Escalating tensions between the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Yemen after the Marib war
Dr. MOHAMMAD SALAMI
Iran-backed Houthis have launched attacks in Marib province since early February as the last stronghold of the Yemeni pro-government forces. These attacks are very violent, and it is possible that the Houthis will take control of this oil-rich province and drive the forces of Mansour Hadi's government out of this province. The province is traditionally home to the activities of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood and the Al-Islah Party.
The Houthis took control of Sanaa, the capital of Yemen In January 2015, and Mansour Hadi was forced to move to southern Yemen, retaining only Marib in northern Yemen as his base of control for the Houthis. Marib is important for Mansour Hadi's government in three ways. First, Marib is the last stronghold of the government in northern Yemen, and if it falls into the hands of the Houthis, it will deal a heavy blow to the Hadi government, because the Houthis will be able to increasingly establish themselves as the de facto rulers of the north. This is not only a territorial loss for the Hadi government, but also weakens its position politically. Second, Marib has abundant oil resources, and whoever acquires this land is economically strengthened. Third, Houthi control of Marib meant the collapse of a stronghold that prevented Houthis from advancing into the oil-rich areas of Hadhramaut and Shabwa. It is possible that the Houthis will move to Shabwa in the second step.
If the Houthis are able to take full control of Marib, the rivalry in southern Yemen between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which supports the government of Mansour Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), respectively, will increase. The government of Mansour Hadi and the STC are the two main rivals in southern Yemen that are competing with each other. Although Riyadh and Abu Dhabi attacked Yemen with the common goal of defeating the Houthis, each country pursues its own tactics in Yemen, and this strategy has led to a conflict of interests between the two countries.
Differences of interests between the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Yemen
The UAE's goal in entering the war is to gain economic benefits, and it wants to reach ports and key geopolitical points, so it wants to disintegrate Yemen and reach the port of Aden in the south. Abu Dhabi also considers the island of Socotra as its geostrategic key, and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait will be one of the country's most important commercial transportation routes in the future. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is eager to control areas close to its southern borders, especially the provinces of Hadhramaut, Shabwa and Marib, and considers them to be sensitive security vulnerabilities. Riyadh considers the Houthi Shiites to be detrimental to its internal security, which in turn causes Iran to enter its backyard.
This difference of interests between the two countries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has made both countries pessimistic about the future of the developments in Yemen, and although they are committed to the Riyadh agreement, they seek to weaken it. The Marib war has fueled this pessimism and caused each of them to implement his policy in Yemen. Part of this policy is related to the entry of third-party into the Saudi political-military scene. In this regard, Saudi Arabia has decided to use Qatar and Turkey in Yemen in order to strengthen its presence in Yemen and not lose the war to the United Arab Emirates.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia: intimate friends and not strategic
Turkey and Saudi Arabia have previously cooperated together in Yemen. Turkey supported Riyadh in the Saudi-led coalition during Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen in March 2015 and recognized the government of Mansour Hadi. However, over time, Saudi Arabia's relationship with Turkey deteriorated in Yemen in the following years, but the beginning of Biden's presidency in the United States strengthened relations between the two countries. The Biden Administration has pressured Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen and has refused to sell weapons to continue the war in Yemen, which has led to a humanitarian crisis.
Under Trump, Washington's relationship with Riyadh was based on Trump's maximum financial use of the King of Saudi Arabia. Despite congressional opposition, Trump vetoed congressional legislation and allowed billions of dollars of weapons continue to Saudi Arabia by declaring a "state of emergency." Biden is expected to the same Trump policy, but is not expected to help alleviate congressional pressure on Riyadh as much. In addition, Biden's revival of JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal) and the reduction of Trump's maximum pressure on Iran scare Saudi Arabia more than ever that it will lose the war in Yemen. That is why Saudi Arabia has to ask Ankara for help in the Yemeni political-military arena. As a result, King Salman was forced to call Erdogan on the day before the G20 summit in Riyadh in November 2020 to talk about shared interests and strategic relations with Turkey.
Turkey has also expressed a strong desire to start cooperating with Saudi Arabia. The turkey's economy is in poor condition due to the Coronavirus Pandemic. In addition, Ankara's goods are subjected to sanctions in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, and Ankara needs Riyadh's support to lift the sanctions. Sanctions on Turkish goods in Saudi Arabia peaked in October and November. Various Saudi companies rejected doing business with Turkey in October, especially after the government-linked Saudi Chamber of Commerce encouraged the boycott that month. Growing populism and anti-Turkish sentiments within Saudi Arabia, such as Saudi media outlets hosting anti-Turkish views and school textbooks changing Ottoman Empire to Ottoman “occupation,” encouraged boycott initiatives.
In the Yemeni military-political scene, Saudi Arabia is thinking of overtaking its rival, the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates, is the enemy of the thoughts of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region, including in Yemen. Both countries are pleased with the physical elimination of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and are pursuing the same procedure in Yemen. However, after Saudi Arabia's failures in Yemen, Riyadh decided to start its relationship with the Al-Islah Party. Al-Islah was previously blacklisted by both Saudi Arabia and the UAE due to its connection with the Muslim Brotherhood. But Riyadh, realizing that al-Islah is an indispensable part of Yemen's political fabric, has recently mended ties with the party and supported its alliance with the Hadi government. Unlike the Saudis, though, the Emiratis and the STC have remained firm in opposing any party's role. Riyadh needs the help of Turkey to complete this process, because the Al-Islah Party is the point of entry of Turkey into Yemen, and with its influence over this party, it can help Riyadh advance its goals against UAE.
Qatar as a bridge to Saudi concerns
Turkey is the UAE's most serious rival in Libya and has a dispute with the Abu Dhabi over its financial support for groups involved in Libya. Turkey, along with Qatar, continues to support the Brotherhood movements in Yemen, which has escalated tensions between Ankara, Doha and Abu Dhabi, and Saudi Arabia intends to exploit the problem largely. For this reason, in January 2021, Saudi Arabia announced the improvement of its relations with Qatar and opened its land, sea and air borders with Qatar, but Abu Dhabi was reluctant to comply with the beginning of relations with Doha.
Saudi Arabia knows that the new U.S. administration, Biden himself and senior Democratic Party officials have little affection for the Crown Prince, especially given his cozy relationship with Trump. Riyadh knows that Democrats were most vocal about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two years ago, and that senior Democrats regularly bring up the cases of political prisoners and other human rights issues in Saudi Arabia. That is why Riyadh is trying to use Qatar, which has a good reputation with Biden and the Democratic Party, to make Doha as a bridge for Saudi Arabia to express its regional concerns without the Democrats' sensitivity in the US government.
Mohammad Salami has a Ph.D. in International Relations. He writes as an analyst and columnist in various media outlets. His area of expertise is Middle East issues, especially Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and the GCC countries.