Yemen is the cemetery of invaders, or so the ancient proverb goes, and today it is certainly the burial ground of foreign military coalitions. In 2015, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sent their armed forces to lead a regional intervention into Yemen, thinking it would last only weeks. Why wouldn’t they? Two of the richest countries in the world, backed by the most powerful Western countries, were waging war in one of the world’s poorest nations. Their announced aim was to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government to power after the armed Houthi movement, also known as Ansar Allah, ousted it from the capital, Sana’a, in a coup d’état.
Fast forward four years: Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, which entered the Yemeni conflict shoulder-to-shoulder, have turned on each other in a proxy war. In August, UAE-backed local groups carried out a new coup against the same Yemeni government, this time in its interim capital of Aden, while Emirati aircraft bombed Saudi-supported troops.
The Houthi leadership and its regional backer, Iran, must be delighted. Their Yemeni foes are at each other’s throats and, in breaking ranks, have undermined each other’s raisons d’être. Now bereft of both the capital and its interim capital, the Saudi-backed Yemeni government’s claim to legitimacy is more tenuous than ever. Meanwhile, the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), whose affiliated forces drove the government out of Aden, can no longer conceivably claim to represent all southerners, given how local forces and government troops cooperated in rebuffing STC advances in Shabwa governorate, east of Aden.
This is not to say that the southern cause is not a just one; it is. The 1990 unification of Yemen’s north and south, the 1994 civil war and the decades of disenfranchisement that followed for southerners left open wounds that justifiably fed aspirations for a return to independence. However, traditional leaders of the southern cause — many hailing from South Yemen’s Marxist era — lost their moral high ground in August, when they bit their tongues as Hani bin Breik, a ruthless religious zealot bent on purging northerners from Aden, became the face of southern empowerment.
Bin Breik is a militant Salafi extremist whose affinity for stirring sectarian hatred and social divisions rivals that of Qasim al-Raimi, the head of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the leader of the armed Houthi movement, Abdelmalek al-Houthi. Aden’s al-Hizam al-Amni, or “Security Belt” forces — backed by the UAE, allied to the STC and commanded by a handful of Salafi leaders including Bin Breik — are implicated in the recent UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen report in kidnapping, torture, extortion, sexual violence, murder, running secret prisons and carrying out assassinations in the city.
Security Belt Brig. Gen. Muneer al-Mashali, better known as Abu al-Yamama, and dozens of other soldiers were killed in a Houthi drone or missile attack on an Aden military base on August 1. In response, Bin Breik orchestrated a purge against northerners in Aden, with beatings in the streets, businesses shut down, and northerners rounded up en masse, forced onto buses and deported. Following Al-Yamama’s funeral, Bin Breik led an armed assault to rout the internationally recognized Yemeni government from Aden and elsewhere in the south.
Notably, Bin Breik’s men were armed with American-made weapons paid for by the UAE and politically supported by western lobbyist firms such as Independent Diplomat and Quatro. Abu Dhabi’s support for Bin Breik and many other similarly unsavory characters in Yemen – such as the Salafi militia leader Abu al-Abbas in Taiz, who is designated as a supporter of terrorism by the U.S. Treasury – is telling of its unscrupulous approach to the war and its disregard for Yemeni sovereignty. In a purely functional sense though, Abu Dhabi has at least empowered local proxies that have a plausible chance of achieving its desired ends, regardless of how immoral or illegal those ends might be. By contrast, Riyadh threw its lot behind one of the most corrupt and incapable statesmen in recent history, Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The Saudi leadership’s typical approach to problem-solving is to essentially throw money at something until it goes away. But no matter how many billions of dollars worth of weapons Riyadh has bought to bomb Yemen, it must be appallingly clear by now that this is akin to throwing cash off of a cliff and hoping to fill the ocean. At the heart of why this spending and bombing has been futile is the Yemeni president. Hadi is not the one making the most money from this war – far from it – but he occupies the most important decision-making post of any Yemeni. And yet, as a decision-maker, he is inept. This absence of leadership at the top was exemplified by Hadi’s silence throughout the events in August, and has been a key factor underlying almost every step of Yemen’s dissolution since 2012, when Hadi became president through an uncontested election largely arranged by Riyadh. Indeed, it was Hadi’s firing of prominent southerners from government posts that helped spur the creation of the STC in 2017. The fact that the Saudis have, for seven years now, tied their fate in Yemen to Hadi says much about Riyadh’s capacity for forethought or even learning.
In August, the Saudi narrative, as well as the legal basis for its intervention in Yemen, unraveled. United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2216, passed in April 2015, highlighted the Yemeni government’s request that Gulf countries assist in its return to power. The Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition has claimed this document offers legal legitimacy for their military intervention in Yemen. This claim is now preposterous. The UAE is actively supporting a military front against the Yemeni government. Emirati actions may well violate Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, which prohibits the use of force in another state if it does not have that state’s consent, if there is no UNSC authorization, or it’s not in self-defense. The overarching war in Yemen has now become tripartite – the Houthis vs the Saudi-backed Yemeni government vs the UAE-backed STC – and a new UNSC resolution is badly needed to address the current reality.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, once big brother and little brother, have lost their fraternity in Yemen’s burial grounds. Their money did not buy a quick victory, but four years on, it is still paying to fill more Yemeni graves.