Instead of taking the fight to the Houthi rebels in the north, the two regional allies are undermining each other in the south.
Southern Yemen has turned into a battleground for competing interests of two regional allies, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The two Gulf states joined together in 2015 to defeat the Houthi rebellion and restore the Riyadh-approved government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, but five years down the line they seem to be at loggerheads over the future of the country, taking two divergent paths.
The UAE is fully backing a separatist group named the South Transitional Council (STC), which has turned its guns against the Saudi-backed Hadi regime, clashing with the government forces and declaring self-rule in the southern region in late April.
Now the STC and the Hadi regime are involved in tit-for-tat street battles. Earlier this month, the STC made an audacious move, seeking control of state revenues. And it paid off. The port city Aden's Central Bank has directed all the collected levies and taxes into the coffers of STC, a critical development that's perceived by regional observers as the final nail in the coffin of last year's power-sharing agreement between Saudi-backed government and the UAE-backed separatists.
The unravelling relationship between the two regional allies is fast transitioning into a macabre series of clashes between the STC and Hadi forces. On May 13, the two sides engaged in intense clashes in Abyan governorate, where the government forces wrested back control of a military camp that was earlier captured by the STC. The violent altercation led to the capture of 15 STC militants and at least six fighters have died on both sides.
Experts see this latest round of fighting as "yet another blow to the Riyadh Agreement, just days after the Saudi ceasefire".
A week earlier, Saudi Arabia made the snap decision to withdraw its ground forces from the Yemeni island of Socotra just two days after taking control of it from the UAE-backed STC.
The Saudi withdrawal is reportedly tactical to allow Socotra residents to fight against the STC and prevent the UAE from setting up the stage for the complete annexation of the region, which is a resource-rich archipelago.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in late April that Washington was ‘concerned’ over the STC declaring self-rule in the south, warning such actions threatened efforts to revive talks between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels.
“Such unilateral actions only exacerbate instability in Yemen,” Pompeo said. “They are especially unhelpful at a time when the country is threatened by Covid-19 and also threaten to complicate the efforts of the UN Special Envoy to revive political negotiations between the government and the Houthi rebels.”
Yemen’s civil war intensified in March 2015 after President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, fled to neighbouring Saudi Arabia. His departure prompted a coalition of 20 Arab nations to intervene and force the Iran-backed Houthis out of the capital, Sana’a. The Arab coalition failed to eject the Houthis as the rebel group still controls the city.
Since then, the conflict has been raging hard, turning the country into a theatre of one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world. At least 100,000 people are estimated to be dead and 80 percent of the population – about 24 million people – are now dependent on aid to survive.
According to the Yemen Data Project, at least 30 percent of more than 20,000 coalition bombing raids have hit civilian infrastructure.
Supported by the UK, US and other Western nations, the Saudi-led coalition has imposed a blockade on Houthi territory, exposing half of the total civilian population to starvation and causing outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and diphtheria. Yemen is now grappling with a devastating new crisis in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic.
What does STC want?
The STC seeks secession from Yemen to form a separate state which existed between 1967 and 1990 under the influence of the former Soviet Union. Led by Yemeni General Aidarous al Zubaidi, former governor of Aden, the UAE has been backing it since 2017. The clash between STC and internationally-recognised Hadi government started when two sides began debating the inclusion of Yemen’s Sunni party (Al Islah) in Hadi’s government.
According to Gamal Gasim, a Yemen analyst and professor of political science at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, the UAE wants to slice Yemen into two parts: one governed by the STC and the other by Hadi government.
After achieving the division, Gasim told Al Jazeera, the UAE wants to "destroy the Al Islah party".
Al Islah is one of the largest political factions in Yemen with links to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Gulf monarchies have always stood against the Muslim Brotherhood for its anti-monarchist and pro-democratic views. Al Islah is currently fighting against the Houthis in the north.