Saudi Arabia is seeking to increase its influence in the Emirates-backed port city of Aden. Behind this move, observers see the beginning of an exit strategy from the brutal and costly war in Yemen.
The fractured political landscape in Yemen, long under the influence of regional powers, could soon become even more complicated. According to the Yemen Press Agency, the first Saudi-backed administrative council opened in the region of Hadramawt in June, and the second such council is planned for later this month in the port city of Aden.
Once in place, these Saudi-backed bodies are set to foster the idea of a united Yemen — in stark contrast to the United Arab Emirates-backed Southern Transitional Council and its quest for secession from the rest of the country.
“The timing is key, as Saudi Arabia’s peace negotiations with the Iran-aligned Houthi militia seem to be failing and Saudi Arabia wants to get a foot into the country’s south, although it could have done this years ago,” Matthew Hedges, a London-based independent Yemen researcher and regional expert, told DW. “It could be an indication of Saudi Arabia’s admittance that Yemen might split into two.”
Yemen has been at war since 2014, when Houthi rebels seized the then-capital, Sanaa, and ousted the internationally recognized government. In 2015, the situation escalated when a Saudi-led coalition of nine countries, including the United Arab Emirates, intervened in an effort to restore the government, which has meanwhile become the Presidential Leadership Council. The United Arab Emirates are firm Saudi allies in all respects — except when it comes to the question of secession.
Over the past decade, Yemen has been divided into three parts: a Houthi-controlled region in the north, the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council in the south and the government-controlled rest of the country, backed by the Saudi coalition.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has openly said that he wishes to exit the war in YemenImage:
Saudi Arabia’s real interest: Exiting the war
Observers, however, actually doubt these new councils are going to affect the political affiliations in the south.
“It is unlikely that the new council in Aden will develop into a wider community of support or to a wider political movement that can genuinely confront the Southern Transitional Council,” said Hedges. In fact, he rather sees these new administrative bodies as “setting the cat among the pigeons.”
This view is echoed by Mohamed al-Iriani, a research analyst at the Yemen Policy Center, an independent think tank in Sanaa. “Saudi Arabia has made repeated attempts to form a political coalition in Aden, particularly with those political factions that share aspirations for a united Yemen,” he told DW. “These efforts have proven unsuccessful.”
However, the researcher sees another benefit that could be provided by the Saudi-backed councils. If Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates overcame their differences in the south, these new councils “could potentially facilitate consensus-building in local dialogues among southern factions,” said al-Iriani. This, he added, “could aid the Saudi-led coalition’s exit from the war.”
Abandoned facilities of cable cars are seen inside a coastal resort park in Aden.Abandoned facilities of cable cars are seen inside a coastal resort park in Aden.
Aden is a strategic hub for Yemen’s economy and close to oil-rich regions in the southImage:
Yemen remains one of world’s largest humanitarian crises
The brutal conflict, which is nominally still going on despite a recent lull in fighting, has been widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
However, Saudi Arabia has been increasingly open about the wish to exit the costly war. This possibility has gained momentum after Riyadh and Iran — once regional archenemies — restored their diplomatic relations in March.
That move was followed by prisoner swaps in recent months and, for the first time in eight years, Saudi permission for passenger flights from Sanaa to the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah for the Hajj pilgrimage. Among the pilgrims was the deputy head of the Houthi Military Committee, Yahya al-Razami, according to the Houthi-run Saba News.
These developments are a crucial and positive step toward building confidence between the warring sides, said Hans Grundberg, the UN envoy to Yemen.
Years of fighting have pushed Yemen’s population to the brink of a famineImage: Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua/IMAGO
For the Yemeni population, any glimmer of hope is welcome. The latest situation report by UNICEF on the humanitarian situation in the country, published in early July, confirmed once more that Yemen remains one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world with 21.6 million people, or two-thirds of the Yemeni population, requiring humanitarian assistance.
Numerous reports by human rights organizations and the UN have said the war has already caused almost half a million deaths and resulted in the internal displacement of thousands of people.