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Saudi, UAE move to quell clashes threatening Yemen alliance

A member of the Saudi national guard watches from a lookout position on the Saudi-Yemen border in Najran, Saudi Arabia, on April 23, 2015.

GLEN CAREY/BLOOMBERG

By ZAINAB FATTAH AND MOHAMMED HATEM | Bloomberg | Published: February 1, 2018

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates moved to contain deadly infighting between their Yemeni allies that threatens to jeopardize their common fight against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

The two Gulf states sent a "top military and security delegation" to the site of the clashes, the southern port city of Aden, to monitor implementation of a cease-fire between Yemen's elected government and the secessionist Southern Transitional Council, the UAE's official news agency reported on Thursday. Thirty-eight people have been killed and 222 wounded since the fighting began Sunday, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The violence in Aden, where the government of ousted President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi is based, threatened his control of the city and risked weakening the military coalition Riyadh and Abu Dhabi built three years ago to reassert his authority over the whole of Yemen. The clashes between the Saudi-backed Hadi and separatists supported by the UAE had raised concerns the two Gulf nations' alliance is fraying, and spurred criticism they had failed to agree on a unified vision for Yemen.

In statements carried by Saudi and UAE media outlets, the two nations emphasized a shared goal in Yemen: to preserve the integrity of the state. The conflict -- widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran -- has killed thousands, and created widespread illness, hunger and displacement in a country that was already among the world's poorest.

Aden was the capital of a separate state of South Yemen before unification with the north in 1990, and separatist sentiments there have been fanned by the widespread sense that they've been dominated and repressed by the government once based in the north.

The council last week demanded Hadi dismiss his administration, which it accuses of corruption, or have it toppled. When Hadi refused to comply, the separatists orchestrated anti-government rallies and fighting broke out.

But there were probably other forces at work, according to Peter Salisbury, senior research fellow at Chatham House's Middle East & North Africa Program.

The council had opposed Hadi's appointment of new governors in two provinces where it has a strong following -- Lahj and Dhale, he said.

It was also looking to gain a greater role in directing Yemen's future by replacing the prime minister with someone more favorable to the separatists. It's unclear whether the group had the blessing of the UAE in acting against Hadi, Salisbury said.

The involvement of both the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Yemen's domestic power struggle is "complex and murky," he said. However the "UAE has wanted to have someone it approves of in a senior post in the Hadi government for some time, and I think the Saudis are in principle okay with this."

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