Foreign Actors’ Involvement in Yemen’s Strife

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

An article by Selim Öztürk examines the divergent interests of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen.

Since October of last year, Houthi rebels in Yemen have attacked international shipping lanes in the Red Sea more than 30 times, asserting them as protests against Israel’s assault on Gaza. The attacks also come in the context of decades of strife in the country, including the civil war that has raged for the last decade. Now, for the first time in many months, the West is reinvesting itself into the conflict; for several weeks, US and British forces have launched multiple retaliatory air raids on military targets throughout Yemen.

To some, “history suggests that the strikes are a mistake. They continue a pattern of the world misunderstanding and underestimating the Houthis.” The concern stems from a historical dynamic between two of the biggest foreign players in the conflict, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and their interventions in the country.

Both states have been involved for decades, viewing Yemen as an important theater for combating Iran’s influence, but have differed in their approach and interests. In the last couple of years, their engagement has decreased significantly as both have faced significant failures in the face of the resilient, Iran-backed Houthi movement, which has driven a shift to negotiation. 

With the rising tensions, Saudi Arabia is holding to their strategy of pulling back. Not long after the airstrikes in Yemen began, Riyadh called for “self-restraint” to avoid escalation. After years of work, the Saudis have established relatively successful lines of communication between themselves, the Houthis, and Iran, and are not keen on jeopardizing them. The UAE appears to echo these sentiments, declaring no interest in joining the new naval coalition formed to protect the Red Sea and choosing only to maintain the small army that remains in Yemen with no indication of growth.

In a recent Middle East Policy article, Dr. Selim Öztürk explores the history of Saudi-Emirati division in Yemen. Riyadh has long favored the al-Islah party and President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi—connected to the Muslim Brotherhood—while Abu Dhabi backs secessionists in the south, support largely driven by their economic interests and anti-Islamist stance.

Saudi Arabia has, until recently, sought a divided Yemen, viewing a unified state as a potential threat to their security. This resulted in support for various factions in the country’s civil strife since the 1930s. Now, Öztürk explains, “it has for more than a decade backed the country’s unity,” largely to prevent Iran from establishing a stronger foothold in the Arabian Peninsula.

The UAE, on the other hand, “sees its interests in division for two reasons…to control the oil and natural gas sources… and [to gain] political influence, especially through a satellite state of South Yemen.” Yemen’s strategic position at the mouth of the Red Sea holds great potential in exerting control over the Arabia Sea and major international shipping lanes, one of Abu Dhabi’s major foreign policy goals.

Right now, “the UAE appears to be far less concerned about the war against the Houthis than gaining control over the resource-rich south and suppressing actors aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

And worryingly, Öztürk concludes, “the divide between the two Arab Gulf states appears to be prolonging the war. There are many groups opposing the Houthis—tribal forces, Salafis, al-Islah-affiliated militias, and southern fighters—but the divergent agendas of the Saudis and the UAE hinder their cooperation.” 

Among the major takeaways readers can find in Selim Öztürk Middle East Policy article, “The Saudi-UAE Divide over the Yemen Quagmire”

  • Saudi Arabia and the UAE have clashed in their efforts to contain the influence of Iran, especially around the intervention in Yemen and support for the Houthi rebel movement.
    • The UAE was wary of Saudi collaboration with the al-Islah party due to its connections with the Muslim Brotherhood and support for Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. 
    • The UAE’s support for the secessionist movement in the south of Yemen, driven by its interest in controlling the country’s ports and strategic islands, was rejected by Saudi Arabia.
  • Yemen and Saudi Arabia have fought over disputed territory for decades, with the Saudi government long seeking to maintain a fractured Yemeni state. 
    • The unification of Yemen in 1990 posed a threat to Saudi influence. 
  • After the North won the civil war in 1990, Southern military officials were forced to resign as lands were given to Saleh regime loyalists in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
    • Exiled Yemeni families assumed Emirati nationality, entering the UAE military.
  • Al-Islah, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and funded by Saudi Arabia, helped the expansion of Yemeni Salafism in the 1990s.
    • Expanding their control in northern Yemen triggered the Iranian-backed Houthi uprising in 2004. 
    • The 2011 Arab Spring led to the Gulf Initiative, forcing Saleh’s resignation. Saleh’s secondhand man and Saudi-backed Hadi took power.
    • Hadi switched his allegiance to the Houthis, leading to the fall of Sana’a in 2014.
  • A military coalition with Qatar, Sudan, Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Morocco aimed to counter Iranian influence and Houthi expansion in 2015.
  • Disputes between Saudi Arabia and the UAE emerged, as Riyadh supported al-Islah while Abu Dhabi opposed the Brotherhood.
    • The UAE preferred Ahmed Ali Saleh to become president, but this did not prove easy without Saudi Arabia’s support. 
  • Although Saudi Arabia has sought a divided Yemen, more recently, they, along with the West, have preferred a unified Yemen. 
    • This stands in contrast to the UAE, which would like to split Yemen for political power through the South and control over oil resources. 
      • Control of the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, and key ports are critical for the UAE.
  • The UAE seeks to control islands like Perim and Socotra to secure economic interests and manage trade routes to compete with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, and Qatar. 
  • The UAE backs southern separatist demands, recruits soldiers from local tribes and Salafi armed groups, and benefits from foreign mercenaries. Saudi interests primarily focus on defeating Iran-backed Houthis. 

You can read “The Saudi-UAE Divide Over the Yemen Quagmire” by Selim Öztürk in the Winter 2023 issue of Middle East Policy. 


(Banner Image: Felton Davis)

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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