Monday,17 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)
Monday,17 June, 2019
Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Yemeni War : Saudi Arabia and the Emirates

Saudi-Emirati cooperation in the Yemeni theatre of war is tied to the dynamics of conflict between competing axes in the region. While currently strong, a low ebb could follow, writes Hossam Radman in the first of a three-part series


Yemeni War : Saudi Arabia and the Emirates

اقرأ باللغة العربية

The status quo in the Yemeni war is no longer sustainable. This condition was shaped two years ago by the balances of forces and historical and geographical realities which, in turn, formed the forward contact lines between the chief adversaries: the Sanaa-based alliance between the Houthi movement and the supporters of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in the north, and the internationally recognised government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which is currently based in Aden. The latter, which is commonly referred to as the “legitimacy” camp, is supported by the Saudi-led Arab coalition. The demarcation lines between the two camps have proven stubbornly unmovable. The “legitimacy” camp with its various alliances has been able to extend its control over the territory of South Yemen (as defined by the pre-1990 partition lines) plus the Mareb and Jawf provinces to the east. The Houthi-Saleh forces remain ensconced in the areas of their grassroots bases in the north (noted for its rugged mountainous terrain) plus the province of Hodeida, the last of the vital coastal cities that is still controlled by the Sanaa-based coalition.

Yemeni War : Saudi Arabia and the Emirates

During the period of relative military and political calm, the various local and regional adversaries manoeuvred to strengthen their military hand and consolidate more power. But as they were unable to direct their accumulated surplus power towards achieving a qualitative breakthrough in the ranks of their “conventional” adversaries, this surplus automatically translated itself into internal rifts and conflicts within each of the opposing camps.

Accordingly, in the substrata of the Yemeni civil war we find strains in three basic dualities: the Houthi and Saleh contingents in the Sanaa-based alliance, the Southern Movement versus the “legitimacy” camp in Aden, and, at the regional level, the Saudi Arabia-UAE duo. From time to time, the tensions within each duality express themselves with the purest clarity, splintering the patina of mutual political courtesies necessitated by their “alliances of necessity”. In this three-part series, Al-Ahram Weekly will explore the contradictions within each of these dualities that have aggravated the tensions between their component parts and prevented their alliances of expedience from developing into strategic alliances.


SAUDI ARABIA AND THE UAE — FROM COOPERATION TO RIVALRY TO COMPLEMENTARY COLLABORATION: In March 2015, Riyadh, suddenly pointing to the spectre of the “looming danger” that threatened its national security, decided to put all its sister Arab nations to the test as it flexed the efficacy of its new regional leadership, which it inaugurated with the decision to launch a war to restore “legitimacy” to Yemen. By this time, the Houthi-led insurrection had reached its peak with its invasion of the south after having forced the internationally recognised Yemeni president to flee to Saudi Arabia.

“Either pounce or clear out” was how the late Mohamed Hassanein Heikal described the Saudi monarch’s call to Arab brothers to join the Arab coalition, which was framed as an extension of the Joint Arab Defence Treaty. After various forms of arm-twisting and emotional blackmail, most Arab governments signed on, if only in token ways, to the war effort. (Riyadh at the time billed the war as a blitz campaign that would achieve victory in a matter of weeks. Now it is in its third year and more complex and intractable than ever.)

In the media, the “Arab coalition” became a part of the rhetoric of boasting multiparty support for and involvement in the “Storm of Resolve” operations. On the ground, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the only two real players involved in the risks and calculations of this conflict, and prepared to pay the price in money, arms and blood.

The Iranian peril and the geopolitical and strategic proximity between Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi furnished a reasonable basis for the first ever military cooperation between the two. However, their strategy and aims in Yemen remained obscure and confused. At the official level, it rarely went beyond the reiteration of slogans about the “unity of Arab blood” and the threat of a fourth Arab capital falling into Tehran’s hands.

Following the success of the “Golden Arrow” operations, which liberated the temporary Yemeni capital, Aden and the rest of the cities of the south, the military cooperation was translated politically through a Saudi-engineered package of appointments to the government in Aden intended both to reward and reassure Abu Dhabi. One of the appointees, for example, was Khaled Bahah who was made vice president in addition to his post as prime minister (he was the last Yemeni prime minister to have been confirmed by parliament). In addition, President Hadi dismissed the governor of Aden, Naef Al-Bakri, known to be close to the Congregation of Reform (Islah) Party, and replaced him with Jaafar Saad, who was close to the UAE. After the assassination of this energetic and capable governor, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi pressured for the appointment of Aidarous Al-Zoubaidi as governor of Aden and General Shalal Ali Shaea as the governorate’s security director. These two men are now Abu Dhabi’s closest allies in the south.

But, despite the abovementioned appointments, the rules of the game remained unclear to both players, both in terms of the nature of their relationship and in terms of their respective designs in Yemen. Thus, while Riyadh continued to wield the conventional political strings and leverages it has held in its hands for decades, the UAE plunged directly into the battlefield in order to secure military positions with every advance it made without, moreover, relying on the tools affiliated with “legitimacy”.

After sustaining considerable losses in the battles in the north, Abu Dhabi decided to pit all its military weight in the south, especially along the coastal areas. On the basis of its experiences during the sharp turns in the course of battle on the ground, it forged a concept for a new modus operandi. This would bring it closer to Washington than to Riyadh.


FROM CONFUSION TO RIVALRY: April 2016 marked a turning point in the Saudi-UAE relationship. Abu Dhabi’s new outlook had more in common with US policy which Riyadh had defied through its direct intervention in Yemen.

If a permanent Emirati presence in Yemen is partially dependent on Abu Dhabi’s ties with Saudi Arabia, it is entirely dependent on the US umbrella. The US, for its part, regards the UAE’s armed forces as a more effective military body and it sees Abu Dhabi as readier to fight terrorism in southern Yemen than Saudi Arabia which has shown a tendency to ally with extremist groups against the Houthis and Saleh.

Abu Dhabi fulfilled these expectations. The focus of the Emirati military effort did, indeed, shift to the fight against terrorism and preparations to liberate the eastern city of Al-Mukalla from Al-Qaeda. In practical terms, this meant that Abu Dhabi had signed on to the “Obama creed” which was perceived as a threat to shift regional power balances in favour of Tehran. While Riyadh continued to press its ally into the service of settling the battle for Sanaa, Abu Dhabi tried to convince Riyadh of the need to safeguard Aden. In fact, at one point UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Mohamed Gargash stated outright that his country’s military mission in Yemen had nearly come to an end and that now its task was to “support legitimacy in the liberated areas”.

The liberation of Al-Mukalla simultaneously meant the extension of UAE influence to the geostrategically crucial far east of Yemen. Such a step would shift the balances of powers and the reins of strategic decision-making towards the Emirati ruling house, a prospect that the Yemeni government moved to pre-empt by dismissing Bahah as vice president and replacing him with Mohsen Al-Ahmar and by appointing Ahmed Ubeid Bin Daghr as prime minister. Al-Ahmar is a sworn enemy of the UAE while Bin Daghr, once affiliated with former president Saleh, is now Riyadh’s man in Aden. This was the first political slap that brought the rivalry between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh into the open.

With the removal of Abu Dhabi’s men from the seats of government in Aden, the UAE moved to up its military presence in Yemen, whether through the creation of militias called Al-Hizam (Security Belt) Brigade and Nukhba (Elite) Forces, or by establishing military bases along the Yemeni coast.


MILITARY COOPERATION AND POLITICAL ALTERCATION: By the time Barack Obama left office, the UAE had liberated most of the southern cities from Al-Qaeda. With the rise of Trump and his two-pronged policy of fighting takfiri terrorism, on the one hand, and the branches of Iranian influence in the region, on the other, the sources of Saudi-UAE dispute faded. This would impact on the stagnant lines of confrontation in the civil war. At the outset of 2017, “Operation Golden Spear” was launched along the western coast of Yemen. Moving from Bab Al-Mandeb up to Mokha, this operation was the most important development in the course of military confrontations since the liberation of Mareb.

But, if the Emirati push suited Riyadh’s goals, the fact that Abu Dhabi decided to call in its southern allies (from the secessionist Southern Movement or from the Salafi bloc, to help resolve the battles in the northern provinces) rankled with many of the local players close to Riyadh, the Islah Party and President Hadi above all. This set into motion a new round of political horn-butting which manifested itself, firstly, in the Aden airport crisis which culminated in the dismissal of Al-Zoubaidi from his post as governor of Aden followed by the dismissal of four other governors associated with the Southern Council, which had been proclaimed by Al-Zoubaidi in May. Once again, the fissure broadened between the Southern Movement and Abu Dhabi, on the one hand, and between the Yemeni government and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, on the other.

Instead of remaining an authentic partner in the pro-legitimacy camp, the UAE found itself forced to propel its ally in southern Yemen to create its pro-secessionist independent political entity. The Southern Movement furnished Abu Dhabi the political legitimacy it needed in the south even as it maintained its place in Arab coalition operations along the western coast.

In fact, the UAE’s role in Yemen has less to do with the local interplay there than it does with the conflict between competing axes in the region. When we observe the noticeable Emirati presence in Eritrea and Yemen, we can better understand the central role it is performing in moving the Red Sea basin from the spheres of influence of the Iranian and Turkish axes to the “moderate Arab” axis. Yet, regardless of these regional dimensions, the dynamics of the situation in Yemen and in the south, in particular, forebode immanent explosion. But then, just as the seething tensions in the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi duality had risen to the surface, significant regional developments entered the scene and changed everything.


FROM RIVALRY TO MUTUALLY COMPLEMENTARY COLLABORATION: Developments in June proved critical to giving root to the strategic collaboration between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. That was when the embargo crisis suddenly erupted between the Arab quartet (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt) and Qatar. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were drawn together again by their shared rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood-Qatari-Turkish role in that country.

But the event that month that would have an even greater impact on the Yemeni context was the promotion of then deputy crown prince Mohamed bin Salman to crown prince, replacing former crown prince Mohamed bin Nayef.

Bin Nayef, a member of the old guard, had monopolised management of the Yemeni question, the conflicting factors of which he handled in a traditional manner of forming special committees without bringing on board any local or regional partners.

The rumours regarding the like-mindedness shared by Mohamed bin Zayed and Mohamed bin Salman are no longer in doubt today. It has been borne out in the relationship between the two allies in the Yemen conflict. Roles and functions were divided smoothly and in a manner intended to complement one another, while bearing in mind the priorities and abilities of each side.

The UAE remained tasked with the management the south  — containing the forces of the Southern Movement, combating terrorism and the Muslim Brotherhood, following through on the battles of the western coasts and safeguarding international maritime corridors and the Red Sea — while Saudi Arabia focused on the bigger picture: the management of the political dimension of the Yemeni crisis, rationalising and steering the legitimate Yemeni government, supporting pro-legitimacy forces in battles in the north, the east and along Saudi Arabia’s southern borders and, more importantly, directing local transformations through calls for economic and cultural reform. At a broader regional level, Saudi Arabia is in charge of the confrontation with Iran, luring Iraq, and manoeuvring in Syria.


WILL THE HONEYMOON LAST? In light of the current interplay in Yemen and the regional climate, the UAE-Saudi honeymoon in Yemen could last as long as the UAE actors in Yemen suit Saudi designs there; then the alliance will grow stronger. This said, there remain several impediments:

- The inability of the two sides to produce systems of sound governance and, hence, attractive models in the liberated areas. This failure is due to the structural flaws that riddle the legitimacy camp, which is a black hole of corruption. It is also a product of the rivalry phase in which Emirati players were eliminated from government positions rendering the legitimacy camp less influential.

- The volatile internal tensions in the areas under their control. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE may possess enough influence to steer the actions of their local allies, they are incapable of eliminating the sources of conflict between them. That requires a comprehensive socio-political settlement process, which still appears very out of reach.

- Apart from the understandings that have arisen due to international and regional factors, the two allies still lack a clear strategy for how to manage and resolve the Yemeni conflict.

- The balances of power in many areas are strongly and increasingly in favour of the UAE side of the duality. If the young crown prince is willing to turn a blind eye to this, the same does not apply to the decision-making circles in the Saudi “deep state”. Without a comprehensive mutual understanding that reconciles all the contradictions in the Saudi-Emirati alliance as concerns all dimensions of the Yemeni conflict, the relationship between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh may swing from collaboration to another phase antagonist rivalry.

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