Southern separatists further complicate the Yemen war

 01 Feb 2018 - 10:52

No ally of Saudi Arabia has contributed more to Riyadh’s nearly three-year-old military campaign in Yemen than the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Even though Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not been on the same page regarding numerous questions over Yemen’s future such as the aspirations of the local Muslim Brotherhood branch and southern separatism, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have, at least up until now, managed their differences over Yemen somewhat effectively. In general, Saudi Arabia and the UAE align extremely closely on regional issues, particularly regarding Iranian influence and Tehran’s allies and militant proxies throughout the Arab world.

Yet recent events in Aden are creating an unprecedented challenge for the Saudi/UAE alliance with the two Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states being opposing stakeholders in clashes between the Saudi-backed internationally-recognized government and the Emirati-supported South Transitional Council (STC). The heightened possibility of South Yemen returning to existence 28 years after Yemen’s unification is adding a new layer of complexity to the war-torn country’s chaos. 

Even prior to the eruption of Yemen’s civil war and the Saudi-led coalition’s entry into the conflict in 2014 and 2015, respectively, southern separatism had gained traction among Yemenis in Aden and other southern governorates based on widespread dissatisfaction with how the country’s 1990 unification played out. Although Yemen’s dominant southern separatist faction previously allied with Abrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s government against the Iran-allied Houthi rebel movement, the STC has lost patience with Hadi as the security and humanitarian crises in southern Yemen have exacerbated. Angry at Hadi for failing to bring security to southern Yemen, a growing number of southerners see their country’s internationally-recognized government as illegitimate. 

On January 28, STC forces took over government buildings in Aden after threatening to topple Hadi’s government. Prime Minister Ahmed bin Dagher alleged that the STC was waging a separatist coup in the southern city, which became the temporary base for Hadi’s government after the Houthis captured Sana‘a in 2014. The Hadi government called on other Arab states to intervene directly against the STC amid clashes that killed at least ten. Yet the Saudi and Emirati forces in Aden did not intervene. 

The future political environment of Aden and other southern governorates are uncertain. Given the southern separatists’ longstanding difficulties in uniting behind a leadership for their cause, it remains to be seen whether those aspiring for southern independence can overcome such a political handicap. That said, the STC has demonstrated its rising relevance in Yemen with the strength to seriously challenge the Hadi government’s nominal control. In any event, should the STC violently recreate South Yemen with Emirati support, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will be required to reconcile their divergent interests. Unquestionably, if the STC’s actions cause Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s disagreements to fuel greater friction in Saudi-Emirati relations, the Houthis will capitalize on such divisions between the two dominant countries in the Saudi-led coalition. 

Should Yemen divide between north and south, Iran will be allied with the entity — Ansarullah — controlling the north and the UAE allied with the STC in Aden. For Abu Dhabi, the prospects for an independent state in southern Yemen offer the Emirates a geopolitically valuable opportunity to establish a foothold situated along the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Bab-el-Mandeb within close proximity to the African continent. The STC’s challenge to Hadi’s nominal rule in Aden is deeply alarming as it raises greater consideration of a new environment in a divided Yemen whereby Riyadh cannot empower the Hadi government in the south—let alone the north—as the kingdom’s campaign to disarm the Houthi rebellion remains an abysmal failure.

Should such a setback to Saudi Arabia’s agenda in Yemen occur with the recreation of South Yemen, the development would further highlight Riyadh’s inability to conduct a military campaign in Yemen with a unified coalition of Arab states. Given Egypt’s refusal to enter the conflict and Qatar’s ejection from the coalition in June 2017, the Saudis have largely relied on the UAE and Sudan to fight the Houthi rebels. Yet Saudi Arabia is contending with a de facto Houthi proto-state in northern Yemen that is increasingly capable of threatening the kingdom’s security with missile attacks and developments in Aden that are heightening frictions between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. 

Dr. Khalid Al Jaber is the Director of Gulf International Forum and Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics.