On Aug. 7, fighting broke out in Yemen’s de facto capital, the port city of Aden. The battle pitted the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a coalition of secessionist militia forces that has been supported and trained by the United Arab Emirates, against the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, which is backed by Saudi Arabia.
The dispute brings to light long-subsumed tensions between Emirati and Saudi objectives in Yemen. This in turn has exposed a broader rift between the regional policy approaches of these two key U.S. security partners, which could enmesh Washington in yet another regional dispute and complicate the Trump administration’s stance on Iran.
While Saudi and Emirati leaders have tried to play down the rift, the recent fighting in Aden demonstrates that Saudi and Emirati approaches to the Yemen conflict have differed since the beginning of the coalition’s intervention in Yemen’s civil war, in March 2015. Saudi Arabia’s overriding priority is securing its southern border against the Houthis, who have received support from Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, Iran. It has therefore focused its efforts on fighting the Houthis in the north and supported the Hadi government as the sole governing entity deserving of international recognition.
The UAE, by contrast, has sought to leverage its role in the conflict to expand its military and economic access to the Horn of Africa and the Bab el-Mandeb strait, a vital link in global trade routes. While both Saudi and Emirati leaders view Iran as a serious threat, the UAE remains more vulnerable to a confrontation due to its geographic proximity and more substantial commercial ties to the Islamic Republic. This has encouraged a more pragmatic Emirati approach to Iran: While the UAE joins Saudi Arabia in condemning Iranian influence and military activity in the region, it maintains diplomatic ties (albeit downgraded since 2016) with Iran.
The open break between Saudi- and Emirati-backed forces in Aden confirms the UAE’s recent efforts to distance itself from Saudi Arabia’s regional policy. Emirati leaders are worried that escalating tensions with nearby Iran could spiral out of control and inflict serious damage on the UAE’s economic model, which seeks to diversify away from a reliance on oil by developing other sectors like tourism and the financial industry. Additionally, Emirati leaders appear tired of getting part of the blame for the wide-scale civilian casualties, human rights violations, and devastating humanitarian crisis in Yemen; while Emirati-sponsored militias have been accused of serious human rights violations, the indiscriminate Saudi-led air campaign has led to the majority of civilian casualties in Yemen.
Saudi and Emirati approaches to the Yemen conflict have differed since the beginning of the coalition’s intervention in Yemen’s civil war.
The UAE has taken responsibility for southern Yemen, deploying its own forces there to provide training and support to local southern militias, conducting counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and providing economic development assistance to the region. The STC has been a natural partner in these operations.
These diverging areas of emphasis have strained the fault lines left over from the hastily negotiated unification agreement in 1990 that joined North and South Yemen. The two countries were separate political entities for centuries. The Soviet Union was a critical source of foreign aid for South Yemen, or the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, until the late 1980s. The abrupt loss of their great-power patron led to the merger in the spring of 1990, but unification left many southerners with unaddressed grievances about representation in the new central government and the distribution of state resources.
Unification left many southerners with unaddressed grievances about representation in the new central government and the distribution of state resources.
These southern grievances persisted through a secessionist civil war in 1994 and the subsequent rise of the grassroots Southern Movement (or Hirak) in 2007. The STC, which emerged from Hirak, mobilized to push back the Houthi offensive in 2015. While the Houthis don’t have a clear position on southern secession, their concern lies largely with their Sadah homeland in the country’s north. Widespread grassroots support for secession persists in the south to this day, as exemplified by a rally last week in support of the STC’s takeover of Aden.
The STC and Hadi government’s mutual opposition to the Houthis made them nominally aligned, but they were always strange bedfellows. Now, with Emirati training and support, STC-affiliated forces have become more organized, capable, and heavily armed as the conflict drags on, even as they continue to support southern independence. While Saudi leaders knew that the STC leadership’s goals were incompatible with the Hadi government’s—and fighting that broke out between the STC and the Hadi government in Aden in January 2018 confirmed it—Saudi Arabia was apparently willing to look the other way in the interest of gathering allies in its fight against the Houthis.
The Saudis and Emiratis still profess to be close partners in Yemen and across the region. But now, after more than four years of fighting, their divergent strategies on the ground in Yemen have complicated (if not destroyed) efforts to maintain a unified opposition to the Houthis, especially as the UAE begins to unilaterally wind down its military involvement, an apparent admission that the war in Yemen cannot be won militarily and that the UAE had sustained more damage to its international reputation than it was willing to withstand. It is also a nod to the fact that its mission of securing ports and political influence in the south has essentially been completed.
While the Emirati drawdown, which began this summer, indicates that the UAE is trying to disentangle itself from Yemen, it’s not clear how Saudi Arabia’s strategy will shift without this vital coalition partner—indeed, the Saudi leadership itself does not appear to know for sure. So far, Saudi leaders appear to be criticizing the STC’s actions in Aden while doubling down on their military strategy to defeat the Houthis, but it’s not clear how they could achieve this objective without Emirati support.
While the Emirati drawdown, which began this summer, indicates that the UAE is trying to disentangle itself from Yemen, it’s not clear how Saudi Arabia’s strategy will shift without this vital coalition partner.
Commentary in the Saudi media reflects this uncertainty, with media figures like Abdulrahman al-Rashed, who is close to current Saudi leaders, asserting that Yemeni southerners should have the right to assert their independence someday—just not now. (Saudi Arabia has long meddled in Yemen, including supporting the secessionists in the 1994 war. But since 2015, the Saudi government has focused on defeating the Houthis and unifying the country under the Hadi government.)
More broadly, diverging Saudi and Emirati strategies pose a major obstacle to negotiating an enduring political settlement in Yemen. Disagreements over the structure of the future state derailed the post-Arab Spring political transition process, the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), which was instigated by the other Gulf states after massive protests led to the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The NDC process failed after both the Houthis and Hirak rejected its outcomes, which in turn opened the door for the Houthis to take over the capital of Sanaa in 2014. A political settlement today will therefore need to address these regional grievances in addition to the conflict between Hadi’s government and the Houthis.
The fighting in Aden also shows that simply winding down the coalition’s intervention is not enough to resolve the conflict. Yemen was divided into two countries for far longer than it has been united. Even if discussions in Jeddah with STC leadership lead to a cabinet reshuffle in Yemen, including some STC figures in the government, it would be only a superficial, and temporary, solution to this structural problem. Before they withdraw, the UAE and Saudi Arabia will need to use their leverage to pressure their local proxies to negotiate—and adhere to—a political settlement.
In practice, a political settlement will likely mean at least a measure of governing autonomy for the south, if not southern secession in the long run. The central government will need to be a unity or power-sharing government that includes the Houthis as well as factions supported by the Saudi-led coalition. The coalition has been unable to defeat the Houthis militarily over several years of fighting, and with the UAE’s drawdown, the option of an outright military victory is effectively off the table.
Saudi Arabia’s leaders must therefore concede that the Houthis will form some part of Yemen’s central government. So far, this is a reality that Riyadh has refused to acknowledge, in part because the war in Yemen is seen as a signature policy of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and withdrawal could be seen as a loss of face for him personally at a time when he is shoring up domestic political support.
In practice, a political settlement will likely mean at least a measure of governing autonomy for the south, if not southern secession in the long run.
UN-sponsored peace talks will also have to begin including STC representatives. STC-affiliated forces nominally withdrew from some government facilities in Aden on Aug. 17 but remain in effective control of the city and of Zinjibar, the capital of neighboring Abyan province. While the STC will attend the Saudi-sponsored summit, it is unlikely to withdraw from its advantageous position, at least not without winning significant political concessions from Riyadh. In practice, this could mean that the STC nominally declares its allegiance to the central government in exchange for the coalition’s support for an autonomous south as part of a comprehensive settlement.
The fact that Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed visited Mecca to meet with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman so quickly after the Aden crisis erupted points to how important Yemen is to the Saudi-Emirati relationship. Continued conflict in Yemen would be an ongoing source of tension between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that could quickly escalate. It would also put pressure on other Saudi-Emirati joint initiatives in the region, including the diplomatic dispute with Qatar and support for regional allies like Sudan’s Transitional Military Council.
Continued conflict in Yemen would be an ongoing source of tension between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that could quickly escalate.
A break in Emirati and Saudi regional strategy will also have substantial repercussions for the United States, since the Saudi-Emirati relationship is the lynchpin of the Trump administration’s regional strategy. The UAE’s decision to reposition itself to avoid a costly war with Iran will significantly complicate the Trump administration’s Iran strategy.
This has become apparent in the UAE’s efforts to tamp down tensions with Iran over the tanker crisis. In July, the UAE sent a delegation to Tehran to discuss maritime security in the Gulf. While Emirati media has tried to downplay the significance of these meetings, they reveal Emirati concerns that the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran could backfire, triggering a conflict with Iran that would have devastating effects for the UAE.
Indeed, Iran’s campaign to ratchet up pressure in the Gulf in recent days has clearly demonstrated that the UAE would be a close-at-hand target if conflict were to erupt. As a U.S. security partner that houses facilities that the United States would likely use in a war with Iran, including Al Dhafra Air Base and Jebel Ali Port, the UAE would be susceptible to Iranian cyberattacks and attacks launched by Iranian regional proxies, in addition to the closing of the Strait of Hormuz and other threats to international shipping routes.
While the Emirati military has been lauded by U.S. officials as a “little Sparta” for its significant military capabilities, a conflict with neighboring Iran would put its fewer than 20,000 deployable ground forces under a great deal of strain. Furthermore, the UAE’s reputation as an oasis of stability in an otherwise conflict-ridden region would be damaged, perhaps irreparably, by a war with Iran. The UAE’s economic model is based on its ability to attract business, foreign investment, and tourism. Conflict with Iran would cause considerable damage to Dubai’s business ties with Iran as well.
The UAE’s decision to reposition itself to avoid a costly war with Iran will significantly complicate the Trump administration’s Iran strategy.
However, the true test of the relationship may not come until a new U.S. president is elected in 2020 or 2024. While Saudi Arabia’s leadership has gone all in on the Trump administration, seemingly brushing off the rest of Washington’s ire in response to the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and civilian casualties from the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen, Emirati leaders are more concerned that their bilateral relationship could become a partisan issue in the United States.
As the Emirati academic Abdulkhaleq Abdulla recently put it rather bluntly, “Do you really want to have all your eggs in Trump’s basket?” The nature of the Saudi-Emirati relationship could change in a more fundamental way should the UAE prove more adept than Saudi Arabia at transferring its loyalties to a new U.S. administration and if the UAE becomes more favored than Saudi Arabia in Washington.
Alexandra Stark is a senior researcher for the political reform program at New America and a Ph.D. candidate in the department of government at Georgetown University.