“The role of the Emirates in Yemen: Who will curb the danger of Abu Dhabi?” read the screen during a recent episode of Al Jazeera’s Behind the News, which featured a panel of Yemeni political analysts discussing the United Arab Emirate’s ambitions in Yemen — from occupying southern territory to seizing ports and leading a mounting southern secessionist movement.
Harsh criticism of Saudi Arabian and Emirati involvement in Yemen was unprecedented for the Doha-based news organization before the June 5 Gulf crisis, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and others withdrew their ambassadors from the country and implemented a blockade along Qatar’s solitary border, pushing Doha to seek assistance from Turkey and Iran. One of the conditions of lifting sanctions is that Qatar shut down Al Jazeera, an outlet that other Gulf countries and Egypt view as a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood.
As the boycott of Qatar remains, hardly a day passes without Al Jazeera issuing scathing critiques of the coalition’s war in Yemen, a conflict that has spawned Gulf rivalries well beyond that of Qatar’s isolation.
Before the blockade, Qatar was a member of the Saudi-led military coalition fighting the Houthis, a Zaydi Shia rebel group from Yemen’s north that took over the capital Sanaa in 2014.
Although Doha’s presence in the conflict was minuscule compared with that of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, it still toed the coalition line, both through official government statements and national media outlets.
Now that Qatar has been ostracized by Gulf states waging war in Yemen, it is at liberty to criticize and analyze the lesser known developments taking place in the midst of what has been described as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
Out of the 27 million people living in Yemen, 19 million of them are now reliant on humanitarian aid. Two thousand Yemenis have died from a cholera outbreak, and 400,000 more are infected due to contaminated water, a lack of functioning medical facilities and a Saudi blockade that prevents the delivery of food and medicine. Around 10,000 civilians have been killed and 40,000 more injured, mostly from coalition airstrikes during the 28-month war, and there is no resolution in sight.
Lacking the passive voice that once obscured the identities of the main players, Al Jazeera is calling the coalition to task for their actions, while absolving Qatar of its former role in the conflict. An article by Al Jazeera on July 24 quoted accusations by Human Rights Watch that Saudi Arabia was committing acts of terrorism in Yemen.
“One of the goals of isolating Qatar was to remove it from the Yemeni stage, allowing Abu Dhabi to implement its own plan without any say from Qatar,” explains Yassin al-Tamimi, one of the Yemeni political analysts on the Behind the News panel. This was a poor calculation by the coalition, he says, as Doha’s expulsion prompted Al Jazeera to reveal violations committed by the Emiratis.
“The change in Qatar’s position, until now, can be seen in Al Jazeera’s coverage of events in Yemen that, in some ways, has become explicitly clear concerning the role of Saudi Arabia and its coalition, with a primary focus on Emirati violations in southern governorates, especially regarding secret prisons and serious violations of human rights, along with their rapid aims to affect change in this region,” Tamimi adds.
One of these changes that the UAE is pushing for is the secession of South Yemen, a move staunchly opposed by Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s so-called legitimate government.
The man heading this movement is Aidrus al-Zubaidi, the former governor of Aden, who receives support from the UAE. On April 27, president-in-exile Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi dismissed him as governor, due to his ties with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, whom Hadi accused of behaving like an occupier rather than a liberator of southern Yemen. Two weeks later, Zubaidi founded the Southern Transitional Council that works, with Emirati support, to achieve independence.
Aspirations of southern secession have been widespread since the 1990 unification of the northern Yemen Arab Republic and the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, the only Marxist Arab state to have ever existed. Many southerners see the marriage between the two states as forced, and have since lamented economic exploitation and political marginalization by the north.
The secessionist movement, known as Al-Hirak, has gained followers due to the ongoing war which many southerners see as a result of the central government’s corruption and incompetence.
By leading this movement, the UAE has set itself up to reap economic and strategic benefits from an independent South Yemen, such as commanding local security forces, working alongside the US in counterterrorism operations, and running the two major ports of Aden and Mukalla.
A member of Al-Hirak, speaking on condition of anonymity, tells Mada Masr that the UAE “clearly intends on controlling the Port of Aden, whether by closing it and diverting traffic to the Emirati Port of Jebel Ali, or by opening it under its own administration, and thereby profiting from it.”
The deep-sea port of Jebel Ali, located south of Dubai, is the largest of its kind in the Middle East, and is predicted to become the biggest in the world by 2030. Now that the UAE has control over Aden and Mukalla as well, and a significant military presence on land and sea in the nearby Bab al-Mandeb Strait, Emiratis are securing their status as the Gulf’s primary economic power.
Abu Dhabi is also set to profit from its burgeoning partnership with the US in counterterrorism. In the last few years, the UAE has surpassed other regional allies in its commitment to aiding US military operations, whether in Afghanistan, Somalia or Yemen.
American and Emirati forces also work side-by-side interrogating detainees in South Yemen’s secret prisons, ostensibly to obtain information on Al-Qaeda. Recent reports by the Associated Press and Amnesty International document cases of arbitrary arrests and routine torture taking place in these facilities.
Many Southern Yemenis are aware of Emirati activities in South Yemen, yet still welcome the support of Abu Dhabi, whom they view as a close ally.
A pro-secession demonstration in Aden on July 7 featured a speech by Zubaidi, and was attended by thousands of southerners, many of whom are seen waving the Emirati flag alongside that of South Yemen.
“We know that politics is based on self-interest,” says Al-Hirak Commander Ahmed Omar Bin Fareed, “but not to the extent of occupation [by the UAE], because that would create a burden for them. I believe their presence, however, brings shared benefits, and there is no harm in that.”
The prospect of an independent South Yemen is still distant, but no matter the outcome of this conflict, the UAE will continue to steer the course in the region, further depriving its citizens of the sovereignty and self-determination that they are longing for.
Globally, Abu Dhabi’s continued intervention in South Yemen will have far-reaching implications as it widens the gap between Saudi and Emirati goals. The continual fracturing of the Gulf may eventually force the United States and others to make the critical decision of who to side with in a region that, just a few months ago, was considerably less divided.