May 4, 2017

Shaping the South: The UAE in Yemen

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, right, receives Yemen's exiled President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Aug. 12, 2015. (Mohamed Al Hammadi/Crown Prince Court - Abu Dhabi via AP )

As the contours of the United Arab Emirates’ ambitious agenda in southern Yemen continue to become more evident, so do the differences between the UAE and the government of Yemen’s exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Increasingly – and much to Hadi’s dismay – the UAE seems to be building ties to individuals identified with a movement that continues to press for greater autonomy, if not outright independence, from Yemen’s central authority. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia – which organized the military intervention into Yemen’s civil war to reinstate Hadi’s internationally-recognized government – has thus far avoided getting drawn into the public debate over the Emiratis’ southern strategy, inviting questions about its own disposition regarding the future of a unified Yemeni state, and its support for Hadi himself.

The most recent evidence that the UAE is pursuing a political agenda across southern Yemen that diverges from that of the Hadi government surfaced April 22 at the so-called Inclusive Hadramout Conference. One report claimed the conference was convened “under the sponsorship of Abu Dhabi’s man in Hadramout, Governor Ahmad Bin Braik, and the protection of the Hadramout elite forces.” In addition to calling on Hadi to speed up the announcement of Hadramout as an independent province, the report noted that the conference’s final document also asserted that Hadramis would have the right to leave the union should they conclude it is not serving their interests. While the announcement was couched in the context of implementing the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference, and a subsequent proposal for a federal Yemen, this was widely seen as merely a fig leaf to avoid the impression that the UAE was encouraging separatist elements in Yemen.

Interestingly, while groups of businessmen and tribal leaders associated with Saudi Arabia publicly announced they would not participate in the Hadramout conference, the kingdom’s political leadership offered no public commentary on the matter, suggesting that there may be less daylight between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on the political future of Southern Yemen than some commentators are claiming. In fact, a prominent Gulf Arab analyst this week asserted that the Saudis are not insisting that Yemen emerge from the current conflict as a unified state, and have left it to the Emiratis to work with local political leaders and others in the south to shape the future of the region in whatever form is determined to best ensure its stability and political and economic viability.

That certainly doesn’t seem to be Hadi’s view of the matter. He responded to the Hadramout conference by issuing decrees dismissing a number of officials known to be associated with the UAE, seemingly alarmed by their apparent collaboration with a neighboring state on internal Yemeni matters. Prominent among those dismissed was the governor of Aden, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, and Minister of State Hani Ali bin Braik. In addition, Hadi reportedly opened a criminal investigation into the minister, said to have been appointed at the specific request of the UAE. In the wake of the conference, and Hadi’s subsequent decrees, King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia met with him Saturday in an effort to ease tensions, given Hadi’s view that the Emiratis are violating Yemen’s sovereignty by inciting officials to refuse to carry out presidential decisions.

Meanwhile, the UAE’s ongoing strategic investments in southern Yemen continue to draw attention. The UAE is reportedly building an airstrip on Perim Island, which sits in the middle of the strategic Bab el-Mandeb, through which some 4 million barrels of oil pass each day, and where Houthi insurgents are suspected of having conducted maritime attacks, including one on an Emirati vessel. Emirati relief organizations also have delivered assistance to the population of Socotra Island, which sits off Yemen’s coast in the Gulf of Aden, close to the Horn of Africa.

As early as June 2015, when UAE special forces entered Aden and established a military presence, it appears that the Saudis had already agreed that the Emiratis would assume responsibility for the management of southern Yemen. This outsized role in the ground war against Houthi militants and allied forces continues, including along the Red Sea coast, now seen as potentially a game-changing bit of real estate, particularly as it pertains to control of the port city of Hodeidah. In fact, a Yemeni analyst suggested last week that Abu Dhabi is busily building inroads at all of Yemen’s major ports, from Mukalla in the east to Mokha on the Red Sea coast, all with an aim to harness the economic potential of these seaports as part of a larger state-building exercise seen as crucial to southern Yemen’s long-term stability. Viewed in this context, the UAE’s enthusiasm for an amphibious assault to liberate Hodeidah from Houthi control appears to follow a certain logic, even if it now seems to be backing away from any imminent military operation.

As the war in Yemen drags on with no apparent end in sight, the Emiratis appear increasingly determined to shift their focus from short-term tactical advantage to long-term strategic stabilization. As a result, while stasis seems to prevail on the battlefield, the UAE is moving ahead with plans that appear to support a much longer-term investment in Yemen, one that may include redrawing the map of the country.

Stephen A. Seche is the executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, and previously U.S. ambassador to Yemen.