Anti-Houthi rivals clash in Yemen, raising questions about Saudi-UAE alliance

Fighting broke out in Aden yesterday between southern separatists and forces loyal to Yemen's internationally recognised president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. This was not the first time they have clashed but yesterday's outbreak was the most serious so far. At least 10 people are reported to have been killed, with 100 wounded, and some government buildings are said to have been seized.

The localised conflict has wider implications because the separatists are backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) while the Hadi's government has close links with Saudi Arabia. It thus raises questions about the future of the Saudi-Emirati military alliance which has been battling for almost three years against the Houthis who control the Yemen's capital, Sana'a, and northern parts of the country.

In the article below, Kristian Ulrichsen looks at the background to the Saudi-Emirati alliance, the partners' diverging interests and difficulties they both face in eventually extricating themselves from the confict. 

Written before yesterday's clashes, the article was originally published as part of a POMEPS study on "Politics, Governance, and Reconstruction in Yemen". It is reposted here with the author's permission.

Endgames for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen

By Kristian Ulrichsen, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy

When Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched Operation Decisive Storm at the head of a largely Gulf-led coalition on March 26, 2015, it is likely that few in Riyadh or Abu Dhabi anticipated a campaign that would last for years with no political or military victory in sight. The Gulf-led intervention in Yemen – which was renamed Operation Restoring Hope on April 22, 2015 – has reshaped domestic configurations of power in Saudi Arabia and the UAE around a hyper-hawkish axis that appears set to overshadow aspects of Gulf politics for years to come.

Developments in Yemen and, since June 2017, the standoff with Qatar have come to symbolize the shift of the two crown princes, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud and Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, away from the coalitional balancing of factions that long underpinned royal/ruling family governance in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. And yet both Yemen and Qatar have raised broader questions for regional and international partners and adversaries alike as they come to terms with a far more unpredictable and volatile policymaking landscape in both countries, and as the conflict in Yemen appears set to become more chaotic – at least in the short-term – after the death of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh on December 4, 2017.

Operations Decisive Storm and Restoring Hope underscored key Gulf capitals’ frustration with the regional policy trajectory of the Obama administration and conviction that their interests were best secured by acting unilaterally or, at best, as a bloc, rather than relying on the United States to take the lead. This was most palpable in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, where officials did not share the Obama administration’s willingness – real or perceived – to engage with Iran or Islamists, particularly after the shock of the Arab Spring political upheaval had subsided.

Qatar’s bold – yet ultimately ill-fated – attempt to support the uprisings and sympathize with Islamist groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood also pushed their counterparts in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to more assertively defend and counter their own regional interests. Saudi Arabia and the UAE stepped in immediately to assist General Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi in Egypt after President Mohammed Morsi was toppled in July 2013 and ramped up diplomatic pressure on Qatar to ensure that Doha could never again pose a threat to the political order in Arab states.

The death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on January 23, 2015 came less than a day after Houthi fighters – who had taken control of the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in September 2014 – pressured President Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi and his government to resign and placed Hadi under house arrest. Yemen therefore presented a foreign policy priority for the new king, Salman, from the very start of his reign, as the intricate network of Saudi influence and factional balancing, built up for decades by the King’s late brother Sultan, appeared on the verge of collapse.

Worse still, from a Saudi perspective, the prospect of the extension of Houthi control over all of Yemen threatened to provide – in their view – Iran with an unprecedented foothold on the Arabian Peninsula. This shifting Saudi threat perception intersected with the rise to prominence of 29-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud as Minister of Defense and unofficial gatekeeper to his father.[1]

Developments in Saudi Arabia aligned with an unfolding pattern of change in the UAE, where the tug-of-war for policy influence between Abu Dhabi and Dubai was settled in favor of Abu Dhabi after the twin shocks of the 2008 financial crisis and the 2011 Arab uprisings. In 2009, officials in Abu Dhabi extended two tranches of $10 billion each to ease the burgeoning debt crisis that briefly threatened financial panic in Dubai. Whereas the first “bailout” came in the purchase of bonds by the Abu Dhabi-located UAE Central Bank, the second package took the form of a direct loan by two Abu Dhabi-owned banks to Dubai.

While the sudden renaming of the tallest building in the world from its original Burj Dubai to Burj Khalifa (on the day of its opening in January 2010) was the most visible manifestation of Abu Dhabi’s newfound leverage over Dubai, the eight years since have seen Dubai and its ruler fall behind the leadership in Abu Dhabi as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan pushed a far more assertive regional role for the UAE in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings.[2]

Within Abu Dhabi itself (and, by extension, at the federal level in the UAE), the decade between the 2004 death of UAE founding father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and the Yemen intervention has also witnessed a significant shift in power. Although Zayed’s eldest son, Khalifa bin Zayed, succeeded his father as president of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa suffered a debilitating stroke in January 2014 and has been absent from public life since then, aside from one heavily-stage-managed reappearance in June 2017.

Power in Abu Dhabi has instead been wielded by the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, who has constructed a security state apparatus characterized by a hardline and zero-tolerance approach to threat prevention. Just as Saudi’s King Salman has greatly empowered his son, Mohammed bin Zayed has rapidly promoted his own progeny, Khalid bin Mohammed, through the ranks of state security, entrusting him with the “Islamist file” and appointing him head of National Security in 2016.[3]

Leaked emails from UAE Ambassador to the United States Yusuf al-Otaiba indicate that officials in Abu Dhabi threw their wholehearted support behind Mohammed bin Salman after he became Defense Minister in January 2015. As well as perceiving Mohammed bin Salman as the best (perhaps final) hope for undertaking economic and social change in Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Zayed reportedly developed a strong personal relationship with Mohammed bin Salman. Mohammed bin Zayed is said to have regarded Mohammed bin Salman as a younger version of himself, with a similar “can-do” mentality and penchant for seeing the bigger picture, especially on key political, economic, and security issues facing Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These trend-lines converged in Yemen in March 2015, when Saudi and Emirati forces spearheaded coalition operations, albeit in different zones of responsibility that evolved into competing spheres of influence.[4]

Although neither the Saudis nor the Emiratis have yet split from the coalition, signs of tension have emerged periodically. The two combatants face very different perceived and actual threats that range from border security and territorial incursions for Saudi Arabia to the region-wide campaign to crush Islamist groups in the case of Abu Dhabi. This has produced distinct alignments with local forces on the ground, with the Saudis backing President Hadi and the Emiratis supporting various factions and militias in southern Yemen that reject Hadi’s leadership.[5] On occasion, these differences have come to the surface, as during a March 2017 firefight between a battalion of Sudanese soldiers belonging to the Saudi-led coalition and an Emirati-backed militia over control of Aden international airport.[6]

Several factors complicate the move toward an endgame in Yemen for the Gulf-led coalition, which, in practice, denotes the power-brokers in the Crown Princes’ courts in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. On a broader level, neither the Saudis nor the Emiratis have identified a political or military staging-point that would enable them to declare victory and withdraw without risking a loss of face, particularly after nearly three years of high casualties and expenditure on the conflict.[7]

Policymakers in Abu Dhabi appear to have concluded in 2016 that their military objectives in southern Yemen had been met, with the recapture of Aden and Mukalla by UAE and Emirati-backed forces.[8] De facto Emirati control of both coastal cities in southern Yemen is viewed in Abu Dhabi as part of a wider geopolitical arc of UAE influence spanning both sides of the strategic Bab al-Mandab corridor and extending into the Mediterranean with heavy investment in Benghazi in Libya.[9] This includes an airbase at Assab in Eritrea (which acts as the launchpad for UAE airstrikes in Yemen) and a planned 25-year lease of a naval base at Berbera in Somaliland, as well as growing commercial interests in Puntland in Somalia, all key prongs of the UAE’s muscular interregional approach toward countering terrorism, piracy, and Islamist and Iranian influence.[10]

In Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman cannot simply declare mission accomplished in Yemen, as Mohammed bin Zayed appeared briefly to do in June 2016 before reversing course. As the Yemen campaign has unfolded, Mohammed bin Salman has steadily accrued power and responsibility to a degree unprecedented in the modern history of Saudi Arabia, being promoted twice, to Deputy Crown Prince in April 2015 and to Crown Prince in June 2017.

However, the Crown Prince appears to have lost his initial enthusiasm for the conflict amid fears the ongoing stalemate – to say nothing of the cost of the military operations and the train-and-equip program for the Yemeni armed forces and assorted tribal militias – has become a liability. Estimates of the cost of the campaign vary widely but are believed to exceed $66 million per day, part of a record $50.8 billion earmarked for defense spending in the 2017 budget, together with an additional $49 billion in unidentified budget support mechanisms for emerging expenditure requirements in 2016 alone.[11] At a time when the Saudi budget is heavily in deficit and austerity measures have met with a public backlash that caused several to be reversed, such heavy spending could potentially trigger discontent with the Crown Prince and his policies.

Ruling circles in Riyadh and in Abu Dhabi are in a bind. Saudi officials cannot commit the level of ground forces needed to at least have a chance of forcing a decisive military outcome in Yemen, as potential casualty levels would be too costly, to say nothing of likely operational inadequacies. Their counterparts in Abu Dhabi acknowledge that, while their military objectives in southern Yemen have been met, they cannot abandon the Saudi-led coalition for fear of the damage it could inflict domestically on the Saudi Crown Prince in whom they have invested so much political support.

The humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen and absence of a clear or credible exit strategy has the potential to sap international confidence in Saudi Arabia and the UAE just as they embark on a formal military and political partnership that likely will increase further their regional assertiveness.[12] While the mercurial nature of the Donald J. Trump presidency in the U.S. may dilute scrutiny of Saudi and Emirati policies, their management of the Yemen campaign casts significant doubt on the extent to which either country can hope to become a producer – rather than consumer – of regional security.

[1] Mark Mazzetti and Ben Hubbard, ‘Rise of Saudi Prince Shatters Decades of Royal Tradition,’ New York Times, October 15, 2016.

[2] Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, ‘Transformations in UAE Foreign Policy,’ Al Jazeera Center for Studies, June 8, 2017.

[3] Caline Malek, ‘Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammed Appointed Head of National Security,’ The National, February 15, 2016.

[4] Ryan Grim, ‘Leaked Emails: Saudi Power behind the Throne “Wants Out of Yemen”,’ The Intercept, August 14, 2017.

[5] Faisal Edroos, ‘UAE on the Verge of Splitting Yemen in Two,’ Al Jazeera Online, October 20, 2017.

[6] ‘Sudan and the UAE Battle for Control of Yemen Airport,’ Middle East Monitor, March 7, 2017.

[7] ‘Rising Death Toll in Yemen Raises Tough Domestic Questions for Abu Dhabi,’ Gulf States News, Volume 40, Issue 1022, September 22, 2016, p.1.

[8] ‘UAE: “War is Over” for Emirati Troops in Yemen,’ Al Jazeera Online, June 16, 2016.

[9] Alex Mello and Michael Knights, ‘West of Suez for the United Arab Emirates,’ War on the Rocks, September 2, 2016.

[10] ‘The Ambitious United Arab Emirates: the Gulf’s “Little Sparta”,’ The Economist, April 6, 2017.

[11] ‘Quantifying a “Taboo” Subject: Saudi Arabia Counts the Cost of Yemen War,’ Gulf States News, Volume 40, Issue 1025, November 3, 2016, pp.4-5.

[12] Patrick Wintour, ‘UAE Announces New Saudi Alliance That Could Reshape Gulf Relations,’ The Guardian, December 5, 2017.