A New Front in Yemen’s War
As the brutal Saudi-led campaign against the Huthis, who control an area in which most Yemenis live, drags on close to the end of a third year, the likelihood that the allegedly “legitimate” president Abdrabbu Mansur Hadi will return is minimal. To a great extent the problems in Yemen have as much to do with the ineptness and corruption of Hadi as they do with the Huthis and Ali Abdullah Salih.
The choice of Hadi in a hastily conceived referendum to replace Salih was meant to be a temporary measure. No one in Yemen thought he was the best person for the job, but it was only supposed to be a transition. As Salih’s vice-president for over a decade, he was never taken as a serious leader. The National Dialogue Conference, which brought most of the current warring parties together, was promising until Hadi unilaterally decided on reducing Yemen’s administrative districts to six and effectively land-locking the Huthis. His wavering when the Huthis took over Sanaa underlined the fact that it was his own corruption that made the Huthis look like reformers.
The escape of Hadi made him into a quasi-heroic figure, but all along he was a simple pawn in a war that the Saudis and Emiratis had been planning. The bombing of Yemen began before he had even reached Saudi Arabia, yet he was the international legitimacy the Saudis needed to justify their attack on a neighboring country. Despite previous clashes between Saudi troops and Huthi militia along the border during the series of short wars between Salih and the Huthis, the latest war was not provoked by Huthi attacks on Saudi Arabia. The Saudi hysteria about Iranian support for the Huthis, a claim that Salih had used for a decade to receive military aid, clouded their thinking about the ease with which they obviously thought the Huthis could be defeated.
Throughout the many negotiations, brokered by Kuwait and Oman, to find a resolution to the crisis, Hadi has been the main protagonist refusing to negotiate. It is obvious why he is reluctant, since he must know that he does not have the loyalty of the vast majority of Yemenis. The many parties in Yemen opposed to the Huthis do not necessarily like Hadi or want him to return. Hadi has a comfortable and well-compensated perch in Saudi hands, but he is little more than a figurehead. His few attempts to return to Aden have been unsuccessful.
Now a new front has opened against Hadi’s government in exile. The Southern Resistance Forces, led by Aidarous al-Zubaidi, the leader of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), have announced that they will replace Hadi’s government, which they accuse of rampant corruption and waging a campaign of misinformation against them. It appears that al-Zubaidi, who was Hadi’s governor of Aden until he was replaced in April, 2017, has the backing of the Emirates, which has never liked Hadi. When Hadi suggested last May that Bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, was an occupier rather than a liberator, he miscalculated how this would come back to haunt him. The Saudis placed him under house arrest and forbade him to return to Yemen.
Many analysts think that Saudi Arabia wants to find a face-saving way out of their involvement in Yemen. Their bombing campaign has created a humanitarian crisis which has severely tarnished their reputation, forcing both Norway and Germany to recently refuse any more arms sale to them. The ground war, fought almost entirely by mercenaries, most of whom have little training, has had little success against the Huthi/Salih forces. Even with Salih out of the way, the likelihood of a ground attack on Sanaa seems far fetched. The threats to take over Hodeida have met with major resistance by the United Nations and Western powers. Although the damage is minimal, the very fact that the Huthis have been able to launch missiles into Saudi Arabia and cross over the border at will shows the inability of the Saudis to effectively control their joint border with Yemen.
The Emirates, however, is far more secure in its involvement, having coopted Yemenis into militias paid by them and, at least currently, loyal to them. It is clear that the Emirates has a long-term interest in Yemen as it builds a military base and buys up land in Socotra and strengthens its influence in the Horn of Africa. Were the port of Aden to be developed as a clone of Dubai, this would greatly benefit business in the Emirates. The oil and gas fields in the former PDRY are also incentives for the Emirates to maintain some form of control. Since their role in the bombing campaign has been limited, the anger directed at them has not reached the stage of the hatred for the Saudi bombing. Their clearing out of al-Qaeda (Ansar al-Shariah) and ISIS from al-Mukalla, even if not complete, gives them some good will among most Yemenis in the area.
With Hadi on the ropes and a growing rift between the Saudis and Emiratis on the continuation of the present war, this new front is good news for the Huthis, even if it is more symbolic than destructive. In the past year Aden has been torn apart with sectarian violence, so the establishment of a rival southern government with a strong military arm would no doubt be welcomed by most people in Aden.