Aden (GPA) – Yesterday, Geopolitics Alert reported that the Saudi coalition had killed over 80 of their own troops via a series of airstrikes in the Yemeni province of Marib. At first glance, this would look like a “goof” on the Saudis’ behalf. But further information suggests this was a very deliberate act. An act which implies a deeper splintering of the Gulf Corporation Council’s operations in Yemen– specifically between Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. And of course, Qatar.
Yemen War: Three Main Entities
The conflict in Yemen involves many parties, militias, and components. But it can be simplified by putting the major forces into three camps: the resistance front, the Saudi-led coalition, and sunni takfiri groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS. Although, the lines frequently blur between AQAP and members of the Saudi-led coalition.
The resistance front includes Ansarullah (aka the Houthis), the Yemeni Republican Guard, and other forces opposed to the Saudi-backed government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. This front is very united around a common goal: expel the invaders and foreign influence, then workout any differences later.
The Saudi-coalition on the other hand is not as united. In fact given recent events, it’s hard to even call it the “Saudi-coalition” any longer. It might be more accurate to refer to it as the GCC-led coalition. As powers like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Sudan are all attempting to utilize the conflict to advance their own agendas. As a result, events are transpiring on the battlefield that reflect a splintering of Gulf alliances within the coalition in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula.
All states in the Gulf Cooperation Council support the Saudi-led coalition against Yemen with the exception of Oman who has essentially remained neutral. The other exception is of course now Qatar. Who was forced to pull their minimal troops out of Yemen after their conflict with Saudi Arabia erupted in the beginning of June when the Saudi-backed government of President Hadi announced severing ties with Qatar. Qatari support in Yemen came mostly in the form of government salaries and media coverage. But the Gulf kingdoms cooperate as a “whole” on a macro level, yet find themselves at odds on a micro level. This is what observers see playing out in Yemen on the ground as we speak.
Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen
Yesterday, a coalition plane bombed over 80 troops in Marib province; troops who technically belong to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in support of exiled President Hadi. The targeted troops belonged to a faction called al-Islah or the Reform Party– which has direct ties to the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen. Al-Islah is essentially opportunistic and tries to remain somewhat of a populist party for Yemeni sunni tribes and salafists; as kind of a more palatable alternative to the takfiri extremists like AQAP.
Over the years, al-Islah has enjoyed considerable support from Saudi Arabia in several forms. In the Saudi ultimatum issued to Qatar, the list of demands included severing ties with certain members of the Muslim Brotherhood. This list did not include, however, any names of Yemeni actors tied to the Muslim Brotherhood. Which implies that Saudi Arabia does not want to sully its name by implicating itself in its own terrorist list.
Reports suggest that the plane which bombed al-Islah fighters yesterday did in fact belong to the Saudis. This implies that the Saudis are further severing ties to any political parties linked with the Muslim Brotherhood– which they’re desperately trying to pin on Qatar. And forge some kind of thinly-veiled alliance with the UAE– who adamantly opposes al-Islah.
Today leader of Yemen’s al-Islah Reform Party, Khaled Al- Ansi, responded to the airstrikes. He denounced the Saudis’ role in Yemen calling it an occupation and invasion. He also criticized the Saudi aggression against Qatar. A striking new development, the first of its kind. What will the repercussions be on the battlefield? Will Saudi aggression against al-Islah divert their attention from Ansarullah? Will al-Islah realign their troops with AQAP?
Saudi-UAE Power Struggle
While quiet about the attack, Saudi outlets are however reporting today that Saudi-backed President Hadi is appointing three new governors in the Yemeni provinces of Shabwah, Hadhramout, and Socotra. It’s no coincidence the deposed governors of all have strong ties to UAE leadership in Yemen. Making it clear that any rift between the Emirates and Saudis in the southern “capital” is starting to overflow into the rest of the country.
In March, certain members of the pro-Hadi coalition in south Yemen announced the formation of a Southern Transitional Council; which seeks to see southern portions of Yemen secede. This was immediately rejected by the GCC, President Hadi, and ultimately Saudi Arabia. Who view the Southern Transitional Council as not only a sign of weakness and lack of cohesion, but also as an opening for the Emirates to grasp more political power.
The Saudis and UAE are already engaged in a political power struggle in Yemen’s southern provinces. Where the Saudis see Emirate influence as a direct threat to their own power in Yemen and ultimately the gulf and world stage.
The Saudis might still have a weak alliance with the UAE within Yemen, but they surely don’t want Emirate influence creeping along the border they share with Yemen. Which has already seen an overflow of fighting in the northwest by Ansarullah in the provinces of Najran, Asir, and Jizan. A large goal for the Saudis is to see Yemen docile and under their control. UAE influence surely forces the Saudis to compete for local power. But it also threatens the Saudis’ economical power. It’s clear that the Saudis’ military ability is strictly limited to air power. And they’ve clearly demonstrated their lack of any ability or willingness to fight a war on the ground. So political influence is very important if they want to hold substantial economic power in the region.
And obviously, they do. The area in question– Marib– as well as Hadhramout contain substantial oil reserves. So clearly the Saudis don’t want Emirate– or Qatari– influence growing in these regions. Especially as UAE influence grows in the improvised capital of Aden and throughout the south.
Another area worth mentioning is the island of Socotra off Yemen’s southern coast. The US has long-eyed Socotra as a military base for policing the gulf. Socotra is currently occupied by UAE forces, which technically belong to the pro-Hadi Saudi coalition. But this could ultimately strengthen an alliance between the UAE and US leaving the Saudis somewhat in the cold. So as a result, Hadi replaced the governor of Socotra as well.
The ‘Saudi-Coalition’ is Falling Apart
This isn’t the first time coalition planes have bombed their “own” troops. Just weeks ago, Saudi planes bombed more coalition troops in the province of Taiz. Which although more recent, was still not the first time. This further reflects a growing rift between the major players in the coalition: mainly between the Emirates and Saudis, as they hold the most political and military-might.
It is important to point out that al-Qaeda still holds a considerable amount of territory in Yemen’s southeastern provinces. Yet the coalition planes still decided to bomb their “own” troops. As a result, Yemen’s resistance forces– which on paper are the Saudi-coalition’s main enemy– were able to not only thwart a ground offensive, but also make considerable advances in Marib. So the coalition was essentially willing to risk an Ansarullah advance in order to bomb their own troops. This displays the desperation and in-cohesiveness of the “Saudi-backed” coalition.
Meanwhile Sudan– still a big part of the Saudi-coalition against Yemen– just sits back on the sidelines in the hopes their participation will earn them some relief from US sanctions. So their alliance– whether to UAE or Saudi Arabia– will likely go where the weather takes them.
At this point, the coalition against Yemen is desperate to seem as though they’re holding themselves together. But as the rift between the Saudis and Emirates in Yemen deepens (and the Saudis-UAE against Qatar), a broader conflict between Dubai and Riyadh almost seems inevitable. Possibly militarily on a micro level within Yemen, but likely economically and diplomatically on a macro regional level.
The airstrikes on al-Islah troops along with the deposing of UAE-influenced leadership in Yemen, suggests that the Saudis are willing to take a much more aggressive stance to exert dominance over their so-called allies in the UAE and (previously) Qatar.
Also published on Medium.