If or when Yemen’s civil war draws to a close, another one may well be waiting. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have different end games in mind, despite fighting in the same coalition against the Iranian-sponsored Houthis. In fact, their shared interest in Yemen begins and ends with eliminating, or at least curbing, Iran’s influence on the Arabian Peninsula. Their diverging needs already have led to clashes between Emirati- and Saudi-backed forces in Yemen. In January, for example, a fight broke out between members of the Southern Transitional Council, a secessionist group supported by the UAE, and forces loyal to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, head of Yemen’s internationally recognized – and Saudi-approved – government. And on Oct. 3, the STC took aim at the exiled president once again, calling for an uprising against his government. The latest incident highlighted the cracks in the Saudi-UAE alliance, which will probably only grow as the Yemeni conflict continues.
Understanding why the STC and government forces are beginning to turn on each other after fighting on the same side of the civil war requires an understanding of their patrons’ interests in Yemen. The Houthis, an Iranian proxy group, pose an immediate threat to Saudi Arabia, which shares a border with Yemen. To prevent a hostile regime from taking power just across its southern boundary, the kingdom is working to install a more sympathetic government in Yemen. Doing so, however, requires that the state remain unified. With that goal in mind, Saudi Arabia has joined forces with Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate that also wants to maintain Yemen’s unity.
The UAE, on the other hand, is concerned less with the proximity of the Houthis – after all, it does not border Yemen – than with their access to critical shipping channels in the region. The Houthi presence in the port of Hodeida puts sea lanes in the Red Sea and Suez Canal, which Saudi Arabia and the UAE depend on in their energy trade with North America and Europe, at risk. It also jeopardizes the naval bases that the UAE has established along the Horn of Africa during the course of the Yemeni conflict. (The ports in Assab, Eritrea, and Berbera, Somaliland, offer the UAE some flexibility in case Iran interrupts its trade through the Persian Gulf.) To maintain supply routes to the bases, Emirati forces need control of Yemen’s southern coast, especially the port of Aden, and its western shores on the strategic Bab el-Mandeb strait.
Put simply, the UAE doesn’t need a unified Yemen to secure its interests, but Saudi Arabia does. The UAE is consequently reluctant to stick its neck out to help Saudi Arabia take territory outside southern and western Yemen and content to let the STC push for secession. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is willing to pursue the goal of a unified Yemen even if it means working with Islah, an organization that, in the Emirati view, presents nearly as great a threat as the Houthis do. Their differing objectives in the conflict will put increasing strain on relations between the two Gulf states.
It’s difficult to tell at this point whether the UAE is actively encouraging the STC’s opposition to Hadi’s government or simply allowing it. But it doesn’t really matter: The UAE is after control over southern Yemen – whether as a region or as an independent entity – and it already has the forces in place to accomplish that goal. Since the UAE has been far more active on the ground than has Saudi Arabia, which has provided primarily funding and air support, southern Yemen is rife with UAE and UAE-friendly forces, while northern Yemen is still a Houthi stronghold. Saudi Arabia may have to fend for itself in northern Yemen if the Houthis keep focusing their attacks on its southern border, and could have to send in more of its own ground forces or more East African allied forces. As long as the Houthis stay out of southern Yemen and the western coast, and as long as Saudi Arabia itself seems to be holding up, the UAE will be satisfied.
What remains to be seen is whether the alliance between Saudi Arabia and the UAE could survive the split that the STC is advocating. The two clearly share some interests in the region – such as protecting maritime flow – but the war appears to be approaching a phase in which they are jostling for position, anticipating a time when the Houthi presence is greatly diminished, if not eliminated. More broadly, the question remains whether the divisions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE will stay confined to the Yemeni civil war, or whether they will seep out into other areas of potential competition.