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Jonathan Fenton-Harvey

Saudi Arabia and UAE's dangerous rivalry over Yemen

Saudi minister (C) welcomes Emirati (L) and Bahrain ministers for meeting on Yemen war [Getty]

Date of publication: 31 May, 2018

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Analysis: Saudi Arabia and the UAE may be coalition partners providing military support to Yemen's Hadi, but their alliance is mostly one of convenience, rather than loyalty, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
Not only do Saudi Arabia's and the United Arab Emirates' differing ambitions in Yemen increasingly threaten their alliance, they also risk further destabilising the already-war-torn country.

Saudi Arabia began a bombing campaign in Yemen in March 2015, backed by a coalition of Arab and African states, claiming to support the internationally-recognised President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who was forced to flee by Houthi rebels. The UAE is the second largest coalition partner, providing military support to Hadi with Saudi Arabia, and backs pro-government militias. Yet their alliance is mostly one of convenience, rather than Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) loyalty.

Saudi Arabia staunchly supports Hadi as Yemen's sole leader, while the UAE supports the Southern Transitional Council (STC) which seeks an independent South Yemen state. Both sides cooperate now due to the Houthi insurgency, beginning in late 2014, which threatens their plans for Yemen.

Riyadh has received the most criticism towards the coalition's actions in Yemen, which has contributed to what the UN calls "the world's worst humanitarian crisis." While the UAE previously attracted less criticism for its role in Yemen, observers increasingly view it as divisive. Yemeni officials recently said the Emiratis are more threatening as Iran.

While the UAE previously attracted less criticism for its role in Yemen, observers increasingly view it as divisive. Yemeni officials recently said the Emiratis are more threatening as Iran

Socotra island dispute

Alongside fighting the Houthis, both nations seek to occupy various Yemeni regions. Socotra island recently became the latest battleground between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh's aspirations, further testing the two's relations. 

The UAE in May controversially expanded its military presence on the strategic, resource-rich island. Yemeni officials then complained, prompting Saudi Arabia to bring in its own troops. Others have criticised the UAE for wanting to exploit Socotra's natural resources and strengthen its own geopolitical position.

While the UAE later agreed to partially withdraw, showing Saudi Arabia had outmanoeuvred the UAE in at this point, it still has a presence on the island, suggesting the confrontation here is not over.

"Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE compete for influence, power and resources in the south of Yemen. Their current jostling over the island of Socotra is due to its geostrategic ties to the southern provinces and Aden," Dr Theodore Karasik, senior adviser at Gulf State Analytics, told The New Arab.

"They need to resolve their differences now to prevent a greater clash from scenarios like this in the future," he added.

A stronghold in Socotra would give the UAE greater influence in Aden – Yemen's de facto capital, which it has long had its eyes on. Aden's port would extend Dubai's maritime trade to the Indian Ocean and become an alternative to the Straits of Hormuz – an unreliable trade route due to its shared use with Iran. It would also help the UAE expand its empire towards East Africa.

It is therefore the latest battle in the race for regional hegemony between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Socotra island recently became the latest battleground between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh's aspirations, further testing the two's relations [Getty]

Clashes over South Yemen

Both nations currently ignore their differing views towards Hadi, which could become more problematic in the future.

The UAE supports the southern secessionists, as a friendly Southern government would help secure Aden. 

The UAE reportedly went as far as threatening to withdraw from the coalition unless Saudi Arabia stopped supporting Hadi, while it would likely maintain a strong presence in the south.

Both sides came to a standoff in Aden in February when the UAE backed anti-Hadi separatists against government forces, leading to clashes which killed over 10 and injured 100. Yet Riyadh and Abu Dhabi resolved their differences at this point.

Due to the complex nature of Yemen's conflict, where factions with opposing end goals often work together, both countries will set aside their quarrels while the Houthis and other adversaries remain at large.

"Each country has its own interests in Yemen, but they don't currently diverge enough to result in a parting of ways. The UAE and KSA have been able to settle their differences in Yemen amicably and diplomatically, and I expect they will continue to do so," Joost Hiltermann, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at International Crisis Group, told The New Arab.

Hiltermann however indicated there may be risk of a fall out after the conflict ends.

"Relations between the two could deteriorate in the future, but I doubt this would happen before a viable political process in Yemen, with a transitional government in place and a renewed effort to address the vexatious southern question," he added.

Read also: Yemen suffers cultural vandalism during its war

Since 2017, the UAE has indicated it has long-term plans in the south, rapidly expanding its military bases, and supporting civilian infrastructure, possibly creating further problems with Riyadh.

Yemen's conflict highlights that Saudi-Emirati ties are weaker than apparent. While the two ambitious powers may stem their differences for now, it is likely there could be a greater fall out in the future when the conflict dies down, and both sides are faced with negotiating a political solution. Unless they can achieve a compromise, GCC relations could further deteriorate.

Each country has its own interests in Yemen, but they don't currently diverge enough to result in a parting of ways

Further instability in Yemen

Yemen has become a battleground for various international ambitions, which further fragments the country. Emirati and Saudi differences alone decrease the changes of a solid political solution, even after the conflict, with various factions becoming empowered.

Read also: Saudi Arabia's blockade hits ordinary Yemenis hardest

"Before the war, we had just two major parties, the Hadi regime and the Houthis. Today, we have the Southern Transitional Council, armed militias in southern and eastern Yemen, and others belonging to Tariq Saleh, with the support of the UAE," Mareb Alward, a Yemen-based analyst, told The New Arab.

"The UAE's support for separatist parties strengthens the division in Yemen and contributes to delaying a political solution," he added.

Saudi Arabia has backed Yemen's Muslim Brotherhood branch 'al-Islah', which the UAE despises, prompting Abu Dhabi to support Salafists in the south which may have non-hostile relations to al-Qaeda. Here is another example of how their rivalry adds further complexities to Yemen's conflict.

In both the short and the long term, such differing policies will further destabilise Yemen, and ultimately the Yemeni people will suffer the most.


Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist. Follow him on twitter: @jfentonharvey 

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