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How Yemen Brought Saudi Arabia and the UAE to the Brink of Divorce

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ military intervention in Yemen, born out of limited planning and ill-defined objectives, has grown ever more complex and protracted. Geopolitical fragmentation, shifting alliances and sub-conflicts have accelerated in Yemen since the Saudi-led coalition entered the fray in 2015.

At the time, the coalition said its aim was to restore the internationally recognized government to power following a coup by the armed Houthi movement. However, infighting among allies sometimes prevails over battles against adversaries. Events in southern Yemen in August epitomized this, when forces affiliated with the UAE-backed separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) forcibly took over Aden, the interim capital of the Saudi-backed government led by President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Hindsight reveals that this course of events was almost inevitable, given the partners’ differing motives, geographic constraints, views on the strategic importance of Yemen, domestic decision-making structures, and wider regional priorities.

A Partnership Deteriorates

This schism between the main coalition actors in Yemen was no secret. Indeed, pre-existing rivalries between groups backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE have devolved into armed violence before. Past cases, such as the clashes between STC and government forces in Aden in January 2018, ended swiftly after coalition mediation.

This time was different. The UAE directly supported its local ally as it moved toward goals that run counter to Saudi policy in Yemen. Saudi and Emirati commentators and intellectuals have abandoned the usual conciliatory tone that has defined public discourse between the two countries to engage in a war of words on social media.

Days after the STC’s takeover of Aden, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met with Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed for an emergency meeting in Mecca. The talks, which Reuters reported to be tumultuous because of tensions between the Saudi king and the Emirati crown prince, apparently did not provide any solutions. In the following days, UAE-backed forces set their sights beyond the interim capital and moved to challenge the Yemeni government in neighboring Abyan and Shabwah governorates.

The escalation in oil-rich Shabwah invited a more fervent response from government forces. With more direct military and financial Saudi support this time around, Yemeni government troops and tribal allies pushed the STC all the way back to the eastern suburbs of Aden. In response to their ally’s retreat, the Emiratis conducted airstrikes targeting government forces, and a rupture at the heart of the coalition became visible.

Beyond the sudden and dramatic changes on the ground, the developments in the south have broader implications. The STC’s takeover of Aden undermines the legitimacy of the intervention in Yemen, with its stated objective of reinstating Hadi’s government in an undivided Yemen. The STC’s move – which would not have been possible without backing from the UAE – amounted to a second coup reminiscent of the Houthi takeover of Sanaa.

Disparate Motives and Contrasting Bureaucracies

When Saudi Arabia launched its military operations in Yemen in 2015, the UAE was not eager to join the coalition. At that time, its main national security concern in the region was to confront the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE considers Hadi’s ally, the Islah party, as the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, unlike Saudi Arabia, the UAE had maintained uninterrupted ties with former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh – even after he allied with the Houthi fighters in March 2015. However, the political cost of not showing up to a Saudi-run gathering outweighed these considerations and thus, having made the assessment that they must join the war in Yemen, the Emiratis went all in.

The Saudis and Emiratis are both subject to geographical constraints in Yemen. The 1,500-kilometer-long shared border with its southern neighbor presents Saudi Arabia with security risks that are relatively absent from the UAE’s calculations. These considerations have contributed to the allies’ divergent approaches in Yemen.

For example, although Riyadh is not inherently opposed to independence in southern Yemen, the Saudis prioritize stability on their southern flank more than anything. Riyadh would prefer to have only one corrupt president and a failed state, rather than a fragmented territory that could intensify the security vacuum to the advantage of actors such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, or Iran’s allies – the Houthi rebels – in Yemen.

The UAE does not have the same worries; it is free to support the separatist cause, knowing that it can always pack up and go home should the southern independence project go awry. In such a scenario, Saudi Arabia would have an expansive border of sand and mountains to guard against the proliferation of potential enemies to the south.

The UAE has its own geographical constraints, largely guided by its proximity to Iran. It has maritime borders with Iran in the Gulf, through the Strait of Hormuz shipping channel. Moreover, Abu Dhabi’s economic links with Tehran are substantial. There are dozens of flights between the UAE and Iran weekly, and trade between the two is worth billions of dollars annually.

Differences in decision-making mechanisms and bureaucracies provide another source of tension. Saudi Arabia’s bureaucracy is vertical and centralized, but also huge and inclusive of multiple centers of power. This delays decision making and implementation as proposals are passed up a long chain for approval. In the UAE, where the crown prince rules over all, this process is much swifter. Practically speaking, the UAE was capable of making quick decisions regarding Yemen, but would constantly need to wait for its ally’s stamp of approval. When Abu Dhabi told Riyadh it wanted to pull out of the port city of Mocha on Yemen’s western coast in early 2019, the Emiratis had to wait six months for the Saudis to be ready to fill the gap.

Even if the Saudis and Emiratis had shared goals in Yemen, their disparate national security concerns and decision-making mechanisms made forging an effective partnership in Yemen nearly impossible.

Broader Fragmentation, Higher Costs

Yemen has paid an immense human, security, and military cost from Saudi and UAE adventurism in the country, and this toll is only escalating as the Saudi-UAE alliance splinters. The region as a whole – with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s sprawling networks of patronage – will experience greater conflict should further chasms appear between these two erstwhile allies.

From the beginning, the Saudi-UAE alliance in Yemen was unlikely to succeed. Now it has clearly failed. The second best option to having never embarked on this misguided intervention in the first place would be for the “coalition” to push for peace as hard as it pushed for war. Washington can steer them in this direction, especially now that there are significant efforts towards negotiations between the Trump Administration and Iran in the aftermath of the attack on the Saudi oil facilities. By doing so, these Gulf powers could open an avenue to extricate themselves from what has proved an unwinnable war while avoiding further scrutiny of the rifts in their regional agendas.

Whenever Saudi Arabia and the UAE finally do withdraw from Yemen, they will join a long list of foreign powers that have seen their plans laid waste in the country: the Ottomans, the British, the Egyptians, and others. If history books are not sufficient guidance, or perhaps too tedious to read, the coalition would do well to listen to the Turkish folk song Yemen Türküsü. The ballad mourns the death of Ottoman boys fighting in southern Arabia. “Over there is Yemen, its rose is fenugreek. Those who go never return. Why?”

This article first appeared in Center for Global Policy.

The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic and security related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.