With Yemen’s Southern separatist rebels declaring ‘self-rule’ in southern Yemen, there remains little gainsaying that the crisis will escalate. Its roots, however, are not just in the internal divisions that have plagued the country since 2011 when Saleh was forced out of power; the present crisis, as also the whole war, has its roots in the broader geo-political tussle that exists, on the one hand, between Saudi Arabia/ ‘Arab coalition’ and the Houthis/Iran, and on the other, within the ‘Arab coalition.’ Whereas the ‘Arab coalition’ remains ‘united’ in their opposition to the Houthi take over of Yemen, as it continues preventing this war-torn country from transforming into a powerful regional player, yet within the coalition itself there’s critical internal divisions—particularly between Saudi Arabia and the UAE that continue complicating the crisis further, while also blocking all prospects of a peaceful settlement with the Houthis.
The move by the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which is backed by the UAE, has, first and foremost, thrown the ‘Riyad agreement’ in the dustbin. The Riyad deal, signed in November 2019, was not only a reflection of the on-going tussle between the Saudi backed Yemeni Government and the UAE backed STC, but also specifically meant to bridge the same gap within the ‘Arab coalition.’ The deal called in particular for a government composed of equal numbers of southerners and northerners, for the separatist forces to come under the control of the Saudi backed government, and for the STC to return all government buildings it had seized. But the Riyadh deal did not address southerners’ underlying grievances or their main issue of secession, fearing that sharing power will ultimately weaken Hadi’s government and Yemen will still become a UAE vessel state.
As such, now the fact that STC has declared ‘self-rule’, just falling short of total independence, shows that the Saudi attempts to force UAE’s interests to converge with their own have failed yet again, potentially exacerbating their bi-lateral relations which are already becoming fragile due to the UAE’s consistent drive towards achieving a ‘regional hegemon’ position, displacing the Saudis.
The divisions are, as it stands, becoming acute. When STC took over Aden in August 2019, it was a result of what the STC described as the joining of hands between the Houthis and the Saudi-backed Yemeni government i.e., both were trying to take control of the South and thus end the separatist drive. While it may be unrealistic to expect the Houthis allying with the Saudi-backed forces, there is little gainsaying that the Saudis do want to bring the South back in their fold. Doing so serves two Saudi objectives. First, bringing the South under their control will considerably weaken the UAE’s position in the country. Secondly, an end of ‘in-fighting’ will help gather the forces against the Houthis and present a united front, creating prospects of an eventual Saudi victory and Yemen’s perpetual subordination to the Saudi dictation.
The UAE, on the other hand, wants to divide the country and transform the southern region into its zone of influence. The UAE thus wants to create a vassal state in the south and prevent the port of Aden from becoming a hub for international shipping lanes jeopardising the viability of its own ports.
Whereas this objective should not worry the Saudis too much, since a divided Yemen will be a lot weaker; for the Saudis, however, the Houthi problem will still remain unresolved, preventing them from withdrawing from the conflict.
Besides it, while the Saudis do want to maintain Yemen weak and poor, they still do not want to divide the country and thereby directly allow the UAE to grow its regional influence in ways that will eventually harm Saudi ‘hegemonic ambitions.’ This explains why the Saudis were quick to denounced the ‘declaration of self-rule’; while the UAE merely expressed its concerns, although its strategy very much remains re-creating the state of Southern Yemen by pumping money and weapons, along with providing military training and political support to its allies in the South. This is how the UAE wants to both create a separate southern state, away from the influence of both the Saudis and the Islamist Islah party, a group closely allied with the Islamic Brotherhood that can currently be found among Hadi’s allies.
Given that Yemen’s increasing drift towards another war between the north and the south has its roots in broader geo-political competition, what seems really plausible is that the war will intensify and the Saudi-backed government, already weakened by Houthi military gains, will be fighting on two fronts. The Hadi government is already searching for ways to suppress the STC through force. The foreign minister, Mohammed al-Hadrami, called for Saudi Arabia to take “decisive measures against the continuing rebellion of the so-called Transitional Council.”
Certainly, a Saudi military effort to push back the STC forces will invite UAE’s opposition—something that will not only increase infighting in Yemen but also further push the country towards an eventual catastrophe, making it a victim of regional power struggle within the ‘Sunni Arab world’, namely the Saudis and the Emiratis.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.