Tensions have escalated between UAE-backed
militias and forces loyal to President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi
As the United Arab Emirates draws down its troops in Yemen, UAE-backed southern secessionists are massing in the oil-rich province of Shabwah, escalating tensions with fighters loyal to the country's Saudi-backed President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, local activists and security officials say.
Formed by the separatist Southern
Transitional Council (STC), a group challenging Hadi's government throughout
the country's southern provinces, a new force that dubs itself "the
southern resistance" has recruited thousands of fighters in recent months.
"They started recruitment in April
and the build-up is ongoing," Nasser al-Khalifi, a human rights official
who documents abuses by the Saudi- and UAE-led coalition and security forces in
Shabwah, said in an interview with an MEE contributor in Yemen.
The push sets the stage for a power
struggle in the province with troops loyal to Hadi's vice president, Ali Mohsen
al-Ahmar, a key ally to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and backer of the
Sunni Islamist Islah party, which includes members of Yemen's Muslim
As a pillar of the Saleh regime prior to
the 2011 popular uprising, al-Ahmar is seen by Yemenis in the southern
provinces as a symbol of the northern military occupation that followed the
1994 civil war.
At that time, the Sanaa-based regime
crushed a military rebellion in what was then known as South Yemen and enforced
a 1990 unity agreement.
Working alongside another UAE-backed
militia loyal to the STC known as the Shabwani Elite, the "southern
resistance" fighters seek to wrest control of the province from troops
loyal to al-Ahmar.
"The Shabwani Elite and the southern
resistance are under the instruction of the leadership of the STC," Shaher
al-Sulimani, Lieutanant Commander with the Shabwani Elite in central Shabwah,
told MEE in an interview, confirming the build-up of the forces.
The goal, Sulimani said, is "to
impose control over our land … [and] to remove it from the grip of the Muslim
Brotherhood and supporters of Ali Mohsen [al-Ahmar]".
The Shabwani Elite recently expanded its
forces in eastern Shabwah to protect oil infrastructure, Sulimani added.
The war in Yemen broke out in 2015 when
Saudi Arabia and the UAE formed a military alliance to defeat the Iran-aligned
Houthi rebels, who had driven Hadi's government out of the capital Sanaa and
subsequently expanded control of large areas of the country.
The coalition was able to quickly capture
Aden, the most popular province in the south, but the Houthis have remained in
control of Sanaa as the war has since become the world's worst humanitarian
disaster, according to the UN.
While Riyadh and Abu Dhabi say their war
efforts aim to restore stability in Yemen, areas under their control have
regularly witnessed fighting between rival armed groups - particularly between
UAE-backed separatists and fighters loyal to Hadi's government.
To date, the Emiratis have trained 90,000
Yemeni forces in the war, a senior Emirati official told Reuters.
Last month, the Shabwani Elite forces
clashed with Saudi-backed Islahi troops in Shabwah's provincial capital of
The uptick in fighting in Shabwah appears
to be a prelude to a potential battle between UAE-backed secessionist militias
and Islah-affiliated government forces, according to a Yemeni conflict analyst
who conducts research on tribal networks in the region.
The analyst spoke to MEE on condition of
anonymity because they are not authorised to speak to the media.
Peter Salisbury, the International Crisis
Group's senior Yemen analyst, said: "The perception for many in the south
is that Islah is almost the greater immediate threat to the independence
project, partly because of their position within the internationally recognised
"There's a sense among some southern
factions that the Houthis can be convinced to stay in their area [in the
north]," Salisbury said. "There's not the same sense with
Shabwah and neighbouring Hadhramaut to the
east were Yemen's top oil-producing provinces before the war broke out in 2015,
and both belonged to what was formerly known as South Yemen, a socialist
republic that dissolved and joined the north in 1990.
Still, neither province has benefitted
from oil sales since unification. The bulk of those revenues flowed to the
central government of Saleh, the former president, and the military commanders
he deployed to control the oil fields.
Since Saleh's removal following Arab
Spring-inspired uprisings in 2011, oil profits have enriched his successor,
Hadi, and Ahmar's Islah-affiliated network of tribes and military officers
controlling the oil fields, according to a 2019 report by the UN Panel of
Experts on Yemen.
STC spokesman Nizar Haitham questioned
Hadi and Islah's willingness to fight the Houthis, accusing them of being more
focused on "their economic and political interests".
"Not only does the political conflict
in Shabwah distract from the war against the Houthis, but it also proves to the
Arab coalition that Hadi's government is not a reliable partner regarding the
primary aim of the war: a total victory over [the] Houthis," Haitham told
MEE in an interview.
But the UAE's goals in Yemen may also be
shifting away from that fight against the Houthis.
Discussing the UAE drawdown in Yemen,
unidentified Western officials told the Wall Street Journal last week that Abu
Dhabi is now "aiming to focus its efforts in Yemen on battling al-Qaeda,
Islamic State and other extremist groups".
Sulimani, the Shabwani Elite commander,
sees capturing Shabwah and Hadhramaut from northern troops as part of that
The STC has designated Islah as a
terrorist organisation, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE, wary of Islamist groups
like Islah, both designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group in
Nonetheless, despite its opposition to the
Muslim Brotherhood, Riyadh is backing Islah in Yemen as part of its anti-Houthi
The Gulf kingdom's rationale here is
twofold. First, the party represents one of the few anti-Houthi allies Riyadh
has in north Yemen. And second, supporting the group helps ensure that Islah
doesn't forge an alliance with Saudi Arabian nemesis Qatar.
Islah officials claimed to have distanced
the party from the Muslim Brotherhood in late 2017 ahead of a
confidence-building meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and
Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.
Islah representatives also met with bin Zayed late last year.
Still, the pro-STC forces' aggressive
approach in Shabwah comes at a precarious time for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
So far, the Gulf coalition's focus has
been on Yemen's flashpoint Red Sea port of Hodeidah.
About 20,000 UAE-backed fighters, most of
whom are from south Yemen, have been camped there for months awaiting orders on
whether to storm the Houthi-controlled city or withdraw from the region as part
of a UN-brokered Stockholm plan aimed at averting further
The political opening amid the
implementation of the UN deal has reportedly played a role in the
UAE's military drawdown, the unidentified senior Emirati official told Reuters.
If the absence of Emirati commanders on
the front lines around Hodeidah leads to a drawdown of its proxy forces there,
the fighters may reinforce battlefronts elsewhere across the south, which could
include Shabwah and Hadhramaut, said Salisbury.
It also appears that the UAE and Saudi
Arabia are seeking to minimise friction between their proxy forces.
But the secessionist forces will not
easily pass up an opportunity to reclaim southern land from northern troops,
and Islah's troops will not leave the oil-rich region without a fight,
according to recent statements by one of Hadi's top commanders.
At a meeting with UAE-backed forces in
May, STC President Aidarous al-Zubaidi called on separatist militia
commanders to liberate Shabwah and Hadhramaut.
That threat was rebuffed at the time by
Hadi’s top commander at the 1st Military District in Wadi Hadhramaut, Brigadier
General Saleh Taimas.
Sadeq al-Muqree, a spokesman for Taimas,
told MEE in an interview that any attempts to dislodge his forces from northern
Hadhramaut would be "a losing battle before it starts".
Still, Eleonora Ardemagni, associate
research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political
Studies, said she doesn't expect STC forces to move on Hadhramaut while
battlefronts against the Houthis around Hodeidah and in nearby al-Dhale
province remain active.
She said a possible lull in the fighting
against the Houthis may actually turn Saudi- and Emirati-backed fighters
against each other.
"If those battles enter new
stalemates, or ceasefires are reached on the local level, the situation could
accelerate the violence of opposing agendas and other forces in
Hadhramaut," Ardemagni told MEE in an interview.
"If the UAE perceives [that] Islah is
gaining military strength in Shabwah or Hadhramaut, forces backed by the UAE
will try to prevent that from happening," she added.
Written by Fernando Carvajal. ESGC Analyst. July 2019