Yemen’s President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi has renewed calls for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to be expelled from the Saudi-led anti-Houthi coalition, because of Abu Dhabi’s diverging policies which undermine the Yemeni government’s authority. More widely, these events have sparked wider concerns that a greater split between Saudi Arabia and the UAE is emerging over the war in Yemen.
Such tensions have evolved throughout the war, which is now in its fifth year. In January 2018, southern separatists clashed with Hadi government forces in Aden, following the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council’s (STC) declaration of ‘independence’ in 2017. Subsequently, in May 2018 the UAE then increased its military presence on the geostrategic Aden-linked island of Socotra.
These differences erupted again this year on August 10 as a result of the Aden coup, when southern separatists seized Yemeni government positions including the palace and military locations. This sparked what looks set to be a prolonged civil war in southern Yemen.
Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have pursued different strategies throughout the Saudi-led intervention against the Houthi rebels since March 2015. Riyadh has focused on a bombing campaign against the Houthis in the North, whilst Abu Dhabi has trained and equipped various southern militias in order to push the Houthis back out from the south, and to allegedly fight Al Qaeda.
Despite Saudi Arabia openly supporting the unified Yemeni government, the UAE has backed the southern secessionists. However, these differences have not openly damaged their relations so far. On September 8, 2019 a joint statement was issued which called for “constructive dialogue” between both the STC and Hadi’s government. Riyadh is showing how keen it is to preserve the alliance, especially after firing the Yemeni minister, Mutaher Enan, who had criticised UAE policies in south Yemen.
Yet, in spite of the rift between the factions they support, both sides are clearly seeking to maintain an alliance. Their immediate aim is to gain geopolitical influence, rather than supporting these political factions. This is not surprising, given that despite some diverging strategies, both states have a similar goal of keeping Yemen in a weakened state following the post-Arab Spring political transformations, which initially boosted their foreign policy alignment.
Saudi Arabia has sought to influence Yemen since its founding in 1932. Riyadh is now using Hadi’s legitimacy to intervene in Yemen, whilst keeping it weak and dependent on Saudi support and investment as a soft power measure; as seen through its particular aid and reconstruction measures.
Along with the use of its proxy militias to gain control over southern Yemen’s ports for maritime trade purposes, the UAE also fears democratic success and political independence in a nearby Gulf country, as this could inspire the Muslim Brotherhood and reformist calls within its own territory. These concerns are heightened by the fact that Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Islah, grew as a soft Islamist and pro-democracy party after the Arab Spring.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE also have similar foreign policy strategies with regards to counter regional democratic transformations, with the aim being to maintain the regional order and their own political systems.
Both states bankrolled Egypt’s military coup in July 2013 against the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Similarly, they have both supported Khalifa Haftar in Libya, seeking to replicate the Egyptian model and sabotage the country’s UN-led peace process and democratic negotiations with the Government of National Accord in Tripoli.
In Sudan, they have both sought to shore up military rule, in order to weaken democratic hopes and Islamist influence. In Tunisia, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have backed pre-revolution political figures and tried to stifle the country’s post-revolution transition because it initially inspired revolutions in other countries, while at the same time undermining the democratic Islamist Ennahda party.
The alliance is crucial for both sides, not only in Yemen but elsewhere in the region. Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen on the part of the UN-backed government has granted the UAE justification to intervene itself; while the UAE’s presence gives Riyadh more support and legitimacy. Both operate as crucial allies elsewhere regionally and attempts to blockade Qatar have bought them particularly close together, under the so-called ‘Anti-Terror Quartet’ alongside Egypt and Bahrain. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have subsequently forged a military alliance.
Now, with the September 14 attacks on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil facilities, which US officials blamed on Iran despite the Houthis claiming responsibility, and Iran’s alleged seizing of an Emirati oil tanker, Riyadh and the Abu Dhabi could show shared concerns over Iran, tightening their alliance further. Meanwhile the Houthis have threatened to strike the UAE, demonstrating that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE still have tensions with the faction, despite Abu Dhabi’s previous military backdown.
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash called on the international community to stand by Riyadh after the Aramco attacks, emphasising the strength of the Saudi-UAE alliance.
Despite some differences in Yemen and the UAE’s previous efforts to de-escalate tensions with Iran, fear of regional democracy and mutual security concerns have cemented the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s alliance to one another. Such an alliance means they would continue to seek compromises over any geopolitical disagreements in Yemen, as they did in April 2018 when the UAE increased its military presence on the island of Socotra, which led Saudi Arabia to negotiate a deal for a partial Emirati withdrawal after Yemeni government complaints.
As clashes in Yemen continue, the STC has become increasingly dominant, despite some temporary Hadi successes pushing them back in August. UAE support for the STC is continuing, particularly as it carried out airstrikes against the Hadi government, helping the secessionist militias recapture Aden. With the UAE announcing a military withdrawal from fighting with the Houthis in July and government and secessionist infighting in the south looking unlikely to decrease, the Houthis have a greater opportunity to secure their position in the north.
Despite some evident differences regarding Yemen, Saudi Arabia has avoided condemning the UAE and its support for secessionists. Though Riyadh will not support the STC’s secessionist ambitions at this point, it is forced to tolerate the UAE’s actions. Without Abu Dhabi’s presence in the coalition, Saudi Arabia would lose legitimacy to intervene in Yemen against the Houthis. This legitimacy is in fact only intensifying amid the Houthis ongoing firing of rockets into Saudi territory.
Although Hadi government ministers have condemned the UAE’s actions, with Hadi even openly calling the UAE an occupying power, Saudi Arabia’s inaction despite openly provocative Emirati policies shows Riyadh is prioritizing its alliance with Abu Dhabi. This puts the UAE in a more advantageous position to secure greater future influence in Yemen, a situation which Riyadh, for now, will likely be forced to accept.