Saudi Arabia and UAE Are At War with Themselves in Yemen

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may be close partners with a common goal defeating a rebel group in Yemen, but their diverging interests have come to a violent head as heavy clashes erupted between their respective allies in the war-torn nation.

Violent skirmishes between the Saudi-backed guards of exiled Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the UAE-backed separatist Southern Transitional Council reached their second day Thursday in the southern port city of Aden. Both groups were opposed to the Zaidi Shiite Muslim rebel group known as the Houthis or Ansar Allah, suspected of receiving Iranian backing, but the southern separatists want to see an independent South Yemen as it existed from 1967 to 1990.

Hadi's administration has accused the UAE of backing southern claims for secession and, though the two sides fought at least once before last year, the latest bloodshed came amid a series of developments that tested ties between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

"The United States is deeply concerned by the outbreak of violence and deadly clashes in Aden. We call on all parties to refrain from escalation and further bloodshed, and to resolve their differences through dialogue," the State Department said Thursday in a statement. "Inciting further divisions and violence within Yemen will only increase the suffering of the Yemeni people and prolong the conflict. Dialogue represents the only way to achieve a stable, unified, and prosperous Yemen."

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Fighters from the separatist Southern Transitional Council drive a pickup truck in Aden, August 8. Yemen's Southern Transitional Council, which calls for the reinstatement of southern Yemen as an independent entity, is technically allied with the Hadi government but in January 2018 southern separatist forces linked to the council clashed with Hadi's troops, dealing a blow to the president's political and popular standing in the south. NABIL HASAN/AFP/Getty Images

As the sound of machine-gun fire and frenzied shouts gripped Aden, BBC News reported that one civilian was killed Thursday by a stray bullet a day after at least three people were killed in the fighting. The Associated Press carried claims Wednesday of one presidential guard dead and the Agence France-Presse placed the figure of southern separatists killed at two.

The latest bout of unrest began when a missile attack claimed by the Houthis struck a southern paramilitary parade in Aden last week, killing dozens among the separatist Security Belt forces. The Southern Transitional Council ultimately laid the blame on a pro-government, Islamist group known as Islah, claiming the attack was orchestrated to weaken the separatists' hold on the strategic city to which Hadi has relocated his government.

Gun battles then reportedly broke out at a funeral for the slain southern fighters. Following an extraordinary southern council meeting chaired by Vice President Hani Ali bin Brik, a statement was issued "calling on southern people and their resistance to march to Maashiq Palace to overthrow the government of terrorism and corruption that is allied with the Islah terrorist party and put an end to its futility towards our people."

The statement affirmed the group's recognition of Hadi as president as well as its commitment to continuing the Saudi and UAE-backed war against the Houthis. Still, Hadi's presidential guard was tasked with defending the palace as tensions boiled over into exchanges of fire.

"We reject the irresponsible actions of the Transitional Council groups, which amounted to the use of heavy weapons and the attempt to storm state institutions," Yemeni Interior Minister Ahmed al-Maysari tweeted Thursday. "We affirm our commitment to preserve the institutions of the state and the safety of citizens and we will address all attempts to discriminate against the institutions and individuals, and do so in support of all the wise and honorable people and in support of our brothers in the coalition."

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Yemeni fighters from the Popular Resistance Committee supporting forces loyal to Yemen's Saudi-backed government take part in a graduation ceremony in the country's third city Taez, August 5. The bloody stalemate has come at high human cost in Yemen, but rifts in the Saudi-led coalition and new attacks claimed by the Houthis and ISIS signaled no end in sight for the war. AHMAD AL-BASHA/AFP/Getty Images

The war in Yemen has its roots in the 2011 so-called Arab Spring series of protests that gripped the Middle East and North Africa. Mass rallies led to Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh being ousted in 2012 and replaced with Hadi, who faced demonstrations of his own as separate, rival insurgencies waged by the Houthis and Al-Qaeda further destabilized the country.

The Houthis managed to seize the capital Sanaa in early 2015, forcing Hadi to flee to Aden as Saudi Arabia mobilized Arab allies for a coalition to begin bombing the insurgents that March. What's followed has largely been seen as a stalemate, with chronic disease, malnutrition and frequent civilian casualties contributing to what the United Nations has called "the world's worst humanitarian crisis."

The U.S. has also offered significant support for the Saudi-led coalition, with President Donald Trump overturning votes to force the Pentagon to disassociate from the conflict due to persistent accusations of human rights abuses and ties between the Saudi-led coalition, Al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups. Washington has viewed Riyadh as a vital node in its efforts to isolate Tehran and the war in Yemen as an active battleground to that end despite both Houthi and Iranian officials denying their alleged ties.

The UAE too has been seen as an important ally against Iran, though Abu Dhabi only downgraded its ties to Tehran and did not sever them completely in 2016, as did Riyadh. As unrest grew amid heated U.S.-Iran tensions in the Persian Gulf, however, the UAE has taken a distinct position.

First, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan refused in June to pin the blame on Iran for unclaimed attacks that targeted oil tankers in the nearby Gulf of Oman, breaking from the shared stance of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. UAE State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash confirmed last month that the country planned to draw back its military presence in Yemen, especially in the contested port of Al-Hodeidah and Emirati coast guard officials met and signed a memorandum of understanding on joint maritime security with Iran's border security force.

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Tribal gunmen loyal to the Yemen's Ansar Allah, or Houthi, movement gather to show their support to the Zaidi Shiite Muslim fighters against the Saudi-led intervention, in the Rahabah district, north of the capital Sanaa, August 1. That same day the group took credit for a missile attack that killed dozens of southern, pro-government separatists and a separate suicide bombing claimed by ISIS struck a police station in Sheikh Othman district, Aden. MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

The UAE has tried to downplay notions of it splitting with Saudi Arabia and Gargash even appeared to announce Abu Dhabi was reversing its troop drawdown in Yemen last week. As the situation deteriorated in Aden Wednesday, he tweeted: "Developments around Maashiq Palace are worrying and the call for calm is necessary." He argued that "escalation cannot be an acceptable option after the despicable terrorist operation" in Aden and that "the political framework, communication and dialogue are essential towards harshness and accumulations that cannot be solved through the use of force."

The Houthis, for their part, have watched on eagerly as rifts appeared in the Saudi-UAE alliance they have been fighting for four and a half years. Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a leading member of the rebel Supreme Political Council, tweeted Wednesday: "After the mercenaries' warnings of aggression in Aden, will the bragging remain? Or will it melt like snow? There is no salvation for the occupied governorates except by expelling the occupier and ending every relationship with it."

The following day, the group stepped up their cross-border attacks, again bringing the war to Saudi Arabia's own turf. The Houthis claimed responsibility Thursday for two attacks on the kingdom's Abha International Airport using Qasef 2K drones "in response to the crimes of aggression and siege of our great Yemeni people."

Update (7:05 p.m. 8/9/2019) This article has been updated to include a statement from the State Department.