Why would the UAE back a coup in Yemen?

Yesterday, the deputy leader of the Southern Transitional Council Hani Bin Buraik in a video called on his soldiers and allies to march on the Presidential palace. The move comes amidst tension following the deaths of Abu al-Yamama al-Yafe and a number of soldiers from the ‘Security Belt’ after an explosion during a military parade last Thursday. Although the Houthis declared that they were responsible for the explosion, Hani Bin Buraik pointed the finger at Islah and the internationally-recognised government, accusing them of being complicit in the attack to weaken the Southern Transitional Council. What followed was a series of skirmishes around the Presidential Palace and rumours of reprisals against ordinary citizens who hail from the North.

Although Bin Buraik cited Abu al-Yamama’s death as one of the key reasons for mobilisation, a wider assessment of the situation points to a darker dynamic that appears to have encouraged, or exacerbated, tensions in the South leading to the latest bout of violence.

Earlier this week, the UAE sent a military delegation to Tehran ostensibly to discuss maritime issues. What followed was a social media campaign by Abu Dhabi advisors including AbdulKhaleq Abdullah and the former chief of police Dhahi Khalfan. In one tweet, AbdulKhaleq Abdullah declared that ‘The war in Yemen is over for the UAE’ and that ‘Yemen will not be united after today’. Dhahi Khalfan went further, declaring that ‘Yemen has never been united in its history’. Given that the UAE cracks down heavily on dissent, it is safe to assume that these views fairly represent those of Abu Dhabi.

At the same time, Houthi spokesman Mohamed al-Bukhaiti took to Facebook to express his welcoming of ‘a change in position from the UAE towards Yemen’ and that the Houthis ‘would not negatively respond to these positive steps’.

So why would the UAE back the Southern Transitional Council and an overthrow of President Hadi?

The UAE strategy in Yemen has always been questionable among the allied forces. It’s decision to arm the Southern Separatists raised eyebrows in Saudi Arabia. The Separatists made no secret of their desire for an independent state. However, Mohamed Bin Zayed insisted that he was a pragmatist and that only two forces could realistically drive Houthi back; Islah, and the Southerners. For the UAE, supporting Islah who are a loose branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is out of the question, which leaves the Southern Separatists.

The Southern Separatists soon expressed a lack of desire to march North. Although exerting much effort in driving Houthis out of the South, the desire dissipated once they reached Ma’rib and Hodeida. Reacting to reality, the UAE invested and trained a Security Belt of 30,000 soldiers in the South. Meanwhile, it continued to strengthen forces on the Western front leading critics to suggest that the UAE were using their support for the Southern separatists in a bid to gain influence over the ports.

With the United Nations insistent on talks at every point the Houthis find themselves on the backfoot, and alongside Trump’s hesitation towards deployment against Iran and investing the necessary resources, it would not be surprising if the UAE saw Yemen as an unnecessary conflict. It has enjoyed bilateral relations with Iran in the past. Dubai was a key port that Tehran would rely on to circumvent sanctions. Moreover, with Congress increasingly vocal about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, as well as the US relationship with Saudi Arabia following Khashoggi and Mohamed Bin Salman’s conduct, it would make sense for Bin Zayed to consider the ramifications of being an overt major player in Yemen.

Moreover, the UAE has successfully established its influence on many of the Southern ports as part of its wider regional maritime agenda. The UAE is heavily involved in Somalia, Sudan, and has sought to build strong ties with Ethiopia and Eritrea to improve its maritime influence over one of the most important straits in the world.

For the UAE, a divided Yemen is not necessarily counter to its national interests. A Southern Yemen would be expected to remember the UAE’s efforts in providing them with the logistics, financing, and weaponry that now allows them to threaten the Hadi’s government. Hani Bin Buraik himself has chosen a picture of himself with Mohamed Bin Zayed as his cover photo on twitter. Houthis are likely to entertain demands for independence, content with their military gains in the North and aware that their capabilities do not allow for more territorial gains.

Ironically, for all the calls for Southern independence (which are not new and have been around since unification in 1994), the current government is mostly in their hands. Most government officials in the South are southerners. The President himself is from Aden in the South. The diplomatic cores are predominantly Southerners. For all the talk of a lack of representation, the Southerners are actually very well represented.

Riyadh has been silent so far. Bin Salman is not as keen on the Yemen war as he once was but would prefer an exit that protects his standing rather than one that humiliates him. Given no such scenario is possible, he is likely to continue backing Hadi’s government. The UAE appear aware of this and have recently redeployed troops to Hodeida to support a renewed Saudi-led push to seize the port after the failure of the Stockholm talks. Although the UAE and Saudi are strong allies, Bin Zayed will be aware that Al-Saud generally do not tolerate Arabs who display or posture in a manner that suggests they know better.

As for the Houthis they will be watching events in the South with much interest. The divisions among their opponents works heavily in their favour. Moreover, given the UAE has become vocal about its desires to abandon the aims of the alliance, they will be feeling that they are now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel; in other words, that their military gains will be recognised and their opponents are losing the will to fight.

As for the Yemeni who aspired to a democratic Yemen following the national dialogue, events in Aden will more likely feel like a punch in the stomach than a romantic bid for independence…