Cracks between Saudi and the UAE appear on the battleground of Yemen as their ground allies are at loggerheads.
As the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in Yemen declared self-rule on April 27, even though it meant breaking the November peace deal, the dramatic turn of events highlighted the competing foreign policies amongst the two Gulf allies — the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
While Saudi Arabia backs the internationally-recognised government led by Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the UAE backs the STC, a separatist group that initially fought alongside Hadi's forces but later turned against it, taking over the government's temporary capital Aden. It accused the Hadi administration of mismanagement.
Speaking to TRT World, London-based STC Spokesperson Saleh Alnoud said the Hadi government was not delivering on its promises and was therefore 'frustrating' the November agreement signed between the STC and the Hadi-led Yemeni regime in Riyadh.
“One of the provisions of the Riyadh agreement was to establish a joint cabinet but we can’t wait indefinitely. The Yemeni government is playing its games and trying to frustrate this process,” Alnoud said.
The Hadi government’s Foreign Minister Mohamed al Hadrami has sought Saudi Arabia's intervention, warning of "dangerous and catastrophic" consequences.
Two State solution?
“We should not shy away from the possible solution of a two-state solution. That is not something people should fear whether in the north of Yemen or in the region or internationally,” Alnoud told TRT World, adding that a separate statehood has been a long-standing goal of the people in southern Yemen.
The declaration of self-rule, Alnoud said, provides an opportunity to all the stakeholders to think about what the "real issues".
“Two-state solution has to remain and should never ever be ruled out as it has been previously dismissed,” he said, adding that the STC is willing to work in a transitional manner, phase by phase, but at no point will it allow the southern cause to be undermined.
The Hadi government blames the STC separatists for rebelling in several southern provinces, including Socotra. The Socotra Governorate also accused the STC of conspiring to kill Governor Ramzi Mahrous on April 8.
A reflection of the clashing of UAE and Saudi interests?
In March 2015, the Saudi-led coalition declared war on Iran-backed Houthi rebels to restore the power of Hadi government, which was toppled in 2014 when the rebels captured the capital Sanaa.
The forces loyal to exiled President Hadi and the STC separatists fought together against the Houthis.
Four years later, the cracks between the STC and the Hadi government were revealed as the separatists seized the military positions of Hadi's forces in the interim capital of Aden. The two sides stopped fighting after signing a peace deal in Riyadh. The STC was supposed to join a new national cabinet and all forces were supposed to enter into the service of the new national and internationally recognised government.
Alnoud, the STC spokesperson in London, told TRT World that there have been many reasons why the separatist group reneged on the peace agreement and the outbreak of Covid-19 made the split urgent.
He said the people loyal to the STC exerted pressure on the group to take a decision in light of the pandemic, as there were no public services visible on the ground and someone needed to take the charge and fill the power vacuum.
For many regional experts, the rivalry between the STC and the Hadi regime is a reflection of how seriously the UAE and Saudi Arabia differ on the future of Yemen, as the two sides are now in competition to have the upper hand in the conflict.
Alnoud, however, said that the STC is open to forging ties with whoever understands their needs. “If we can have a relationship with the UAE, which is positive, we will work with them. If we have a good relationship with the Saudis, we will work with them,” he said.
When asked if there was a major rift brewing between Saudi and the UAE over the question of Yemen, he said he cannot comment on the matter.
He stressed the UAE's role in strengthening the STC, though, saying the Gulf country helped them establish lead forces and security belt forces in order to "stabilise" Yemen's southern provinces.
“There is a mutual benefit. The UAE is assisting us, we are helping the Arab coalition to achieve their aim, so we think it is a constructive mutual relationship. And, the UAE will continue to have a role. We will continue to have a good relationship with UAE,” Alnoud said.
The war in Yemen has killed at least 100,000 people and left 80 percent of the population, which amounts to 24 million people, dependent on aid to survive.
All sides have been accused of attacking civilian targets. The Yemen Data Project report revealed that at least 30 percent of more than 20,000 coalition bombing raids are estimated to have hit civilian infrastructure.