Aden clashes highlight discord within Saudi coalition
Aug. 10 marks a milestone in the Yemeni war in terms of the repercussions for the unity of Yemeni soil and the future of the Saudi-led Arab coalition. It was on that day the “Security Belt” of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a UAE-allied separatist group, took over the presidential palace in the temporary capital Aden, which led to clashes between the UAE-allied forces and the Yemeni government forces, resulting in killings of dozens of people.
The seizure of the presidential palace, government institutions and military sites has triggered clear disagreement between Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Bin Zayed’s visit to Riyadh: According to some reports, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s visit to Saudi Arabia and his meetings with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman focused on the events in Aden in an effort to reach a common vision that would ensure the unity of the coalition, which has led a war against Houthi forces affiliated with Iran since 2015. In addition, the coalition’s leadership promised at the beginning of its formation that the war would not exceed weeks or months.
On the official level, Bin Zayed’s visit succeeded in reaching an agreement with the Saudi side on the withdrawal of the Security Belt forces from the places they controlled, including the presidential palace, the port of Aden, its international airport and other sites. As a result of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi’s visit, the strength of relations and the alliance between the two countries in the face of common threats were emphasized.
However, this does not negate the fact that differences remain between the two countries and there is a divergence in their vision for Yemen after the partial withdrawal of the UAE forces as well as over Iran following the visit of a UAE Coast Guard delegation to Tehran on July 30. During the visit, the security of maritime borders between the two countries was discussed without mentioning controversial issues related to the war in Yemen and US sanctions on Iran, which the UAE supports to reduce Iranian threats, considering it an alternative policy to war on Iran, a war that Saudi Arabia is also trying to avoid to some extent.
In its official proclamation, the UAE is trying to distance itself from the STC by calling for the need for dialogue between the conflicting parties. Saudi and UAE policies do not seem to be consistent in their long-term strategies for Yemen’s future and the war against Houthis.
Variations: There are also divergent interests behind Saudi Arabia and the UAE taking part in the war against the Houthis as they try to emerge as allied powers, even though Saudi Arabia supports the legitimate government which, unlike the UAE-backed STC, stands in favor of Yemen’s unity.
On the ground, Saudi Arabia is allied with the legitimate government and its forces, while the UAE is allied with the Security Belt and other forces adopting policies contrary to those of the government. The policies of the STC call for a return to the pre-1990 independence of the South.
Moving away gradually: The UAE is trying to gradually move away from Saudi policies regarding the war in Yemen after attacks on oil tankers near the UAE port of Fujairah in May, for which US officials blamed the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Saudi Arabia took the same official position, contrary to the UAE’s position that rejected holding Iran responsible.
The warring parties in Aden agree on supporting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, but they have contradictory views on the Saudi-backed Yemeni government. Hani Ben Brik, deputy chair of the STC and commander of the Security Belt, has confirmed, on more than one occasion, the council’s commitment to the position of the coalition leadership. Yet at the same time, he criticized the Yemeni government, which represents the legitimate authority and is an ally of Saudi Arabia, the leader of the coalition.
In return, Yemeni Interior Minister Ahmed al-Maisari accused Saudi Arabia of silence for four days in front of their coalition partner UAE, which has acted against the will of the coalition. The UAE believes that Saudi Arabia depends heavily on the government, which the UAE believes it includes leaders of the Al-Islah (Reform) group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The UAE is also suspicious about Yemeni Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who is partly linked to Al-Islah, and other figures such as Interior Minister Ahmed al-Maisari, who is also affiliated with the same group. So far, there are no indications that talks between the legitimate government and STC hosted earlier by Jeddah, upon the joint invitation of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, will succeed, regardless of having included an immediate ceasefire.
Nor there are any data to prove there will be no renewed clashes, or that the STC and the legitimate government will succeed in resolving their differences peacefully in the foreseeable future.
Possibilities amid security vacuum: Continued instability in southern Yemen and the prospect of open confrontation between the STC and the government, as well as the entry of the region into a security vacuum will give al-Qaeda an impetus to regain some of its influence in urban centers in the south of the country.
Confrontations such as these will inevitably distract the efforts of the Alliance for the Support of Legitimacy and its forces to fight the Houthis, who can expand their influence and areas of control in central Yemen.
In any case, the UAE could also secure its interests in Aden through its allied “Security Belt” forces while redeploying other allied forces represented by the Giants Brigades militia and National Resistance Forces on the Yemeni coasts from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. The National Resistance Forces, are led by Tariq Saleh, a nephew of slain president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was also a UAE-backed.