The war in Yemen is drawing close to its fifth year. The country has been ravaged by conflict since the coalition intervened in March 2015 against the Houthis rebels who control the capital of Sanaa and most big urban centers in the nation.
The long-running war has killed more than 100,000 people, pushed millions to the verge of famine and devastated the country’s infrastructure. For a little more four and a half years, Yemen has been mired in a seemingly intractable civil war that has killed nearly 10,000 people and pushed millions to the brink of starvation, causing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. Now Yemen’s balance of power is shifting.
Self-rule in Aden Shifts Balance of Power in Favor of UAE-backed STC
At the expense of pro-Saudi forces and the puppet Hadi government forces, separatists in southern Yemen have recently declared self-rule, breaking a peace deal signed in November with the internationally-recognized government.
The Aden-based and UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) declared a state of emergency, saying it would govern the port city and other southern provinces. Meanwhile, the Saudi-sponsored Yemeni government warned of “dangerous and catastrophic consequences.”
“The announcement by the so-called transitional council of its intention to establish a southern administration is a resumption of its armed insurgency… and an announcement of its rejection and complete withdrawal from the Riyadh agreement,” Yemen’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Al-Hadhrami said in a statement.
Backdrop of Conflict Reveals Irreparable Cracks
The Yemen conflict widened after an uprising in Yemen forced the country’s long-time authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh to hand over power to his deputy, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Saleh himself was later killed by Houthi rebels outside Sanaa in December of 2017. The assassination instigated a chain of reprisal attacks by pro-Saleh loyalists.
In 2014, the Houthi Shia Muslim rebel movement took advantage of the new president’s weakness and seized control of northern Saada province and neighboring areas. The Houthis later on took full control over the capital Sanaa, forcing pro-Saudi president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi into exile abroad.
A dramatic escalation in the war came in March 2015, when Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states — backed by the US, UK, and France — began air strikes against the Houthis, with the declared aim of restoring Hadi’s government. So far, such efforts have failed to materialize on the ground, with so many regional and international conflicting agendas in Yemen and the geographically strategic region.
Cracks in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen were deeply widened when the UAE unilaterally decided to drawdown its military presence in some parts of Yemen; the step taken in July last year mirrored the conflicting agendas of the two main Arab players in Yemen, the UAE and Saudi Arabia whose virtual ruler MBS (Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman) was deeply dismayed at the sudden Emirati move. His fears were exacerbated by an unannounced visit soon later by a UAE delegation to the capital of Saudi Arabia’s arch enemy and rival, Iran.
Socotra Truce Aims to Ease Tensions
Southern separatists and the Yemeni government signed a new truce with the hope of de-escalating rising tension between UAE backed STC and pro-Saudi government after the Southern Transitional Council declared self-rule and a state of emergency in parts of the country’s south under its control last week.
A few days ago. fighting on the Yemeni island of Socotra has come to a halt after an agreement was reached between the Saudi-backed government forces and UAE-backed southern separatists. The de-escalation agreement announced late on Friday came after an armed unit of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) fought to wrest control of Socotra’s provincial capital, Hadibo, from forces loyal to President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The two sides were nominal allies in a military coalition formed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to battle Yemen’s Houthi rebel movement, which seized control of the capital Sanaa in late 2014.
STC Takeover of Aden
Last August, STC forces backed by UAE military operating in Yemen, turned against Hadi and took control of Aden, the internationally-recognized government’s temporary seat. The fighting stopped when the two groups reached a deal in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, last November aiming to form a unity government. Instead, opposite parties of the two supposedly allied Gulf nations turned against one another, seeking more control and a firmer grip on strategic areas in southern Yemen as well as the vital island of Socotra.
As STC keeps pushing to revive that dream of southern independence in a ramshackle and war-torn country, plagued by famine, deprivation — and even worse now with 10 confirmed COVID-19 cases — observers frequently hint and claim that the UAE’s strong man MBZ, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, has a special interest in controlling the strategic Yemeni port city of Aden. Specifically he reportedly wants to turn it into a major maritime base and a regional and international rival port to that of Dubai’s por city of Jabal Ali. These reports have now gained even more credence.