Is the Saudi-led alliance on the rocks in Yemen?

The Southern Transitional Council, which is reportedly supported by the UAE, is feuding with the western-backed government of Abdu Rabbu Masour Hadi, and has taken over the city of Aden

August 14, 2019 by Abdul Rahman
Is the Saudi-led alliance on the rocks in Yemen?
The Southern Transitional Council (STC) and its military wing Security Belt, captured the city of Aden on August 11.

The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, which is responsible for massive human rights violations, is facing its worst challenge since its formation in 2015 and it is not coming from the Houthis, their main opposition which controls more than half of Yemen, including Sana.

The Southern Transitional Council (STC) and its military wing Security Belt, one of the most important factions within the coalition, revolted against the western-backed Abdu Rabbu Masour Hadi government and captured Aden after three days of fighting on August 11. This forced the interior minister of the Hadi government, Ahmed al-Maysaari, to acknowledge the “defeat” publicly. Al-Maysaari fled to Riyadh on August 12.

It is claimed that the STC is backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE had announced the withdrawal of its forces from Yemen last month and is also considered to be sympathetic to the STC’s agenda of creating a separate state in southern Yemen.

STC vs Hadi government

Saudi Arabia largely remained silent throughout the fight between the STC and the Hadi government, and it was only after the former gained control over the presidential palace and other crucial military points in the city did it call for a ceasefire. Al-Maysaari, in his tweet, expressed his unhappiness over this silence.

The rift between the STC and the Hadi government is nothing new. The government accused the STC of attempting a coup last year. The rift reflects the opportunistic nature of the coalition in which different kinds of factions and groups, adhering to different ideologies and with contradictory aims, are brought together by Saudi money in order to serve an alien and imperialist agenda.

The current round of fighting between the STC and the Hadi government’s forces started after last Wednesday’s attack on a parade in which at least seven of the UAE-backed Security Belt’s soldiers were killed. The Houthis initially claimed responsibility for the attacks. A day later, however, the vice-president of the STC, Hani Ali Ben Brik, alleged that the Islah party, one of the constituents of the coalition that is loyal to Hadi, had collaborated with the Houthis to target the STC. Islah is an Islamist group considered close to the Muslim Brotherhood. On Thursday, August 6, Security Belt forces took on those of the government and after three days of fighting, gained full control over Aden.

Around 40 people were killed and hundreds were wounded in the fighting. President Abdu Rabbu Masour Hadi, who fled Sana after the Houthis revolted and took control over the city in 2015, is in Riyadh with most of his cabinet colleagues. However, since Aden was considered the seat of power of his government, the takeover by the STC has created a peculiar situation.

Independent Southern Yemen?

The rift in the alliance was long overdue. Many of these differences did not surface earlier due to the pressure from the Saudis and the UAE. However, now that the UAE’s forces are withdrawing and the fight against the Houthis is not progressing, the exhaustion and stalemate has led to a blame game among the coalition partners.

The birth of the STC can be traced back to 2007 when the Southern Movement, called Al-Hirak al-Janoubi was to create an independent state in Southern Yemen. The leaders of the movement believed that the merger of the North and South in 1990 had done no good and in fact, led to the dominance of the former over the politics and culture of Yemen.

While Northern Yemen was a remote isolated monarchy for much of its history, the South was more cosmopolitan due to its location on crucial trade routes. In modern times, Aden was the only formal colony of British in the entire Gulf till 1967. After its independence, a People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen was created through the merger of Aden with other smaller British protectorates in the South. Following internal clashes in the 1980s and the fall of the Soviet Union, the leadership of the South merged it with the North under Ali Abdullah Saleh.

A faction within the Southern leadership however never accepted the merger and led a failed revolt in 1994. The formation of the Al-Hirak al-Janoubi can be seen as a follow-up of this revolt. The Hirak and STC enjoy considerable support among the people of the region.

General Adirooz al-Zubaidi, the leader of the Hirak and now the president of the STC, was the governor of Aden. He was fired by the Hadi government in 2017 following an attempt by forces loyal to him to take over the Aden airport. After his removal, al-Zubaidi formed the Southern Transitional Council. As mentioned above, due to pressure from the Saudis and the UAE, it remained inside the Hadi-led coalition despite its disagreements with the latter.

The STC accused the Hadi government of indulging in terrorism and corruption and ignoring the interests of the southern people.

Saudi Arabia vs UAE?

The rift in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is not limited to the fight on the ground among its members. In the recent times, there has been enough indication of differences between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two main supporters and sponsors of the coalition for the past four years.

The UAE, unlike Saudi Arabia, has maintained a working relationship with Iran despite the coalition holding Iran responsible for the Houthis’ rise. Saudi Arabia ended its official diplomatic relations with Iran, whereas the UAE only downgraded it in 2016.

The reasons behind the diverse reaction among these countries can be attributed to differences in their perceptions of regional politics. Saudi Arabia has a direct strategic interest in keeping the Houthis under control. It shares a long land border with north Yemen and the Houthis claim that it has illegally occupied a large part of Yemeni territory. Therefore, the fight between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia can be seen as one between the occupier and the occupied. The UAE has no such stake in the Yemeni war.

The UAE’s interest lies in maintaining control over the port of Aden, which is crucial for its energy exports. Also, while Saudi Arabia sees Iran as its arch rival in the region, the UAE is in no position to harbor such ambitions. Its vulnerability, in case a war breaks out with Iran, is much higher given the fact that it is a small country with urban centers located a few miles away from Iran. A prolonged war with Iran may destroy Dubai’s economy forever.

All this was very much true at the beginning of the war too. The fact that the UAE has started acting on these lines has to do with the longevity of the war and the increasing hesitation about the war among western backers, such as the US and the UK. There is pressure on the US and the UK to stop their support, especially in the light of the human suffering. Over 20,000 have died and millions are on the verge of death due to starvation and insufficient medical supplies.  The revelation of Saudi involvement in the Jamal Khashoggi murder has doubled the pressure on the western countries.

Thus, the differing interests when it comes to regional and global politics, as well as divergences in ideology, are coming to the fore among the constituents of the alliance. This may lead to the collapse of this imperialist coalition in Yemen sooner than expected.

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