Recent revelations of bad blood between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates confirm what observers of Yemeni politics have long known – that the relationship between the two countries leading the military campaign to restore the internationally recognized government has deteriorated to an alarming degree. On the ground, the rift is contributing to political and economic instability, and escalating conflict between the Gulf powers’ respective proxy forces.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) stunned journalists at an off-the-record briefing by describing the UAE as having “stabbed us (Saudi Arabia) in the back,” and threatened to take action, echoing its 2017 boycott of Qatar. The diplomatic embargo and economic blockade of Doha failed, but another such campaign could incur substantial collateral damage. The place where Saudi-UAE animosity will play out – indeed, where it already has – is in Yemen.
The strained relations between the coalition partners first manifested in 2018, when fighting broke out in Aden between the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the Saudi-backed government of then-president Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Hadi’s government was nominally supported by both parties, but in 2017 the UAE established the STC to protect its interests in the south. After driving government forces from the interim capital in August 2019, the STC became the de facto power in Aden. The Riyadh Agreement was signed in November 2019 in an effort to establish a new modus vivendi.
But in April 2022, Saudi Arabia set up the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) to replace Hadi’s ineffective government, which quickly signed a UN-brokered ceasefire. The truce with the Houthi group (Ansar Allah) has largely held, even after its acrimonious expiration last October, but ushered in a period of renewed infighting among coalition forces as Saudi-UAE relations deteriorated toward a breaking point. Last August, STC-aligned forces and the UAE-backed Giants Brigades ousted government forces aligned with the Saudi-backed Islamist Islah party from Shabwa and parts of Abyan, as PLC chief Rashad al-Alimi looked on helplessly.
Alarm bells really began to ring in September 2022, when the STC started agitating against Islah-aligned government forces in Hadramawt and Al-Mahra in a bid to impose its writ throughout the territory of the former South Yemen. Viewing these vast eastern governorates, with which it shares a long border, as strategically important to its security, Saudi Arabia was in no mind to give in to the STC’s demands, which centered on removing 1st Military Region forces from their headquarters in Seyoun.
Riyadh gradually ramped up its response – mobilizing Hadrami tribes, launching development projects, and building a new force to operate under Al-Alimi’s nominal control in areas around Aden. The STC upped the ante in May by forming a new presidium, even including two members of the PLC, issuing a charter asserting its ambitions, and holding a southern national assembly in Mukalla in coastal Hadramawt. Saudi Arabia then went one step further, sponsoring the creation of a Hadramawt National Council whose ambition of autonomy within a federal state is clearly designed to ruin the STC’s plans, and backing up Al-Alimi with a raft of development projects in Hadramawt and Al-Mahra.
In an effort to reconcile the two sides, the Biden administration set up a meeting in May between Mohammed bin Salman and Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed, the UAE national security advisor. The Saudi leader apparently promised some form of concession on Yemen in return for a UAE agreement not to jeopardize the de facto ceasefire while Saudi-Houthi negotiations continued. But reports say the crown prince later told his advisers privately not to change tack, declaring: “I don’t trust them anymore.”
To be clear, the dispute extends beyond Yemen. The two Gulf monarchies are engaged in a multifaceted political and economic rivalry over regional leadership and their role as global players. The UAE threatened to exit the oil cartel OPEC after Saudi Arabia strong-armed members into agreeing to production cuts last October. Saudi Arabia has warned foreign businesses they must locate their Gulf headquarters inside the kingdom. But the consequences of the rift are most visible and most damaging in Yemen. Abu Dhabi gives the impression of wanting to spoil the Saudi leadership’s plan to overcome the stigma of its disastrous intervention in Yemen and reconfigure the country to permanently remove its southern neighbor as a threat.
The question is what this will mean for Yemen. Riyadh hopes to conclude a formal agreement with the Houthis that would end Saudi-Houthi hostilities and establish a formal peace process between the Houthis and the government, which Saudi Arabia, and other regional and international actors, would then support with development programs. Al-Alimi has been tasked with implementing this Saudi vision, and international pressure on the STC to let the process play out has been intense, particularly in recent weeks. The UAE is the main sponsor of four of the PLC’s eight members, who will likely remonstrate against the terms of an agreement if and when it happens, but the international community is clearly behind Riyadh’s program to conclude its involvement in the war and push the parties into a formal peace process.
On the ground it’s another story. Any of the armed groups under the control of PLC members could agitate against Houthi or Saudi and government-backed forces in any number of locations, should they view the new arrangements as unsatisfactory. Riyadh seems to have prepared itself for this eventuality by placing the Saudi-backed Nation’s Shield forces under Al-Alimi’s control, but the STC’s actions in Hadramawt clearly worry the Saudi leadership. The Houthis may view the fracturing of the alliance as an opportunity, and there are already signs of their mobilizing for conflict in Marib, Taiz, and Lahj. Disorganization could provide openings for other groups too: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is currently more focused on government and STC forces in the south than targeting the Houthis.
The door for provoking continued conflict on the ground is wide open: low-level attrition has the power to undermine whatever gains are made in peace talks. Absent a return to a broader conflagration in Yemen, this is perhaps the greatest danger of the Saudi-UAE rift – no war, but no peace, and the slow draining of hope after what finally looked like a chance for deconfliction and a measure of stability.