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Yemen has become a playground for Saudi and Emirati foreign policymaking. The death of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, once an ally and then a foe of the two regimes, has left a vacuum and may change the course of events in the war-torn country.
The fall of successive Arab dictators in 2011 had people wondering, for a few months, who would be next. But since the death of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi in October 2011, the trend has stopped. It was only on the seventh anniversary of the Arab Spring that the fourth long-time ruler met his fate: Saleh was killed while fleeing the Yemeni capital Sanaa on 4 December 2017.
His story was complicated. He had been the president of the Republic of Yemen since 1990 but the president of the Republic of North Yemen since 1978. His rule was severely shaken in the first year of the Arab Spring, and he finally agreed to resign in October 2012. However, although he officially relinquished power to his deputy Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, he continued to pull the strings behind the scenes. In 2015, he participated in the Houthi coup against Hadi and recovered part of his lost authority. In doing so, he sidelined his former patron and ally, Saudi Arabia.
Saleh was a Saudi ally during his years as North Yemen’s President but a Saudi enemy after the Gulf War; the Saudis even tried to topple him in 1994. Once the dust settled, Saleh returned to the Saudi nest. At the start of the new millennium, Saudi Arabia and Saleh waged a joint war against the Houthis. The Saudis bailed out Saleh’s government and funded his army. When the Arab Spring erupted, the Saudis protected Saleh, and when rockets were fired at his palace, it was the Saudis who dispensed a plane to fly him to the Saudi capital Riyadh where he received medical treatment. His return to Sanaa in 2012 and agreement to resign were also orchestrated by the Saudis, allowing him to stay in Yemen without prosecution.
Yet for Saleh, power was more important than fidelity or reason, and when his long-time adversaries, the Houthis, began to extend their influence, he offered his services. For more than two years, he sided with the Houthis, earning himself a spot on Saudi Arabia’s kill list. However, with decades-old grievances between him and the rebel group, the alliance could not last long. In 2017, cracks began to appear, and by November 2017, Saleh officially announced that he was switching sides and jumping, once again, into bed with the Saudis.
This move came amid major upheaval across the region. In recent years, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have devoted considerable time and resources to sidelining Iran. The rise of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has also triggered hawkish domestic and foreign policies (such as his involvement in the war in Yemen). The UAE, perhaps to curry favour with its more powerful Saudi ally or perhaps with the aim of controlling its young leader, followed suit. The two countries enjoy the backing of the Trump administration as well as the Israeli lobby in Washington (and Israel, of course). According to political analyst Youssef Cherif, who specializes in Gulf politics, Saleh probably calculated it this way: the anti-Iran front was strong enough to change the balance of power, and it was time to jump out of the boat before it sank. The Houthis, feeling the threat inside their walls, were intransigent: Saleh must die. And die he did.
Saleh’s death was interpreted as yet another failure of MBS’ ill-conceived strategies. But it was also the UAE’s failure. In fact, Saleh’s older son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, who used to command Yemen’s elite Republican Guard, was appointed Yemen’s ambassador to the UAE in 2013. His appointment was said to be the result of a negotiated agreement between Hadi and Saleh, a way to relieve the son from the command of an important military unit and offer him an honourable way out. It also signalled a gesture by the UAE, which accepted him as an ambassador; the Saleh camp was in the Emirates’ pocket.
However, an interesting development has occurred since. The Saudis and Emiratis are now courting Yemen’s al-Islah party, the Muslim Brotherhood wing in the country. Up until now, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have waged war against the Brotherhood across the Arab world, including in Yemen. Especially since Saleh’s death, a rapprochement has been evident between Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and the leaders of al-Islah, who are being co-opted.
Moreover, Saleh’s death angered Moscow, to which he was close. Russia was among the few countries that did not move their embassies out of Sanaa when the Houthis took over, and Saleh was a frequent ‘visitor’ of the Russian ambassador. He was, in a way, the mediator between the Houthi leadership and Moscow.
The Saudis will therefore stick to their current man in Yemen, President Hadi, who is actually in exile in Saudi Arabia. The Emiratis will continue to empower different southern factions in Yemen against the Houthis and al-Qaeda. Some disagreements have emerged publicly between the Saudis and Emiratis, with the UAE increasingly interested in controlling the Bab al-Mandab strait and, by extension, the Red Sea, thereby encroaching on Saudi Arabia’s traditional sphere of influence.
But due to (still relatively small) Iranian influence in Yemen, the Saudis and Emiratis will be obliged to work together in the medium term. As the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Riedel put it, ‘The war costs Tehran a few million dollars per month, while it costs Riyadh $6 billion per month.’ Any disagreement between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi could increase Iran’s influence.