On September 8, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) released a joint statement that reaffirmed their support for Yemen’s internationally recognized government and called for “constructive dialogue” between representatives of the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a UAE-aligned south Yemeni separatist movement. The statement highlights Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s efforts to present a united front on Yemen. Nonetheless, developments on the ground threaten their efforts, as clashes between Yemeni government forces and the STC have continued since the STC seized control of Aden on August 10.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s public efforts to work around their differences in Yemen are perhaps a damage control measure, given increasing speculation about a rift in their alliance. Disagreements between Saudi Arabia and the UAE date back to the early stages of the war, as both countries disagreed on whether the Houthis, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or ISIS posed the greatest security threat, but speculation of a rift surfaced in a major way after the UAE announced its military drawdown from Yemen in early July. Intra-alliance tensions only intensified after Abu Dhabi signed a maritime security agreement with Iran on August 1. To silence rumors, the UAE insisted that it consulted with Saudi Arabia on its policy shift in Yemen. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia hosted Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed to Riyadh on August 12 to discuss the situation in Yemen. Nonetheless, these efforts failed to end speculation. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are thus emphasizing areas of common ground in Yemen to dispel doubts about their cooperation.
Beyond overcoming poor optics, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are genuinely interested in maintaining their alliance, as their foreign policy agendas are closely intertwined. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are committed to containing the Houthis and are using this common threat to reboot their security partnership.
In southern Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have become increasingly concerned the Houthis could profit from the emergence of a new front in the ongoing war. Although UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash argued the UAE’s drawdown from Yemen would act as a confidence-building measure for the Houthis, Sana’a questioned the sincerity of the UAE’s intentions. For example, the Houthi drone strike on a military parade in Aden on August 1 resulted in the assassination of the UAE-backed Security Belt Forces (SBF) military commander Abu Yamamah al-Yafaei. The attack reminded the UAE of the Houthis’ capacity to threaten the STC and its strongholds in southern Yemen. To counter the Houthi threat, the UAE has trained 90,000 military personnel in south Yemen — a policy in alignment with Saudi airstrikes against Houthi-held areas of northern Yemen.
As intra-regional violence in Yemen escalates, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also negotiating a middle ground that can help them manage their divergent objectives. In diplomatic negotiations, Houthi representatives have contrasted their movement’s perceived cohesion with the divisions besetting the Saudi-led coalition to strengthen their case for international legitimacy.1 During Houthi chief diplomat Mohammed Abdulsalam’s recent trip to Tehran, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei extolled the Houthis for resisting a Saudi-UAE plot to divide Yemen. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are publicly highlighting their commitment to de-escalation and obfuscating their attempts to consolidate territorial spheres of influence in Yemen. In doing so, both nations hope to counter Houthi efforts to shed their Zaydi sectarian image and coalesce Yemeni nationalists around their movement.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to deploy new troops to southern Yemen and the UAE’s alleged transfer of combat vehicles to SBF in Aden suggests both sides are still trying to achieve tactical military victories. Yet the continued stalemate on the ground is forcing Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to assess their diplomatic options. While the Yemeni government stated it would not engage with the STC unless it withdrew from Aden, Saudi Arabia overruled this ultimatum by inviting a STC delegation to Jeddah on September 4. The STC’s trip did not go as planned as the Yemeni government insisted on direct negotiations with the UAE. Nonetheless, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see the STC’s acceptance of Saudi Arabia’s invitation for diplomacy as a step forward.
Saudi Arabia seeks to extricate itself from a military intervention that has severely damaged its international reputation. At the same time, the UAE aims to institutionalize its hegemony over southern Yemen. Senior officials from both countries — the Saudi Deputy Minister of Defense Khalid bin Salman and UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash —
have thus publicly supported a political solution to the war in Yemen. As Saudi Arabia and the UAE work around their disagreements on Yemen without sacrificing their vital interests, pro-government commentators and experts in both countries are assessing the merits of a federal solution and whether it would secure the legitimacy of Yemen’s UN-recognized government while granting southern Yemen greater autonomy.
Saudi official statements insist that Yemen’s reunification under President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi’s leadership is the only acceptable outcome. However, the Yemeni government’s consistent inability to consolidate territorial gains could force Riyadh to soften its position. In light of frequent Houthi drone strikes, Saudi Arabia’s increased deployment of military resources to southern Yemen underscores the difficulties of sustaining a simultaneous two-front war against the Houthis and the STC. In Saudi state-aligned media outlets, the acceptability of accommodating the STC’s demands is hotly debated.
Hardline voices like Saudi- American Public Affairs Committee (SAPRACA) President Salman al-Ansari have decried the rise of south Yemeni separatism as a consequence of the UAE’s narrow-minded assault on the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, moderate perspectives contend that a compromise is only possible if the STC rescinds the use of force and pursues the establishment of a south Yemeni state through diplomatic channels. The prediction that south Yemeni independence could trigger a domino effect of secessions on regional lines is widely accepted in Riyadh. As such, Saudi Arabia likely views a federal solution as the furthest it is willing to go in order to find common ground with the UAE and extricate itself from Yemen.
While the UAE views the creation of a south Yemeni client state as a valuable power projection lever in the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa, the feasibility of this objective is unclear. There is growing suspicion that Russia could support the UAE on the issue of southern independence in the UN Security Council. The Russian Foreign Ministry was the first to send an official request to meet with the STC in March, and Moscow’s recent statements have also failed to stress Yemen’s unity. However, Russian policymakers continue to view south Yemeni independence as a last resort, and the U.S. and European Union (EU) have consistently supported Yemen’s unity.2
Given the dearth of international support for south Yemeni independence, the UAE could accept a loose federal solution in Yemen if such a structure is the outcome of political negotiations.3 The UAE’s principal area of contention with Saudi Arabia is Hadi’s political role. Hadi’s description of the UAE as an occupying force, as well as his government’s support for the UAE’s expulsion from the Arab coalition, severely strained his relationship with the UAE. Indeed, the UAE’s prefers to replace Hadi without breaching the terms of UNSC Resolution 2216.4 But Saudi Arabia’s emphatic support for Hadi’s legitimacy could force Abu Dhabi to settle for a federal solution that dilutes his influence.
While a de-escalation of tensions between the Yemeni government and STC remains elusive, Saudi Arabia and the UAE could try to prevent the outbreak of a full-fledged intra-regional civil war. Doing so would dispel speculation about an intra-alliance rift, prevent the Houthis from exploiting violence in southern Yemen, and ratify a peace settlement that accommodates both countries’ interests.
Samuel Ramani is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializing on Russia-Middle East relations, with a focus on Syria, Yemen and the Gulf. Follow him on Twitter@samramani2.
1 Author’s e-mail interview with Nasser Arrabyee, a prominent Sana’a-based journalist, August 16, 2019.
2 Author’s email interview with former Russian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Andrei Baklanov, August 18, 2019.
3 Author’s phone interview with former United States Ambassador to the UAE Marcelle Wahba, June 26, 2019.