A recent surge in fighting in southern Yemen is part of an overarching Saudi-UAE strategy to keep the Arab world’s most impoverished nation in a perpetual weak state in order to serve their own objectives, according to analysts.
The battles this month in the city of Aden between government forces loyal to Saudi Arabia-based President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the United Arab Emirates-backed separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) have added another layer of complexity to Yemen’s already multifaceted war.
The warring sides are nominal allies in the Saudi-UAE military coalition that intervened in 2015 in support of Yemen’s internationally recognised government after the Houthi rebel movement seized the capital, Sanaa, and much of northern Yemen.
But the recent clashes are not the first time the two sides have engaged in deadly fighting. Three days of battles in January last year killed dozens of people and wounded hundreds in Aden, the temporary seat of Hadi’s government. Earlier in August, things escalated again when the STC took effective control of Aden on August 10 after four days of fierce battles that killed at least 40, according to the United Nations.
On Wednesday, government forces were able to drive out STC militias from several districts in Aden, including the presidential palace and the airport, before the separatists were able to regain control of the city the next day with the help of deadly UAE air raids.
The violence has exposed cracks in the coalition fighting the Houthis and, on the surface, it would appear Saudi Arabia and the UAE were heading for an armed conflict in Yemen through their own proxies.
“Not so,” said Abdul baqi Shamsan, a Yemeni academic and political analyst based in Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul.
Shamsan said despite the appearance of a rift, there is an obvious understanding between the UAE and Saudi Arabia when it came to Yemen.
He argued that Saudi Arabia would not challenge the UAE because both countries shared the strategic objective of keeping Yemen feeble to be able to implement their own different strategies.
“The UAE wants Yemen to be weak and divided to enable the South to secede,” he said, adding its interests include having the key port of Aden under the hold of its allies.
“In addition, the UAE will keep the strategic Socotra Island in the Arabian Sea under its control, where it already has established a military base,” he argued.
As for Saudi Arabia, Shamsan said the kingdom was eager to maintain control “over other parts of Yemen closer to its southern borders, especially Hadramwt, Shabwah and Mahrah provinces”.
‘Democratic Yemen a threat’
From 1967 to 1990, South Yemen was an independent state, with the port of Aden as its capital. To the northwest was the Yemen Arab Republic, or North Yemen. Its capital was Sanaa, which remained when the south merged with the north in 1990.
Four years later, an armed campaign for southern independence was crushed, failing to reverse the unification.
Gamal Gasim, a Yemeni-US a professor of political science at the Grand Valley State University in Michigan, said the unification of South and North Yemen in 1990 was never seen favourably by the Arab Gulf states.
“A united and a democratic Yemen is a serious threat to the Gulf monarchies, especially to Saudi Arabia, because it would serve as a model for the local populations due to its historic social and tribal ties with the Gulf,” he told Al Jazeera.
The UAE’s objectives
The UAE has been a dominant partner in the coalition Saudi Arabia assembled following an official request by Yemen’s internationally recognised government to help it avoid a Houthi takeover, but it has also charted its own course by establishing and supporting local militia groups in the south.
“The UAE is primarily interested in controlling south Yemen, particularly Aden and its strategic port, in order to prevent it from threatening its dominance of commercial shipping lanes in the region,” Shamsan said.
Gasim characterised the UAE’s policies in Yemen as displaying “political immaturity”, citing its “attempts to create a separate identity for South Yemen when some of its officials or its local allies often refer to it as the Arab South”.
“The UAE seems oblivious to the fact that the south cannot have its own political identity, simply because Yemenis regardless of what part of Yemen they are from share a collective and ancient Yemeni identity even before the modern Yemen state was founded,” he added.
Shamsan, meanwhile, argued the UAE’s main interest was to present itself to policymakers in Washington as a regional powerhouse and as an alternative to Qatar’s soft power in the Arab world, while also “spearheading the US war on terrorism against groups in the region”.
To that end, he continued, “the UAE will instruct some local affiliates it controls to carry out terrorism operations against other groups or local government targets to justify its military operations in Yemen as part of a war on terror“.
“The irony here is that even Saudi Arabia and the UAE are, too, acting as proxies for the US and Western countries in slicing up Yemen to serve global US objectives in its ‘war on terror‘ and to choke up Iranian influence in the region,” Shamsan said.
The Saudi objectives
According to the UN, the war has left about 24 million people – 80 percent of Yemen’s population – in need of humanitarian aid and protection, while more than three million have been forced from their homes.
Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the conflict is believed to have been masterminded by its now-Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in his efforts to prevent the Houthis from taking over Yemen completely – the rebels have been accused of being backed politically and military by Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional archrival.
But Crown Prince Mohammed, who also serves as a defence minister, has found himself stuck in the Yemeni shifting sands: unable to achieve victory and unable to leave.
The war has been at a stalemate for years, even as the US-backed coalition has carried out more than 18,000 raids on Houthi-controlled areas in an attempt to reverse their gains.
Gasim said that Saudi Arabia sees neighbouring Yemen as its strategic back yard and is adamant to prevent any regional adversary from establishing a foothold from where it could threaten the kingdom.
He said that despite Saudi Arabia never being enthusiastic about a unified Yemen, a division now would not serve its interests.
According to Gasim, this is because a southern secession would leave the Houthis in control of the north – thus allowing the Iranians to establish a permanent base at the southern Saudi borders.
The Houthis’ take: We are pragmatic
The recent clashes in the south between Hadi’s forces and the STC are also being closely monitored further north, in the areas controlled by the Houthis.
Mohamad al-Bukhait, a member of the political bureau of the rebels, described the fighting as part of a larger Saudi-UAE strategy to keep Yemen divided.
“These events prove the strategic mistake other Yemeni groups have committed when they called on the foreign Saudi and UAE intervention in Yemen, instead of engaging in Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue to resolve our differences,” he told Al Jazeera.
“While Saudi and UAE proxies are fighting tooth-and-nail on the ground, the victim is always Yemeni, not citizens of soldiers of these countries,” he added.
“Yemenis should be united against both countries. The only way to restore our sovereignty is by uniting our ranks and our guns against the foreign Saudi and Emiratis intervention in Yemen.”
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