In Depth

Yemen conflict: whose side is the UAE on?

Abu Dhabi provokes condemnation - and confusion - after launching air strikes against its former allies in Aden

The United Arab Emirates has reportedly carried out a series of air strikes against government troops in Yemen, marking a dramatic escalation in tensions between members of the Saudi-led coalition engaged in the country’s ongoing civil war.

Yemeni Information Minister Moammar al-Eryani said the UAE dropped bombs on Yemeni government forces in the south of country on Thursday, killing 40 soldiers and wounding 70 civilians, Al Jazeera reports.

The move is likely to raise questions about the motives and allegiances of the UAE, which has been a belligerent in the war - described by the UN as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis - since it began in 2015.

The UAE seemingly carried out the air strikes in support of the so-called Southern Transitional Council, a group of separatists who are fighting for control of the port city of Aden against both Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition that is backing the Yemeni government. Until recently, the UAE was considered a key player in the pro-government coalition.

The internationally recognised Yemeni government has condemned the strikes as threatening the “constitutional legitimacy” and has now called on Saudi Arabia - the largest partner in the pro-government coalition - to “intervene to stop this blatant intrusion by these militias and their aerial bombardment of our armed forces”.

However, the UAE has defended the strike as a legitimate military strategy aimed at “armed groups led by members of terrorist organisations” following “attacks on coalition forces at Aden airport”.

But who is telling the truth? And with coalition members at each others’ throats, might the situation in Yemen be about to get even worse?

Who supports who in Yemen?

In 2015, Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government was forced to flee after rebel forces belonging to the majority-Shia Houthi movement seized the capital, Sanaa.

A coalition of majority-Sunni Islamic states quickly formed - led by Saudi Arabia and including the UAE, Qatar, Morocco, Sudan and Senegal - and intervened in Yemen on behalf of the government in March 2015, with the aim of destroying the Houthi insurgency.

Militants from the Southern Movement, which calls for an independent South Yemen, began the war fighting alongside the coalition out of a shared opposition to the Houthi rebels. But tensions were frayed in 2017 when President Hadi sacked the pro-secession governor of the southern port city of Aden, Aidarous al-Zoubeidi.

Al-Zoubeidi went on to found the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a successor to the Southern Movement. Although still theoretically allied to the pro-government coalition, since last year the STC has been fighting to push government troops out of southern Yemen.

The open hostilities between the STC and the Hadi regime have tested the loyalties of the UAE, which supports the secession movement.

The UAE pulled almost all of its ground troops out of the coalition in July this year, both as a response to ongoing friction with Hadi and as a signal to Iran that “it wants diplomacy instead of military confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz between the two countries”, writes Yemen expert Mareike Transfeld for The Washington Post.

What happened this week?

With the coalition weakened by the loss of UAE troops, early August 2019 saw the STC seize the opportunity to take total control over Aden, in what Al Jazeera calls a “dramatic twist” in the civil war.

On Wednesday, government forces claimed to have regained control of Aden, The Guardian says. The following day, the Yemeni government announced that UAE air attacks in Aden and Zinjibar, the capital of neighbouring Abyan province, had killed 40 government troops. The Yemeni defence ministry has since revised its death toll up to 300 - a number which could not be independently verified, the Financial Times reports.

In a rare statement, Hadi accused the Emirates of “blatant intervention” and of providing “support, money and plans” for separatists who aim at “dividing up” the country to its pre-1990 borders, AP reports.

Yemen’s defence ministry also published a statement placing “full responsibility for this blatant targeting on the UAE, which was illegal and outside international norms” and calling on Saudi Arabia to stop this “unlawful and unjustified military escalation”.

According to AP, the UAE quickly issued a statement “acknowledging its fighter jets carried out the airstrikes” but justifying them by claiming they were targeting “terrorists” and that the strikes came in response to attacks on the coalition.

“The United Arab Emirates stresses its rights to self-defense and response to the threats targeting the forces of the Arab coalition after terrorist organisations increased their attacks against the coalition forces,” the statement said. “The recent aggravation in offensives against the Arab Coalition forces and civilians pose a menacing threat to the security of the coalition.”

What does this mean and what happens next?

With clashes between STC and Yemeni government forces continuing in and around Aden, a solution looks a long way off at present, with Reuters suggesting the escalation of hostilities between the UAE and the Hadi government “is the latest twist in a multi-faceted war in Yemen pitting several factions and armies against each other”.

Catherine Shakdam, head of the Yemen department at London-based think tank Next Century Foundation, told Al Jazeera this week that the STC will likely end up in control of Aden. “I think, realistically, that it is very likely that the secessionists will remain in control of the seaport of Aden. It is, after all, a stronghold of the secessionist movement, and has been for many decades now,” she said. “It is an opportunity they cannot miss.”

As for the larger picture, although the Saudi government has this week taken steps to call for peace talks in Jeddah, it has done so in a joint statement with the UAE - something that will likely displease the Hadi regime and do little to further the peace process.

It is extremely unlikely that the coalition will be able to bring the UAE back into line with the Hadi government. Even prior to the recent definitive break-up, Abu Dhabi was wary of Hadi over his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is designated by the UAE as a terrorist organisation.

Writing in the Washington Post, Transfeld predicts that the UAE will “not make another bold move in Yemen unless its proxy forces are in a position of power on the ground” and that the Emirates “will align itself with Saudi goals if Hadi is on top of the power struggles”. But for now, the situation remains “in flux”.

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