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen has meant that tribal divisions are less sharp here than in the North. Hadhramaut, Yemen’s most oil-rich region, for example, has historic ties with the Saudis while Mahra, further east, on the border with the Sultanate of Qaboos, is under the influence of Oman, due also to the socio-economic proximity of the Dhofar region and the presence of many local people holding Muscat passports.
The race for Socotra and the Mahra region
Since 2015, the power struggle between the Gulf monarchies in Yemen has intensified. Socotra, an island whose 60,000 inhabitants are of Arab, African and Indian origin and whose biodiversity earned it UNESCO World Heritage Site status, has become the focus of the geo-strategic ambitions of the Federation headed by Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MbZ). Here too, MbZ has alternated hard and soft power. On the one hand, Emirati soldiers with heavy goods vehicles have effectively occupied the island and started to set up a local militia; on the other, roads, residential complexes, schools and hospitals have been built thanks to substantial aid from Abu Dhabi, which has not, however, been able to allay fears that Socotra will thus be transformed into a resort for wealthy tourists. In May 2018, following protests by many Socotris against the ‘occupation’ of their land, the UAE started to wind down their military presence under the terms of an agreement (brokered by Saudi Arabia) with the island authorities. Immediately after this, though, Riyadh unveiled its own ‘development plan’ for Socotra.
A similar state of affairs is unfolding on the border with Oman, in the Mahra region, which has remained neutral during the conflict. In the face of the increasing military meddling of the UAE, accused of wanting to create a local militia in this remote region of 350,000 inhabitants too, Saudi Arabia has deployed its own military forces, taking control of the main civilian infrastructures (the airport of Al-Ghayda and the port of Nishtun) with the official motivation of curbing smuggling activities along the Yemen-Oman border. The Saudis also planned to reopen the Dar Al-Hadith Salafi school in Qishn, previously an outpost in the fighting against the Houthis in Dammaj (Saada). In April 2018, the local population, most probably supported by Oman in its anti-Saudi, anti-Emirati stance, staged demonstrations against Riyadh’s military-religious presence. In response, Saudi Arabia and the Mahra authorities signed an agreement for the withdrawal of Saudi forces and the return to the Mahri of the handling of local security. However, the real implementation of this agreement, like that reached in Socotra, remains uncertain and challenged by some local leaders, suspicious of the possible construction in the Nishtun area of a port for the exportation of Saudi oil.
Al-Hudayda and the Red Sea
It is, then, in Yemen where the geopolitical ambitions of Saudi Arabia and the UAE may well collide. In the western city of Al-Hudayda, still controlled by the rebels, it is the Emiratis who have, since last June, been spearheading the land campaign with special forces and local militias. The area, lying on the Red Sea coast, falls, however, within the Saudis’ sphere of influence. Riyadh is, in fact, investing very heavily in economic-infrastructural projects (NEOM, the Red Sea Project) in the area. Once the Houthis have been pushed back inland, the UAE, strengthened by political and military alliances in the area, will find themselves much better placed to control the port than the Saudis. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will have to reach a compromise to avoid the risk of weakening their diarchy, which has already overruled the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Having always been vulnerable to the interference of its Saudi neighbour, war-torn Yemen offers new channels of influence to the Gulf monarchies. While Saudi Arabia uses its traditional Wahhabi leverage (with limited results as yet, given the predominance of the Shafi‘i school in the country) and Oman seeks to win over those nostalgic for the Sultanate of Qishn and Socotra the UAE are nudging part of the Salafi world away from its traditionally quietist stance and indulging the separatist impulses of groups (some of which are armed). In this risk-riddled face-off, no part of Yemen can consider itself safe.