If few were ever under the illusion that Saudi Arabia could manifest its hegemonic ambitions in Yemen by sheer military force, the recent collapse in Aden of Riyadh’s tentative alliance with the UAE only serves to underscore the pending demise of the kingdom’s so-called coalition, and with it, Yemen’s war narrative and rationale.
What legitimacy is there to call your own when your allies challenge the very premise of your rhetoric? More pertinently, what hope is there to architect an international consensus when Yemen has so clearly become a pawn in a move for regional control?
The idea that monolithic Saudi Arabia wishes to liberate its neighbour has become too far-fetched and divorced from reality for any serious party to even attempt to rationalise.
Yemen’s war is colonial in nature, sectarian in its language, and genocidal at its core. Very much to the image of its commander in chief: Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen has been cruel, unjust and irrational.
We ought to remember that it was in the name of constitutional legitimacy that Riyadh declared war on Yemen back in late March 2015.
To protect and reassert the presidency of one Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi after he very publicly resigned (twice if one wishes to be pedantic with such details), the kingdom saw fit to rise a war coalition strong of several super-powers to hammer down one of the poorest nations in the world.
Iran’s influence in Yemen the world was told needed to be contained to the tune of one illegal humanitarian blockade, the use of illegal weapons of war, and undiscriminating bombing. Under the imperious need to free the region from Tehran’s pestilence death had to be dispensed as one would do chocolate on Easter.
Before the rubbles of a nation whose only crime had been to imagine itself free and independent from foreign meddling, Riyadh has argued former President Hadi to be the cornerstone of Yemen’s future, and prerequisite for peace – pluralism and democracy be damned
Entered the United Arab Emirates …
As of January 28, 2018, the UAE and Saudi Arabia stand on very different side of the river: the latter now backs southern secessionists against Hadi’s government along the very lines interestingly enough, Ansarallah movement invokes: the right to political self-determination.
“In Aden, legitimacy is being overturned,” Prime Minister Ahmed bin Dagher said in a statement in the wake of armed clashed in the seaport city of Aden – the seat of Hadi’s government.
He added: “What is happening is very dangerous and affects the security, stability and unity of Yemen… This wrongdoing is no different than the crimes committed by the Houthis in Sana’a.”
Those crimes bin Dagher is referring to are those challenges Yemen’s Resistance Movement offered before Hadi’s rising authoritarianism when his mandate dictated he overviewed Yemen’s transition of power and democratic empowerment.
In more ways than one, South Yemen separatists are refusing Hadi’s rule and legitimacy for the same reasons Ansarallah did. One could argue that Hadi has become the odd one out. A president in exile with no real popular mandate, no political party and no tangible hope for a future, Hadi looks more like a liability than anything else – and yet Riyadh remains committed to his return.
Clashes erupted in Aden after Hadi’s army, who is supported by Saudi Arabia, tried to prevent separatists, backed by the UAE, from entering the city. At least 10 people were killed and 30 wounded in the fighting, hospital sources were quoted as saying.
The Southern Transitional Council (STC) – a movement demanding secession for southern Yemen – had given Hadi’s government a seven-day ultimatum to either dismiss his prime minister and cabinet, or face an overthrow.
Hadi’s legitimacy, or lack thereof aside, the opening of such a new frontline right at the heart of those territories Saudi Arabia has claimed control over by way of the UAE, betrays a geopolitical dispute that is unlikely to disappear.
By moving against Hadi’s government, it is Riyadh’s hold over the region Abu Dhabi came to challenge.
Beyond that, this new standoff underscores Yemen’s geopolitical importance. Yemen’s war was never ever about democracy-building and/or Iran’s alleged pull.
Yemen it is painfully obvious, has become Gulf monarchies’ new military playground as they battle for influence over the region. Each to its own, the Emirates and the kingdom came to muddy dangerous waters indeed.
More likely than not, Yemenis will end up bearing the brunt of it all with both their lives and security.
But there is opportunity in Aden’s stage rebellion against Saudi Arabia’s diktat, or more to the point maybe, MBS’s influence (Mohammed bin Salman, son and heir to King Salman).
It is not so much the kingdom, the UAE is challenging to a proxy duel, and more that ambitious prince, who, to finance his war in Yemen, so diligently pursued his family from the confines of the Carlton-Ritz hotel. More than 200 members of Saudi Arabia’s elite, including 11 princes, were detained under allegations of corruption before they were tortured, and their wealth raided to the benefit of the crown in late 2017.
MBS is not exactly a popular prince those days and many among the Gulf elite are dreading his ascension to throne.
But where does this leave Yemen? I would personally argue: an opportunity at peace by way of negotiations with the only protagonist whose hands could command enough international traction to make it happen: the UAE.
For all its ambitions in Yemen, the UAE stands a lesser evil than Saudi Arabia. Unlike Saudi Arabia, the UAE does not have an irrational fear of Ansarallah, nor does it wish to annihilate Yemen’s religious traditions to stamp its own.
The UAE also offers a degree of rationality the kingdom profoundly lacks. Given the stakes, pragmatism dictates one considers the possibility.
There is an interesting aspect to Aden’s standoff that few experts have openly discussed as yet, and that is the position western capitals will be forced to take should tensions escalate further. There most probably lies Yemen’s immediate political future.
Catherine Shakdam is the Director of Programs of the Shafaqna Institute for Middle Eastern Studies and a political analyst specializing in radical movements, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.