by Giorgio Cafiero and Dr. Khalid al-Jaber
Almost five-and-a-half years ago, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched a military campaign to defeat Yemen’s Houthi rebellion. Although Riyadh and Abu Dhabi saw the dominant Houthi militia, Ansurallah, posing a grave threat to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states, the Saudi and Emirati leaders had different priorities and interests in Yemen from the outset. In addition to several major issues, such as the role of the local Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, the main point of contention between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi regarding Yemen has consistently been the “southern question.”
For years analysts have opined over the extent to which the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s opposing stakes in Yemen could damage the Abu Dhabi-Riyadh alliance. Yet considering how the Emiratis and Saudis view countless issues in the Middle East and North Africa through extremely similar lenses, many concluded that conflicting interests vis-à-vis southern Yemen had little potential to harm the two GCC states’ strong relationship.
In response to observers discussing the notion of a major rift in Emirati-Saudi relations, many media outlets in Saudi Arabia have dismissed such talk as Qatari or Iranian propaganda. Such reporting from the kingdom’s press platforms seems to suggest that the official narrative in Saudi Arabia is that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s differences are merely tactical and that both GCC capitals remain close. It is difficult to predict how real differences in Emirati and Saudi foreign policy vis-à-vis southern Yemen will impact Abu Dhabi and Riyadh’s bilateral ties. Nonetheless, such division within the anti-Houthi front cannot be ignored, especially in light of recent events.
Following several days of fighting in Aden, southern separatists usurped control of government military camps. The prominent Emirati political scientist Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla tweeted a picture of a soldier waving the flag of South Yemen with the following text: “It happened quickly, precisely and perfectly, with the support of the people and with the least amount of material and human losses.” In another tweet containing a photo of a tank with the flags of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and South Yemen, he wrote: “History will remember that they worked together to liberate 80 percent of Yemen from the control of the Iranian-backed Houthi group.”
Yemen’s Southern Transition Council (STC) maintains that Muslim Brotherhood elements have infiltrated Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government. This is the basis of the secessionists’ narrative about a common struggle against a ‘terrorist government’ that Riyadh supports. Meanwhile, Hadi’s loyalists depict the STC as having carried out an illegitimate coup against Yemen’s internationally recognized government. The extent to which there can be any common ground between these sides remains to be seen.
On August 15, tens of thousands of Yemenis from numerous southern provinces came to Aden to hold a rally in favor of restoring independence for the south. The protestors demanding self-rule in Aden waved South Yemen flags, and one statement from the rally read: “We call on the international community and the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to respect the southern people as a key partner in stemming the Persian tide in the region and fighting terrorism to achieve…regional and global stability.” The rally statement also referred to Hadi’s government as “a guillotine at Yemenis’ necks.”
Experts have noted that the southern separatists are attempting to appeal to the Saudi leadership. Their main means of doing so is emphasizing their anti-Houthi/anti-Iranian credentials, pointing to how forces in the south have played a central role in terms of working with the Arab coalition to fight the Tehran-sponsored insurgents. Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine a common opposition to Ansurallah being the basis of a problem-free relationship between Riyadh and the Emirati-backed southern separatists.
As long as the Saudis insist on maintaining Yemeni unity while the Emiratis support southern secessionists, there will be tension between them. Such competing agendas will inevitably create an increasingly complicated situation in the war-torn country, against the backdrop of economic and humanitarian crises along with the roles played by extremist groups including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State. The most recent developments in Aden truly demonstrated the extent to which the United Nations-recognized and Riyadh-backed government of President Hadi has become a non-factor.
It will be important to look at how Abu Dhabi and Riyadh manage their conflicting interests in southern Yemen. One of the key factors that will determinate how such tensions evolve is the extent to which the Emirati leadership goes all out in terms of supporting the southern separatists in Aden. Without another Arab state or any government in the West supporting recognition of an independent South Yemen, Abu Dhabi would certainly be setting itself up for confrontation with other states if it were to go all in the way in terms of backing the separatists. It appears most likely that the UAE will attempt to push for at least some form of de facto autonomy for southern Yemen. Doing so may help the Emiratis advance their strategic interests in Aden and elsewhere in the south without needing to pay the costs for heightened tension in relations with Saudi Arabia and other GCC members, which favor the preservation of Yemen’s post-1990 unification.
That Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) came to Mecca on August 12 to discuss the deteriorating security crisis in Aden with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman underscored the extent to which there is a mutual desire on both Abu Dhabi’s and Riyadh’s part to prevent Yemen’s ‘southern question’ from fueling friction in the Emirati-Saudi alliance. A UAE official issued the following statement: “There is no daylight between the UAE and Saudi Arabia when it comes to Yemen. We are completely aligned… We remain deeply concerned over the situation in Aden, and the coalition’s engagement on-the-ground is evolving with the aim of establishing conditions for stability, security and peace.”
Looking ahead, the situation in southern Yemen will likely remain volatile, with prominent analysts warning of a “civil war within a civil war” as southern secessionists continue fighting Hadi’s loyalists. As that unfolds, the Saudis and Emiratis will try manage their conflicting interests and different priorities in Yemen in a way that prevents a major rift in their broader relationship.
Khalid al-Jaber is the director of the MENA Institute for Research in Washington DC.