Saudi and UAE Allies Are Fighting Each Other, Now Yemen Is Questioning the Whole Coalition

The exiled government of Yemen has begun to question the entire coalition led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the United Arab Emirates as local partners of the two foreign states engaged in a series of clashes that threatened to further divide the Arab World's poorest, most devastated nation.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have supported the administration of exiled Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi as part of a coalition against a rebellion led by a Zaidi Shiite Muslim group, known as Ansar Allah or the Houthis, since 2015. However, southern separatists backed by Abu Dhabi have turned on the Riyadh-backed presidential guard, seizing Hadi's abandoned palace in the southern port city of Aden after a week of bloody clashes. On Thursday, the Southern Transitional Council held a massive rally and vowed to take charge of the south in anticipation for total independence.

In a series of tweets Friday, Yemeni Information Minister Moammar al-Eryani criticized the move as "not only a coup against the legitimate government, but also a threat to the social fabric and a strike against the national project."

"Any permission of or identification with the coup of the Transitional Council in Aden in this circumstance brings down the legitimacy of confronting the Houthi coup in Sanaa, and brings down the justifications for the intervention of the legitimate coalition facing the Houthi militia coup against the elected Yemeni government," he added.

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Yemeni southern separatists supporters wave a flag of the former South Yemen (The People's Democratic Republic of Yemen) as they demonstrate in the Khormaksar district of Yemen's second city of Aden on August 15. Yemen's exiled government on August 14 ruled out talks with southern separatists until they withdraw from positions they seized last week in Aden. NABIL HASAN/AFP/Getty Images

Yemen's internal struggles run at least centuries deep and the country's north and south have distinctive sectarian and political differences represented in the contemporary state. The north of Yemen was long ruled for at least a thousand years by Shiite Muslims of the Zaidi branch — as opposed to other subsects like the influential Twelvers leading Iran — while the south was dominated by Sunnis, but independence in the 1960s led to the formation of two rival nations, a religious, tribal military junta backed by Saudi Arabia in Sanaa and a communist government backed by the Soviet Union in the south.

The country was only unified in 1990 following a series of bloody conflicts also involving competing geopolitical interests. The current crisis began in 2012 when Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who took charge of North Yemen in 1978 and continued to rule the unified state, was forced to step down amid widespread protests that did not abate when Hadi assumed his position.

As discontent grew, the Houthis managed to take over the capital Sanaa in 2015, forcing Hadi to relocate to Aden and compelling Saudi Arabia to form an Arab coalition including the UAE and backed by the United States in an attempt to beat back the insurgents that they suspected of receiving backing from regional rival Iran. Saleh and his supporters would go on to join the new Houthi-led government, but the former longtime leader was ultimately killed under shadowy circumstances as he reportedly tried to broker a deal with the Saudi-led coalition in 2017.

The conflict has been widely described as a stalemate, with the Houthis retaining control of Sanaa as violent skirmishes took place against pro-government forces in strategic cities such as Al-Hodeidah. Both sides tentatively agreed to enter into talks last year in Sweden, but little has emerged of this as the UAE recently announced a drawdown of its troops in the country amid separate international tensions involving Iran in the Persian Gulf and a new front opened in Aden.

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UAE military supreme commander and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (R) shakes hands with Saudi King Salman near the Saudi holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The two allies have tried to downplay speculation of a rift as their respective partners went to war in Yemen. MOHAMMED AL-HAMMADI/MINISTRY OF PRESIDENTIAL AFFAIRS-ABU DHABI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Though the Saudi-backed forces of Hadi and UAE-backed southern separatists have clashed before, their feud escalated dramatically after a rocket strike claimed by the Houthis earlier this month killed members of the pro-south fighters. The Southern Transitional Council ultimately held the pro-government Islamist group Islah for the attack, claiming it was intended to undermine separatist control of Aden, and fire was exchanged between the rival sides at a funeral for the slain fighters.

The separatists would go on to take key government buildings, overwhelming the presidential guard at the palace that Hadi has long abandoned since relocating to Saudi Arabia. With the Houthis in Sanaa and the separatists in Aden, however, the internationally-recognized government of Yemen had no home in the country itself.

The Houthis have meanwhile pointed to the inter-coalition conflict as further reason to consider Saudi Arabia and the UAE's intervention illegitimate. On Thursday, rebel Supreme Political Council member Mohammed Ali al-Houthi tweeted that the group was "monitoring the events in Aden" as the Southern Transitional Council held its massive rally there.

The U.S. has expressed concern over the situation in Aden, but has faced domestic struggles in backing the coalition. Amid accusations that Saudi Arabia and the UAE were responsible for war crimes there, Congress moved to block President Donald Trump's ability to offer military assistance to their war effort there, but the U.S. leader vetoed the historic vote, expressing unwavering support for the monarchies he viewed as leading allies in efforts to isolate Iran in the region.