In November 2011, a popular uprising forced the then President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down and give the power to his former deputy Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Since then, Yemen has experienced instability and disorders, with unemployment, corruption, hunger, and terrorism spreading across the country. The situation worsened in September 2014, when the Houthi rebels, loyal to the former President Saleh, took control of the capital Sana’a. President Hadi was put under house arrest and fled to Aden the following month, while a civil war broke out between the Houthi militias, backed by Iran, and Pro-Hadi security forces. In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition began a military campaign in Yemen to restore the internationally recognised government of Hadi and stabilise the country. After two and a half years, the conflict has killed more than 10,000 people and injured around 40,000. Several areas required humanitarian assistance and the state is declining “towards total collapse” -as the United Nations report. Besides, the mission has not been accomplished yet, and the coalition starts to show signs of weaknesses, as disagreements arise between Saudi Arabia and the other principal actor in the group, the United Arab Emirates.
On 25th March, President Hadi called on the UN Security Council to authorise willing countries to intervene in Yemen and provide support and assistance against the Houthi aggression. The following day the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) announced the intervention in Yemen and Operation Decisive Storm began, with Saudi Arabia as the leading country. The mission set three primary goals: 1) free the cities captured by the Houthi rebels; 2) restore Hadi’s government to legitimacy; 3) promote dialogue between the parties to create a government of national unity.
Initially, the main military contribution came from Saudi Arabia, while the Gulf States provided more a symbolical support. However, they all shared (and still do) common interests. First, the Houthis are a Shia-led religious and political movement, and the taking over of Sana’a was seen as the first step to establish a Shiite proto-state, right at the GCC doorstep. In a region of predominantly Sunni monarchies, opposed by local Shiite movements, the possibility of a growing Shiite power capable of spreading across a neighbouring country clearly could not be an option. Hence, pushing back the rebels became the priority. Secondly, Iran. For years, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been fighting a “non-declared” war over supremacy in the Middle East. Both the countries picture themselves as the leading regional power and have no intentions to give this title up to the other. Besides political and economic interests, Saudi Arabia is a Sunni monarchy, while Iran is a Shia power, and in a place like the Middle East, this is a big and capillary difference. Though it has declined any involvement, Iran is backing the Houthis in Yemen, a country that traditionally operates within Saudi Arabia’s sphere of influence. Therefore, countering the Houthis also means countering Iran’s influence in the Arab world, which becomes even more critical after the nuclear deal and what the GCC see as a US-Iran rapprochement and a consequent decline of their strategic importance for the American power. Thirdly, a national commitment abroad to protect the interests of the country and the stability of the region is a way to distract citizen from domestic issues (democracy, human rights, corruption, etc.), by drawing the attention on a more prominent threat and promoting the national unit to counter an external aggression.
Operation Decisive Strom initially began as an air bombing campaign, which was later followed by a naval blockade and a ground intervention. Several African countries, such as Morocco, Senegal and Sudan, and Western power, like UK, US, Canada, Australia and Germany joined the coalition, providing troops, logistic support or guaranteeing weapons sales. A separate remark should be given regarding the United Arab Emirates. As part of the GCC, the UAE initially joined the coalition more as a symbolic political act, rather than incisive military action. However, its approach has progressively changed towards a stronger military commitment on the ground. The Gulf state has provided, indeed, military brigade, tanks and armoured vehicles, thus taking the level of commitment a step further. Consequently, the country has become a core target: on 4th September, a missile was fired on the province of Marib, about 120 kilometres east of the capital Sana’a killing 45 Emiratis troops, thus signing the heaviest military loss in the country’s history. Although some criticism arose about the UAE involvement in Yemen, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan reaffirmed the commitment “to liberate Yemen and flush out the scum”. The massive retaliation air strike on Sana’a, Saada, Marib and Ibb are a clear message of such a commitment.
To date, the coalition has mobilised billions of dollars in air strikes, unmanned drones, precision-guided rockets, naval vessels, tanks, training specialists, financial and material support. However, despite the overwhelming military superiority, the goals are far away to be achieved. The air campaign and the naval blockade have not managed to eradicate the Houthi rebels from the northern region, including the capital Sana’a. The rebels still control most of the north and west areas of the country, which allows them to fire missile and mortars towards Saudi Arabia. Moreover, they managed to secure a stronghold even in the south, in the city of Taiz, close to the area controlled by Pro-Hadi forces and to Aden, where Hadi temporarily established his government.
Chaos, instability and security vacuum have also provided Jihadist militants from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and affiliates to the Islamic State a perfect ground to flourish. They have been able to seize several territories in the south and to carry out attacks especially in Aden.
Humanitarian reports are not encouraging. According to the UN, by October 2017 at least 5,159 civilians – more than 20% of them children – had been killed and 8,761 others injured. More than seven million people are on the brink of starvation, while about 80% of the population relies on humanitarian aid. Two million Yemenis are currently internally displaced due to the conflict and 188,000 others have fled to neighbouring countries. The situation has worsened with the cholera outbreak. UN defines Yemen’s crisis as the world’s largest one. Also, criticisms keep arising about the coalition airstrikes, responsible for killing several civilians and about the legitimacy of the intervention, especially given that it has failed to accomplish its end state.
Though the coalition could potentially benefit from the combined use of several resources, as air strikes, naval assets, professional ground forces, intelligence skills, diversified arms and logistical support, difficulties arise when it is time to coordinate all the efforts towards the same goal. Especially after two and a half years of fighting and high military expenditures, without managing to achieve the mission’s goals, the actors mainly involved on the scene may tend to prioritise their agenda over the coalition’s one, thus weakening and jeopardising the mission itself.
As an illustration, let’s have a look at the two core protagonists, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Their disagreement has recently become quite public and visible. The two countries differ in their military approaches (Saudi Arabia prefers air strikes, while the UAE committed troops on the ground), which can still be a positive aspect as it can provide the coalition with a full set of military capabilities (if well-coordinated!). However, they are also on different pages regarding supported parties and approach to political Islam.
Since the beginning of the military operations, Saudi Arabia has been committed to Hadi and his Islamic Alliance, despite the President has shown weakness and inability to keep control on most of the country. His popularity has sharply declined and his authority undercut by the military forces funded, trained and controlled by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two powers that are fighting to restore stability in the country. The UAE, instead, is shifting away from the original aim of the mission, restoring Hadi’s government. As the Emirati perceive his incompetence and weakness, they turned back to the former president Saleh, considering him the most appropriate choice given the condition of the country. A strong and charismatic leader, who is deemed to be the personal and political skills needed to put the country back together. Moreover, they are supporting the southern Yemeni fighters, which are believed to be fighting for a secession from the country. Hence, Emirati support to their cause has been seen as further fostering division in Yemen, rather than working towards a national political unity.
Secondly, political Islam. Despite the monarchy’s opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), King Salman has accepted and agreed to cooperate with the Islah Party, the main political party in Yemen which is considered as the Yemeni version of the MB. The Kingdom has justified this apparent contradiction for three reasons: a) the Islah Party basis of support in Yemen is different from the typical political organisations the MB has across the Arab world; b) the Islah Party is the main Yemeni political party opposing the Houthi rebels and it is close to President Hadi; c) it was the only Yemeni party that openly supported Operation Decisive Storm against the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen. Moreover, the Saudi-UAE terrorist list did not include any names from the Yemeni Brotherhood.
The UAE does not share the same acceptance with the group, encouraging, instead, the Saudi to refrain from any link with the party. For the Emirati, there is no such distinction between the Islah Party and the rest of the Muslim Brotherhood and they have no intentions to cooperate with them on any basis. Moreover, they support secularism in domestic and foreign policy and reject any formal political Islamism at home and abroad. According to them, an autonomous clerical role in politics encourages extremism, thus resulting in a threat to the regional security.
These discrepancies between the two major contributors of the coalition undoubtedly hamper the outcome of the mission but could also represent the signs of a shifting balance of power in the region.
SAUDI VS EMIRATI INTERESTS
Besides the two common interests mentioned above, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have their own political agenda and reasons to be involved in Yemen.
The geographical position of Saudi Arabia makes it impossible not to look to Yemen and its disorders. The two countries share a 1,800-kilometre border. If this may not be an issue in the eastern regions of the country, problems arise looking westwards, to the Red Sea. The Houthis currently controlled that part of the Yemeni border, which guarantees them the ability to fire missiles towards Saudi Arabia. As national security is a core concern for any nation -let alone for the ones in the troubling ME- it is easy to understand why border security is a top priority for Riyadh. Indeed, SA has affirmed that her troops would eventually cross the border only if Saudi interests are directly affected. Though the situation is worsening in Yemen, SA has refrained from putting boots on the ground, the kind of additional support that might, instead, benefit the mission’s operations. However, should an aggression directly affect Saudi security, we might see the Royal army on the ground. As evidence, national interests overcome the coalition’s one.
A second concern is the UAE. The Gulf state has gradually increased its commitment within the coalition and proved itself to be able to stand as a crucial actor. So far, it has achieved quite relevant goals. It has managed to secure control over the airport in Aden and gradually extend its security role in the Red Sea. Moreover, it has built significant ties with local powerbrokers. Its political, military and financial influence in the south is now a matter of fact. Hence, what Riyadh now fear is that the UAE could undermine Saudi grip also in the northern territories, which are considered Saudi backyard.
On his side, the UAE is a close ally to the Saudi monarchy and strongly committed to Riyadh security. His intervention in Yemen obviously aims at containing the Houthis, standing by Saudi’s side in his effort to reduce Iran’s influence in the ME. However, it also conceals other national interests. First, an Emirati stronger commitment in the coalition maximises the UAE chances to influence Saudi domestic agenda. The main topic would be Wahhabi extremism. Wahhabism is considered the source of most radical Islamic extremist groups and its close link to SA and the House of Saud is well-known. The UAE, instead, supports a more liberal approach to political Islamism and has tried to persuade Saudis to keep the distance from ultra-conservative interpretations of the religion.
Secondly, the UAE has managed to gain influence in the south of Yemen and -though it does not say it openly- the Gulf state has all the interests to keep strategic footholds in the area. And the reason is called Bab al-Mandab Strait, the “gate of tears”. This narrow strait is a chokepoint between the Horn of Africa and Yemen and represents a key geostrategic passage as it links the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Economically speaking, it is one of the busiest oil and gas shipping lanes for trade with Europe and North America. Any hostile presence in Yemen could close or limit the shipping routes, thus threatening the entire flow of oil and energy through the Suez Canal and in the Red Sea. From a security perspective, this is a transit area for the US and other allied combat ships moving through the canal and the Gulf of Aden and everything could be acceptable but its control to fall in the wrong hands. The UAE understands the need to keep this Strait open and secure for its interests, for the ones of its traditional allies -such as the US, SA or Egypt- but also for the stability of the region. Saudi Arabia is also well aware of the importance of this strait, and perhaps that is one of the reasons why it fears a more consistent Emirati presence in the south.
The tricky third interest on both sides lays, indeed, close to the strait, the Port of Aden. Located near to the southern entrance of the Red Sea, the Port of Aden is the chief port in Yemen, a major trading centre and an important refuelling stop. Saudi Arabia has an old commercial link with the city as it has been a trading partner for years. But controlling the harbour would be an appealing economic opportunity as it could improve the trade with Jeddah and the position of the Saudi city as a commercial hub. Similarly, the UAE keep an eye -probably two- on Aden to boost commercial opportunity with Dubai, the economic heart of the country. Perhaps, the Gulf monarchy has a few advantages. In 2008, Aly Abdullah Saleh granted the nation the permission of the management for the Port of Aden. The UAE also controls the airport of Aden, thus giving the UAE a foothold on both the air and naval traffic to and from the country. Moreover, as mentioned above, its presence and influence in the south region further facilitate its effort and ability to play a competitive role in this area.
It is clear that, despite the common interests in Yemen, these reasons may further divide the two partners, not only diverting the mission’s goals but also giving the path for a different political and economic pattern in the Middle East.
WHICH RISKS AHEAD?
The disagreement among the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen may have an impact at three different levels: a) coalition, b) Yemen and c) the Middle East region.
Considering the coalition, diverting interests will not help to achieve the end state. Since the beginning, Saudi Arabia has struggled to identify the appropriate figure to lead the fight on the ground in Yemen and difficulties increase when it is time to coordinate several forces from different participating countries and unify them under a single command. Supporting different actors does not make the task any easier, nor what it is perceived as a different level of commitment and the threshold that would trigger an intervention on the ground. The coalition appears weak, disorganised and inconsistent. The cherry on the cake is the shift in one of the main initial goals, which was restoring Hadi’s government. Disagreement upon the end state may deprive the mission of any legitimacy and result in an exhausting and consuming war, with a significant waste of money and no or little result.
At a national level, this situation may further divide Yemen, drawing the country apart and neutralise any chance of dialogue for a governmental unit. The lack of a clear final objective and of an intense, coordinated and incisive action to achieve it may lead to a stalemate and, as said, a waste of resources. Moreover, the vacuum of power and security in the country will provide terrorist groups with the perfect conditions to strengthen their influence and hold on the region. This threat is not limited to al-Qaeda and ISIS supporters but may also include piracy, which is still a problem in the Gulf of Aden and has proved to be able to gain power in unstable and insecure countries, such as Somalia. That said, it is clear that what the UN already consider the most significant humanitarian crisis in the world, under these conditions, could only get worse.
Looking at the bigger picture, the situation may also affect the balance of power in the Middle East. For years, the main rivalry in the ME has been between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The two countries see themselves as the legitimate leading power in the region and try to extend their political, economic and religious influence in the area. Proxy wars like the one in Yemen and support to different political actors are all signs of this competition over power and authority in the ME. However, another candidate may join the arena. Indeed, it looks like the UAE is stretching his muscles, showing the world that it is a potential candidate for a more central role in the Middle Eastern affairs.
Politically speaking, the UAE boasts strong diplomatic relations with countries like the US and the UK and is part of international and regional organisations, such as the UN, OPEC, World Bank, IMF (International Monetary Fund), the Arab League and the Non-Aligned Movement. Moreover, the Gulf State plays a leading role in the GCC, which protect the interests of the monarchies in the Gulf region. In the recent months, it has been at the forefront of an anti-Qatar posture in the council. Blaming his support to terrorists and MB-related groups across the region, the UAE immediately joined Saudi Arabia, followed by Bahrain and Egypt in cutting the diplomatic relations with the Gulf monarchy, giving a clear message about the side the UAE stands by.
At the economic level, the UAE is a wealthy and growing economy which mainly relies on oil exports. Civil aviation is another core business, whose network extends across the globe and guarantee the country a substantial income. Moreover, the monarchy has managed to attract foreign investments and other sectors -such as tourism, finance, construction- are continually growing, securing the flow of money and workers coming from all over the world. A considerable economic strength, along with diversified professional skills from different countries, ensures the UAE that ace in the pocket to keep growing as a pivot commercial hub in the ME.
From a military perspective, in the past few years, the UAE has progressively shifted is approach from a traditional soft power to a stronger commitment on the ground. Indeed, it has sent troops and aircrafts in those foreign theatres where the country has interests at stake. In 2011, the Arab awaking in Bahrain resulted in the UAE sending security forces to help the neighbouring country to stabilise the situation. Aircrafts were flown all the way to Libya, to support the military coalition against Gheddafi. In 2014 and 2015, the air forces took part in the military strikes over Syria and Libya, joining the fight against Jihadist militias. Last but not least, Yemen, where the UAE has provided ground and air forces. Moreover, it is the fourth largest importer of weapons, taking 4.6% of the global market and from 2012 to 2016 has increased the arms import by 63%. Aircrafts and missiles come mainly from the US and France, but the UAE is now looking also at other providers. As an illustration, a deal has been signed with Russia for the purchase of Su-35 Super Flankers, a multifunctional 4++ generation fighter, equipped with sophisticated radar technologies and precision missiles and air bombs. A capable military force needs military assets, simple as that.
The message seems to be quite clear. The UAE is not just a rich oil producer where billions of dollars flow as water and sinks are made of gold. It is a powerful growing economic, political and military nation, capable of protecting its interests while influencing regional conflicts. Also, when two competitors fight, there are often windows of opportunity for another candidate to rise and shine in the race. Hence, would not be a surprise to see a stronger Emirati posture in the future years, not just as a commercial link between East and West but also as a leading political and military actor in the region.
By Paola Fratantoni