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Why Riyadh will toe line with UAE in Yemen

Saudi Arabia's inability to defeat the Houthis militarily, and the absence of viable allies, shows the kingdom has no feasible plan

UAE support for Yemen's southern separatists has been no secret. In the face of the Houthis' rapid advances and fuelled by an irrepressible hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood in the form of Yemen's Islah party, the UAE approached a number of different factions, including the Nasserists, seeking a viable ally. 

Disappointed with the prospects of these alternative parties and refusing to risk the ire of Washington in backing the "jihadist" factions, the UAE threw its lot in with the only fighting force capable of standing up to the Houthis. 

The problem for the UAE, however, was that the southern separatists had no intention of retaking Sanaa. Seizing the opportunity presented by the political upheaval caused by the Houthis' conquest, the separatists rallied into a semi-united bloc. They took advantage of Saudi air strikes, which forced a Houthi retreat, to take responsibility for "security" in southern Yemen. 

Saudi Arabia's final card burned

With Saudi Arabia outright refusing to entertain the prospect of restoring the Islah party during the early days of the war in 2015, despite hosting Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, an influential player in the network of tribal and Sunni Islamist groups whose centre of gravity is Islah, the kingdom had little choice but to accept the separatists as an "ally". Later on, Saudis began to entertain the prospect of approaching the Islah party but appear to have been dissuaded by the UAE. 

Any fears about the irreversibly damaging consequences of this policy were temporarily alleviated by the insistence of the UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed that Qatar remained the real and more immediate "enemy". 

As the situation in Yemen turned into a stalemate and global opinion began to turn away from the Houthis’ coup, focusing instead on the humanitarian crisis exacerbated by Saudi air strikes, the kingdom made a desperate attempt to entice former president Ali Abdullah Saleh away from the Houthis. 

Although they will be angry with the treatment of Hadi, few Saudi officials will ever admit he was a man suited to rule Yemen

However, Saudi Arabia's fickle approach to its allies, and the Houthis' incredible endurance in the face of incessant coalition bombing, caused the tribes to re-evaluate the power dynamics in the country. When the tribes abandoned Saleh to his death, Saudi Arabia's final card was burned. 

Saleh's death appears to have been a turning point in the UAE-Saudi relationship in Yemen. With a vigorous expansionist foreign policy at play that sees the UAE involved militarily in Libya, financially in Egypt, fiercely lobbying in Washington, and claiming territory in Oman by invoking dubious maps, it does not want to be on the losing side. 

With this approach in mind and following the collapse of efforts to restore the internationally recognised government in Sanaa, the UAE has apparently decided to take the lead from Saudi Arabia over policy in Yemen. 

Firstly, the UAE does not share Saudi Arabia's sensitivities to Iran. In the years prior to the Iran deal, it was reported that Dubai served as a key port through which Iran managed to soften the impact of economic sanctions. This inherently means that the UAE does not see a Houthi-controlled northern Yemen as a disaster. 

Did the UAE instigate the separatists’ move?

Secondly, there is no real credible fighting force that can match the Houthis after the death of Saleh, except the southern separatists. No matter what incentives the UAE offers, the separatists will not be convinced to march north on Sanaa.

Given this reality, it makes sense pragmatically to be part of establishing an equal power in the south to act as a counterweight to the Houthis. Moreover, Yemen's oil resources are overwhelmingly situated in the south. 

With these two realities in mind, it is understandable why the UAE would not object to the separatists marching on Aden. Whether the UAE instigated the move or was informed by the separatists remains an interesting question. 

Smoke rises from inside a military camp a day after fighters from the separatist Southern Transitional Council took control of a pro-government position in the northern Dar Saad district of Aden (AFP)

The reality is that the separatists would have sought to control Aden irrespective of UAE support. This strongly suggests that rather than leading the movement, the UAE appears to be riding the wave, gambling on a grateful government in southern Yemen that will remember who stood with it during difficult times. 

The treatment of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi's government by the southern separatists is nothing short of a humiliation for a nation that has failed with all its military might to oust a militia. It is even more damning that the very forces that ousted Hadi's government in Aden were backed by a supposed "ally". 

Frustration in Riyadh

Saudi Arabia has sought for some time to bring about a decisive outcome in Yemen. The frustration in Riyadh is clear from the manner in which it made a last-minute deal with Saleh to entice him to betray the Houthis after publicly antagonising him for months. 

Although they will be angry with the treatment of Hadi, few Saudi officials will ever admit he was a man suited to rule Yemen, and his meek style of leadership speaks volumes as to why Saleh appointed him vice president during his reign. 

Extensive conversations have already taken place between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. However, despite this clear act of betrayal, their mutual interests - as well as the personal relationship between Mohammed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman - is strong enough to ride out these events. 

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Mohammed bin Zayed was vital in warming US attitudes towards the prospect of Mohammed bin Salman becoming king at the expense of his rival, former crown prince Mohamed bin Nayef. Moreover, for all the humiliation, the UAE will stress that Qatar remains public enemy number one.

Mohammed bin Zayed will argue that any fallout between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi plays right into the hands of Doha, and that given the Houthis' entrenchment in Sanaa, it makes sense to create breathing space in the south until they can come up with a better plan. 

Saudi Arabia may not buy the argument, but its inability to defeat the Houthis militarily - along with the absence of viable allies and continued resentment towards Islah - shows that the kingdom has no feasible plan.

It would therefore be unsurprising if Saudi Arabia swallows the humiliation and goes along with a UAE proposal to accept the status quo and market recent events as in line with Saudi wishes. 

- Sami Hamdi is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Interest. An experienced geopolitical risk consultant, he has extensive experience in the MENA region, having been a television reporter and talk-show host for over 10 years.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Emirati soldiers stand guard as Yemenis disembark from a flight at Aden airport in 2015 (AFP).

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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