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Is the UAE pushing South Yemen to Secession?

In Aden, South Yemen’s largest city and the country’s most prominent port, Yemeni flags are increasingly hard to come by; instead, the streets are full of South Yemen’s flag, with its distinct sky-blue triangle and red socialist star. The south is closer to secession than it has ever been since North and South Yemen unified 27 years ago. But it is not only South Yemen’s flag that is taking over Aden. Walls are also decorated with Emirati flags and pictures of the Emirati royal family, a country that has deep interest in dividing Yemen. Indeed, South Yemen’s move to secession is an Emirati sponsored political move that secures and advances Abu Dhabi’s interests in the region.

Prior to 1990, Yemen was two completely separate and autonomous countries, North and South Yemen. The divisions between the two states are deeply rooted in their colonial history: while North Yemen gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1918, South Yemen was under British control until 1967. The struggle for independence in the South was lead by the National Liberation Front (NFL), a Marxist group that had close ties to Egyptian president Gamal Abdul-Nasser and the Eastern Bloc. North Yemen, on the contrary, received support from the West. After a brief civil war in 1979, plans for reunification were put in place and, in May of 1990, president Ali Abdullah Saleh became the first president of the Republic of Yemen. However, calls for secession in the South have come to the forefront of international scrutiny since the 2011 Revolution and the breakout of the Yemeni Civil War.

The Yemeni Civil War broke out in March of 2015 when troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and Houthi forces–a predominantly Shiite militant group with alleged connections to Iran–clashed with government troops, supporting president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. The clashes quickly escalated and the Houthis were able to gain control of multiple important cities, including Sa’dah, Taiz and the capital Sanaa, forcing president Hadi to flee to Aden, and set up a new government there. At this point, Saudi Arabia, along with various allies including the Gulf Cooperation Group (GCC), Egypt, and Morocco, launched a military intervention in Yemen to support president Hadi and stop the progress of Saleh loyalists and the Houthis. The intervention started with an air campaign, but has since escalated.

Forces loyal to Yemeni president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi have been noticeably absent from Aden in the past few months. Instead, popular resistance forces loyal to Aidarous al-Zubaidi—the former governor of Aden and leader of the newly formed Southern Transitional Council—and Emirati forces in Yemen as part of the Saudi-led Arab coalition have been populating the city. Al-Zubaidi announced the formation of the council in May of 2017, weeks after Hadi had dismissed him from his post as governor. The council includes 26 members, many of whom are governors of regions of the former South Yemen Republic. Al-Zubaidi recently announced that an independence referendum will be held and that a new National Assembly of 303 members “represent[ing] Yemenis from all areas of the South” will be formed. The National Assembly had its inaugural meeting on the 24th of October, but the government of exiled Yemeni president Hadi has rejected the formation of the council, alleging that it would only benefit the Houthis.

The UAE entered the Yemeni conflict in March of 2015 as part of the Saudi-led Arab coalition against the Houthis. However, they have had a much more considerable presence in the South, especially in Aden, than other coalition countries due to the two important vested Emirati interests in the region. In August of this year, Emirati forces increased their presence in Aden, sending a military brigade as well as tanks and other military vehicles. The UAE have also contributed a number of Latin American mercenaries, from Colombia, Chile, El Salvador and a number of other countries, to fight against the Houthis in late 2015.  The UAE view the Houthi rebels as part of an Iranian plot to undermine Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) interests in the region due to the Houthis’ Shi’ite affiliations. The UAE also has interest in Bab Al-Mandab Strait, a busy oil and gas route through which 3.8 million barrels per day are transported. The UAE has a strategic interest in securing the strait, as much of their oil exports to Europe and North America pass through it and any threat to the waterway destabilizes stable trade with Europe and North America. The UAE has already actively extended its influence in the region surrounding the strait by acquiring a deal with Somaliland to build an Emirati naval base in Berbera port after having built another naval base in the Eritrean port of Assab in 2016.

The failure of President Hadi’s government is also contributing to the growing secessionist movement. Its failure to provide basic necessities such as water and electricity, compared to the success of Emirati-backed Zubaidi, has weakened its position and only garnered more support for Al-Zubaidi. The UAE has made considerable infrastructural investments in the regions such as Aden, Socotra and Hadramout, which are touted as successes of Al-Zubaidi’s Southern Transitional Council.

Since the UAE started its intervention in South Yemen, Al-Islah, a political party typically associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, has been trying to distance itself from the Brotherhood due to its bloody relationship with the UAE. The UAE cracked down on Muslim Brotherhood activists and imprisoned them multiple times throughout the past two decades. Furthermore, Al-Islah has rejected secession and called for Yemen to remain united. As a result, and especially because of their connection to the Muslim Brotherhood, its members have repeatedly been subject to assaults and kidnappings. Al-Islah claims that the UAE has been running a series of black sites in South Yemen where hundreds of men opposed to its influence in Yemen have been kidnapped by local militias.

Although the GCC’s support of anti-Houthi groups in Yemen, coupled with their aggressive airstrike campaign, is said to be weakening Houthi presence in Yemen, it has become increasingly questionable whether the coalition will be able to eradicate the Houthis in the near future. The coalition started its military campaign over two years ago, and is yet to give any significant advances. The Houthis still hold the capital, Sanaa and most of northern and western Yemen. This may cause the GCC and the UAE specifically, to reconsider their strategy in Yemen, and pursue an agenda of South Yemeni secession. The events mentioned above support the idea that the UAE, at least, is pushing that scenario forward.

The increasing control that Abu Dhabi has gained in South Yemen since the breakout of the Yemeni Civil War is alarming, especially considering its agenda of supporting the secessionist movement. The secession of South Yemen can mean the beginning of a new conflict in Yemen with an unforeseeable end. It means the creation of two antagonistic states that will likely be in perpetual conflict over economic and territorial issues.