In 2011 a popular uprising in Yemen forced Ali Abdullah Saleh to cede power after 33 years of rule. A Saudi-brokered deal was key in allowing Saleh to step down in return for immunity, to be replaced by his deputy, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. A National Dialogue Conference (NDC) was then initiated, with the aim of establishing a negotiated power arrangement between Yemen’s various stakeholders. Two years into discussion, the NDC had failed to reach a consensus and the idea it presented for a new federal map that partitioned Yemen into regions was rejected due to its shortcomings in accounting for the various economic conditions and long-standing grievances in the country. The Houthis, an armed group based in the north of the country that had been engaged in a long-running conflict with the Saleh regime, capitalized on the setbacks of the NDC. In September 2014, the Houthis moved to take over a number of army and security positions in Yemen’s capital Sana’a. Following the Houthis’ takeover of Sana’a in early 2015, President Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia. Under the pretext of supporting the democratic will of the Yemeni people, in 2015 a Saudi-led coalition then engaged in direct military action against the Houthi insurgency. Saudi Arabia maintained that the Houthis were supported by Iran. Indeed, the Saudi-UAE-led intervention in Yemen began when the Houthi rebels agreed to allow direct flights between Sana’a and Tehran, and when they gave Iran access to the port of Hodeidah, Yemen’s main port on the Red Sea.
The Saudi-led coalition was supported by, and received logistical and intelligence support from, the US, UK and France. The coalition argued that the military campaign in Yemen would be quick and decisive. However, after six years of military action, which has caused huge death and destruction and has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,4 the Saudi-led coalition has not achieved any of its stated goals. Instead, the Houthis have been forced to move closer to Iran and the Saudi coalition’s actions have left in their wake untold suffering and a fractured country, with multiple armed factions (which the coalition helped to create).
There have been numerous reports of widespread violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, including systematic attacks on civilian targets and the utilization of humanitarian aid for military purposes. Yemen has largely become a test case for direct Saudi-led military intervention, as well as a showcase for its stockpiles of arms, purchased largely from the US, UK and France. According to the Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute (SIPRI), ‘Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the 2nd and 4th largest arms importers during 2013–17 respectively’, with exports to Saudi Arabia rising by 225 per cent, and those to UAE by 51 per cent in this period.
The destruction of Yemen may have happened at the hands of the Saudi-led coalition, but it was enabled by two American administrations, which gave it the green light, as well as by the weapons industry in the US and Europe, which was eager to keep the lucrative trade with the Gulf states going. Indeed, while lip service was paid to the suffering of Yemeni civilians, the arms trade with members of the Saudi-led coalition never declined during this period. The Biden administration then began a review of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, including a $35 billion deal to sell Abu Dhabi F-35 fighter jets, but this may not have much to do with Yemen: more likely it reflects the US’s desire to maintain an overall balance of arms in the region that ensures that Israel continues to have the upper hand.
Although they were part of the same coalition, it is important to note that the UAE and Saudi strategies in Yemen were not identical. The appointment of Lt. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who was considered to be pro-Muslim Brotherhood, to the position of Vice President of Yemen triggered the UAE to change tack in the country. In the UAE’s view, his appointment risked empowering the Muslim Brotherhood and its local party Islah. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, continued to be mainly focused on the Houthis, and on reinstalling the Hadi government.
In addition to the coalition actions against the Houthis in Yemen, the UAE in particular also turned its fire on Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Saudi Arabia and the UAE had a division of labour which saw the UAE’s fighting against the Houthis concentrated in the southern and eastern governorates. The UAE also invested in training local security forces, such as the Security Belt Forces, and it funded and trained the Shabwani and Hadrami Elite Forces in the east, the Joint Forces in the west, and the Abu al-Abbas Fighters in the southwest. (The United Nations’ Yemen Panel of Experts’ 2020 report noted that the UAE had operational control of these groups).
When the UAE announced a draw-down of its forces in Yemen in 2019, it switched to a strategy of indirect control, strategically utilizing forces like the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which holds the southern port city of Aden, having pushed out Hadi’s forces in 2019.
In February 2020, five years after launching its military campaign as part of the Saudi-led coalition, the UAE officially withdrew from Yemen, although it continues to be formally part of the coalition and it maintains its influence on the ground. As a matter of fact, indirect engagement allows the UAE to distance itself from the bad publicity associated with the human rights abuses of the war, while guaranteeing the protection of its interests. According to the Riyadh Agreement between the Government of the Republic of Yemen and the UAE-backed STC, signed on 5 November 2019, the STC, with support from the UAE managed to gurantee inclusion in any new Yemeni government.
The Saudi-UAE military strategy in Yemen was largely geared towards securing the Bab Al Mandeb passage at the intersection of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. As part of this effort, the UAE’s military took control of Yemeni ports on the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, including Mukalla, Aden and Mokha – as well as the islands of Socotra and Mayun (the latter being located in a strategic location in the Bab Al Mandeb strait, thus being a very important asset for the UAE). These ports are along a primary maritime trade route between Asia and Europe and a major chokepoint in global shipping. Although the UAE is now technically drawing back from some of these locations, it has maintained proxies in various regions to guard its interests, and it is building military bases on the islands to maintain its control. In this regard, calls for Yemeni sovereignty have fallen on deaf ears.
With discussions of coalition draw-downs, and with US President Joe Biden announcing an end of US support for the intervention in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are now entrenching their control in strategic locations throughout the country. The Saudi regime has taken control of al-Mahrah, on the border with Oman, which gives it direct access to the Indian Ocean, an advantage it reportedly wants to use to build an oil pipeline from Saudi Arabia through this town. Moreover, Saudi troops are working with allied tribes to secure their control of Yemen through a network of bases.
The hopes of the protestors in Yemen, similarly to those in the rest of the region, were that they would at last be able to control their own fate, and hold free elections, and that the resources of the country would be shared equally for the benefit of the population. The Saudi-UAE alliance from the start worked to thwart these ambitions. First, by ensuring immunity for Saleh, their long-term ally, and then through their support for Hadi.ii In this context, it is worth remembering that Hadi’s policies in his short-lived interim administration entailed further neoliberalization of the Yemeni economy and privatization of its natural resources. Thus, there was no change in the overall trajectory for Yemenis – the identity of the figureheads changed but they continued to line their own pockets. The popular uprising in 2011 offered a real possibility and hope for political and economic change for all in Yemen but the military intervention has left the country fractured among various groups that are armed and funded externally. It is best to see the talk of draw-downs and an end to direct intervention as a redeployment that will ensure indirect control of the country and a limit on Iran’s influence. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE are now attempting to limit the damage to their reputations due to the war, they are at the same time vying to control strategic locations and embed their allies further in Yemen’s political structures. Their attempts at a ‘quick victory’ have certainly failed, but they aim to reap what benefits they can from new power-sharing arrangements.