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Saudi Arabia, UAE caught short by separatist attacks in Aden

Supporters of southern Yemeni separatists take part in an anti-government protest in Aden
Supporters of southern Yemeni separatists take part in an anti-government protest in Aden Reuters

Fighting intensified in the city of Aden, in the south of Yemen, on Monday, after separatist forces seized government buildings in what Prime Minister Ahmed bin Dagher said was a coup attempt. The Saudi-backed coalition fighting Houthi rebels seems to be at loss as to how to react to this new crisis.


"We’ve always had the separatists in the south [of Yemen],” says Riad Khawaji, director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai. “This is nothing new.

“But these groups have benefited from the current conflict [between the central government and] the Houthis."

After the Houthis took over the northern provinces and Yemen’s capital Sana’a in 2015, the Saudi-led coalition came to the help of the regular Yemeni army.

The Emiratis and Saudis are running out of energy

Yemen separatists

Yemen, that was only unified in 1990, and has lived since under an uneasy truce between separatists and government forces, was overrun by Houthi rebels in 2014.

“The [separatists] were armed and integrated within the Yemeni forces to be used in the fight against the Houthis,” Khawaji explains. “They drove them out of Aden and other southern provinces.

“Now, after regaining control of most of the southern provinces we see the separatist movement again."

The coalition is calling for negotiatoins but, initially, UAE troops seemed to back the separatists.

Saudi, UAE role

“The major problem is that the Saudi regime and the Emirati regime are both occupying the country through mercenaries and so they [the combatants] have little incentive to remain loyal to these two countries,” says Muhammad Marandi, a political scientist with Tehran University.

“And the other problem is that the agenda that drives the UAE regime and that of Saudi Arabia are different, so they are basically supporting different forces in the south of the country, because those forces support the interests of the two countries separately."

The separatists' unexpected action may reflect a split within the coalition itself, he believes.

The Saudi’s favour a unified Yemen but the Emirates favour separation because this would mean that there is a much smaller area to take care of, Marandi goes on, adding that, while the Emirates may only be a small country, they still want a piece of the cake.

‘The Emiratis want to be able to use the territory of Yemen for their own commercial and political as well as economic interests and they even wish to take Yemeni territory for their own,” he says.

“But I think that although the overwhelming population of Yemen is opposed to this, this trend cannot continue. The Emiratis and the Saudis are running out of energy and time has proven that the Houthis are a force that cannot be defeated by these two regimes.

Khawaji disagrees.

“Both the Emiratis and the Saudis are trying to calm things,” he says. “They try to mediate to end this current conflict. It is counterproductive to have such a conflict at a very sensitive moment, in which the coalition is making advances against the Houthis and the war is at a crossroads.”

But for the Yemeni population this means more war, more bloodshed in a conflict that the UN has already described as potentially the largest humanitarian disaster in half a century.

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