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Austin Bodetti

Saudi Arabia's non-aggression pact with al-Qaeda in Yemen

A petrol station after it was hit by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Sanaa [Getty]

Date of publication: 13 June, 2018

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Analysis: Saudi Arabia's involvement in the Yemeni civil war has forced it to balance the competing demands of counterterrorism and national interest, writes Austin Bodetti.
The involvement of Saudi Arabia in the Yemeni civil war has forced it to balance the competing demands of counterterrorism and national interest. 

While the kingdom has prioritised fighting the Houthis, Iranian-backed rebels who seized the Yemeni capital in September 2014, the United States has asked Saudi Arabia to dedicate more resources to combating al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the militant organisation's most sophisticated franchises.

"The Saudis see the Houthis, in cooperation with Iran, as a direct threat to the security and stability of Saudi Arabia's southern border," said Gerald M Feierstein, US ambassador to Yemen from 2010 to 2013. 

"Therefore, their emphasis has been preventing a successful Houthi coup d'état in Sanaa," added Feierstein, now director for Gulf affairs and government relations at the Middle East Institute.

Some observers have posited that Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and the kingdom's focus on the Houthis in particular has empowered AQAP, which has taken advantage of Yemen's implosion and the resultant humanitarian crisis to increase fundraising and recruitment.

Read also: How Iran's role differs in Syria and Yemen

AQAP in April 2015 captured the southeastern Yemeni port of Mukalla from the Yemeni army, a motley alliance of militiamen, soldiers, and tribesmen backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Yemeni officials estimated that AQAP could raise up to two million dollars a day taxing shipments to and from the city.

Yemeni officials estimated that AQAP could raise up to two million dollars a day taxing shipments to and from the city

Saudi Arabia's attention, however, remained further west, on the battle of Taiz - a city under Houthi siege. The rebels had little presence in the environs of Mukalla.

"In a way, Saudi Arabia is exploiting the followers of AQAP in the war against the Houthis by allowing AQAP fighters to participate in it," Olfat al-Dobai, a professor of sociology at the University of Taiz, told The New Arab.

"Even some AQAP members believe that Saudi Arabia is using them. For example, some whom Saudi Arabia has labeled as al-Qaeda are fighting the Houthis in Taiz."

She cited the example of Abu al-Abbas, a Taiz-based anti-Houthi warlord whom the Emirates and Saudi Arabia bankrolled for years - only to blacklist after the US Treasury accused him of fundraising for AQAP and the Islamic State group. Abu al-Abbas denies associations with either.

Dobai said the example pointed to a wider trend: the anarchy engendered by a Saudi-led war against the Houthis allowed AQAP, which opposes the rebels just as much as the kingdom, to infiltrate anti-Houthi militias across Yemen. She noted that AQAP members in Taiz had only numbered in the dozens before the Yemeni Civil War. Reports suggest that Abu al-Abbas leads thousands.

Prominent American think-tanks such as the Brookings Institution, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and the Jamestown Foundation have released reports concurring with Dobai's assessment.

The International Crisis Group, meanwhile, warned that AQAP would only grow more powerful without a political settlement to end the Yemeni civil war.

The International Crisis Group, meanwhile, warned that AQAP would only grow more powerful without a political settlement to end the Yemeni civil war

Others have cautioned against such alarmist analyses.

"AQAP has attempted to exploit the political chaos in Yemen to expand its footprint and re-establish its control of territory, particularly in Hadramawt and Shabwa," Feierstein, the former State Department official, told The New Arab.

"But aggressive Coalition responses, with substantial US unilateral and bilateral coordination, have limited AQAP's success."

Though Saudi Arabia may consider the Houthis the bigger threat, it has little sympathy for AQAP, which conducted a series of operations in the kingdom in the early 2000s.

"AQAP has mounted terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, including the attempted assassination of former Minister of Interior - later Crown Prince - Mohammed bin Naif," said Feierstein.

"There is no doubt that the Saudis have taken the threat from AQAP very seriously and have worked closely with the US and international partners to defeat it over the years. That cooperation continues, as confirmed by then-CIA Director Pompeo when he visited Saudi Arabia."

Dobai added that the ascent of Mohammed bin Salman, who replaced Mohammed bin Naif as Saudi crown prince last year and has billed himself as a reformer at home and an ally of the Western world abroad, could have "a large, positive impact" on the fight against AQAP.

Read also: Read also: Saudi Arabia casts shadow over US role in Yemen crisis

The US has found another important ally in the Emirates, whose involvement in Yemen's territorial fringes rivals Saudi Arabia's intervention in the country's western heartland.

"The UAE has been more active in the south and east of Yemen, therefore in greater contact with violent extremist groups, and they have prioritised the fight against AQAP in their regions," said Feierstein, pointing to Emirati operations in the vicinity of Mukalla.

The Emirates played a decisive role in recapturing the port from AQAP in 2016. Emirati commandos have also assisted American special operations forces fighting the militants in Yemen, including in an ill-fated 2017 raid that resulted in the death of an American soldier.

Even so, the Emirates have also faced accusations of neo-colonialism in Yemen after reports that Emirati soldiers occupied the famed Yemeni island of Socotra and tortured alleged AQAP detainees.

Saudi Arabia has brewed controversies of its own in the country. Human rights groups accuse the kingdom of bombing civilians and fostering one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.

Britain and the US, which arm the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have also faced criticism for enabling the abuses. Still, the West and its Arab allies continue to coordinate in the Yemeni war.

Britain and the US, which arm the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have also faced criticism for enabling teh abuses. Still, the West and its Arab allies continue to coordinate in the Yemeni war

"In his May 2017 visit to Riyadh, President Trump laid out a full range of cooperative efforts between the US and our Arab partners, including working together to address counter-terrorism finance and communications strategies as well as working together on kinetic operations to defeat and eliminate violent extremists groups in the region," Feierstein said of future cooperation between the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and the US.

"All of those areas of potential cooperation remain priorities."

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has increased sanctions on AQAP in coordination with the US and its allies in the Gulf, and the Emirates has maintained operations against the group, designated a terrorist organisation by much of the international community. The US has even rewarded Saudi Arabia by assisting it in targeting Houthi troves of ballistic missiles, some of which the rebels have launched at Riyadh.

The US considers Saudi Arabia a critical partner in the "War on Terror". Whether the kingdom's recent efforts against AQAP will prove enough to mitigate the indirect benefits that the Saudi-led intervention has provided the militants, however, remains a question for American policymakers.


Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist focusing on conflict in the greater Middle East. 

He has reported from Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan and Thailand, and his writing has appeared in Motherboard, The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, Wired, and Yahoo News.

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