Hot Issue – War Without End in Yemen: The Saudi-UAE Rivalry to Prolong the Conflict


Executive Summary

March 26th marked the end of the fourth year of the Saudi led war in Yemen. Four years of devastating aerial bombing and tens of billions of dollars have borne few results. The Houthis retain control of the northwest and most of Yemen has devolved into warring fiefdoms controlled by an ever-growing number of armed factions. The presence of outside powers—namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE—and the money and arms they supply are fueling interlocking conflicts in Yemen. At the same time, Saudi Arabia and the UEA are increasingly in competition with one another in Yemen as the two countries support factions that oppose one another.


The Saudi and Emirati-led intervention in Yemen marks the end of its fourth year in March. The intervention, which was marketed as “Operation Decisive Storm,” was meant to last no more than a few weeks. The military campaign was ostensibly launched to check the advances made by Yemen’s Houthi rebels and to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government to power. Four years on, and Operation Decisive Storm has achieved none of its overt aims despite the billions of dollars spent and thousands of bombs dropped. The Houthis retain control of most of northwest Yemen, including the capital of Sana’a and the internationally recognized—but largely powerless Yemeni government—remains in exile in Saudi Arabia. Yemen is more divided than it has been in decades and has devolved into warring fiefdoms that are variously backed by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and, in the case of the Houthis, by Iran.

The involvement of outside powers and the massive infusion of money and weaponry, the bulk of it from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, has made what started as a civil war far more complex and violent. Yemen now faces a set of interlocking conflicts that will ensure that there will be years, if not decades, of instability and low-intensity fighting. At the same time, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have yoked themselves to a country that has a history of draining the coffers of imperial and lesser powers while thwarting their ambitions.

Interlocking Conflicts

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are mired in four interlocking conflicts in Yemen that show no sign of abating. First and foremost, there is the war between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the factions they support against the Houthis. The aim of this particular fight, which overshadows all others, is to cripple the Houthis’ forces and force them to retreat to their traditional strongholds where they can be contained. The second conflict is the battle between the Saudi-supported Yemeni government in exile and southern separatists backed by the UAE. The third conflict pits militant Salafist groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) against select UAE-backed security forces and some southern separatist militias. The fourth conflict, which is underreported, is the battle for influence and areas of control between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Both countries back factions and proxy forces that are opposed to one another.

These four conflicts interlock and reinforce one another. They are fueled by the presence of outside powers and the money and weapons provided by those powers. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have flooded Yemen with billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry that ranges from armored vehicles to anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) (al-Jazeera, February 7). [1] For its part, Iran has been far more strategic and abstemious with the relatively limited aid that it has provided to the Houthis. Iranian aid is largely limited to money, technical assistance, some very particular and critical missile components, and drone components (The National, January 31). [2] Due to their alliance with the best trained and equipped parts of the Yemeni Army—namely the Republican Guard—the Houthis remain well supplied with weaponry of all types. The Houthis also routinely capture substantial amounts of materiel and what they cannot capture, they buy on Yemen’s thriving arms market.

All sides in the four conflicts in Yemen are extractive. More than anything else, war allows elites to profit and while doing so, to secure their powerbases. The conflicts in Yemen have fostered old elites and produced a new crop of elites all of whom compete for the favor and largesse of their patrons—namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This means that most of the leaders of what are a mushrooming number of factions and militias in Yemen have an interest in continuing the conflicts. It also means that most militia commanders have little interest in engaging in anything but limited fighting since this permits them to conserve the men, weapons, and money that allow them to secure power and influence.

This unwillingness to fully commit to prosecuting offensives against the Houthis—still the most formidable fighting force in Yemen—was in evidence during the failed attempt to capture the Houthi-held port of Hodeidah in 2018. The offensive, which did capture significant territory from the Houthis, broke down partly due to determined Houthi counter-offensives and in-fighting among the militias charged with attacking the Houthis. Much of the in-fighting arose over the distribution of weapons and materiel and over which militias would control which parts of Hodeidah after it was captured. [3]

Factions and Fiefdoms

Factionalism is growing in Yemen as the country devolves into a patchwork of warring fiefdoms. This is to a large degree encouraged and supported by Saudi and Emirati policies in Yemen. Yet, it is factionalism that thwarts the creation of an effective unified fighting force like a functioning national army. Only a unified force that has some kind of clear chain of command stands any chance of retaking significant territory from the Houthis. Capturing territory from the Houthis and ultimately defeating them is the overt goal of the Saudi and Emirati led war in Yemen.

The so called “Golden Offensive” on Hodeidah failed to capture the city from the Houthis in 2018. It was compromised by in-fighting among militias. Similarly, the broader offensive against the Houthis is plagued by a similar lack of cooperation and coordination between security forces and militias. These militias, security forces, and reconstituted units of the Yemeni Army are variously backed by the Emiratis and Saudis. However, there is little that unifies these forces beyond the on and off fighting against the Houthis. Many of these forces oppose one another and are pursuing very different objectives (al-Jazeera, January 28, 2018).

The militias that are aligned with and funded by the Emiratis largely consist of southern separatists of various stripes (al-Jazeera, January 30, 2018). These separatists run the gamut from Salafists who want an Islamic emirate in the south to separatists who are committed to the recreation of a secular and independent south Yemen. Now that the Houthis have been removed from what is traditionally south Yemen, many of these militias have little interest in battling determined fighters on their home ground in northern Yemen. Instead, they are focused on shoring up their control of territory and resources in the south.

Saudi Arabia supports some reconstituted units of the Yemeni Army which are aligned with the internationally recognized government that is nominally led by President Abd Raboo Mansur Hadi. The Saudis also support a growing number of tribal militias whose only consistent objective is to secure funds and weapons from their patron. Saudi Arabia is using these militias and army units to open a second front in northern Yemen in the Houthi strongholds of Sa’da and Hajjah (Arab News, December 26, 2018). While some gains have been made, these gains are rarely consolidated due to militia fighters who cycle on and off the frontlines according to the demands and orders of local commanders. These commanders regularly withdraw fighters due to a lack of payment from Saudi Arabia, inadequate provisions, and determined Houthi counter-offensives. The same logic applied by militia and security force commanders on the southern fronts applies in the north: militia leaders who are often also tribal leaders are unwilling to sacrifice the fighters and weapons that guarantee their positions and power. [4]

Mixed in with the security forces and militias in the north and south are militant Salafists, many of whom remain loyal to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). These fighters, especially the more senior among them, are valued for their expertise and determination, qualities that are in short supply among the militias. Both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates seem to have maintained ties with militant Salafists like the U.S.-designated terrorist Abu al-Abbas, who commands the Abu al-Abbas battalion and controls much of Taiz, Yemen’s second largest city (Middle East Eye, October 27, 2017; al-Jazeera, November 26, 2018).

From Allies to Enemies?

Factionalism plagues Yemen and has undermined Saudi and Emirati efforts to contain the Houthis. Much of this factionalism is fueled by the growing competition between Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the country. While the overt aim of both countries is to contain the Houthis and thereby thwart perceived Iranian ambitions in Yemen, there are a host of covert objectives. Both countries want to secure their particular spheres of influence in Yemen (al-Araby, February 28). Essentially, Saudi Arabia and the UAE want a return on their multi-billion-dollar investments in the Yemeni war. Yemen’s strategic location along the Bab al-Mandeb, which is a critical shipping chokepoint, its proximity to the Horn of Africa, and what could be abundant oil and gas reserves make it a valuable piece of real estate.

The UAE has focused on securing a sphere of influence that encompasses much of south Yemen. This is why it supports militias that are primarily made up of southern separatists who want an independent south Yemen. Due to the greater competence of its armed forces as compared with those of Saudi Arabia, the UAE has been far more assertive in pursuing its objectives in Yemen. The UAE has established military bases in the oil and gas rich governorate of the Hadramawt, which was long considered by the Saudis to be within their sphere of influence. The UAE has also constructed military bases on the once pristine Yemeni islands of Socotra and Perim (al-Araby, May 17, 2017; The Independent, May 2, 2018).

Emirati soldiers, advisors, and mercenaries employed by the UAE have also been at the forefront of organizing the offensive on Hodeidah. It is the UAE, rather than Saudi Arabia, that has been the most active on the ground in Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF) have performed badly in the conflict and some army units are not fully trusted by the Saudi government. The weakness of Saudi ground forces has meant that Saudi Arabia has focused most of its efforts on a deadly aerial bombing campaign which has laid waste to much of Yemen’s infrastructure (al-Jazeera, February 2018).

In response to the UAE’s assertiveness in Yemen and its growing influence in the Yemeni governorate of the Hadramawt, Saudi Arabia is now trying to establish a foothold in the far eastern Yemeni governorate of al-Mahra. The governorate is thinly populated, abuts the borders of Saudi Arabia and Oman, and has a lengthy coastline along the Arabian Sea. Most critically, constructing a pipeline across al-Mahra would allow Saudi Arabia another outlet for exporting oil that would bypass the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has repeatedly threatened to blockade (al-Jazeera, August 20, 2018). There are indications that planning for such a pipeline is underway. However, Saudi Arabia—much like the Emirates—is facing growing local anger over its heavy handed policies (Middle East Eye, November 14, 2018). Tribal leaders in al-Mahra called on residents to block the construction of a Saudi military base in the governorate and armed tribesmen recently stopped the import of military hardware and supplies from Saudi Arabia.

The Emirates and Saudi Arabia are both involved in a new kind of great game in Yemen. The prize is its strategic real estate and its resources. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE remain allies, their competing ambitions in Yemen threaten to drive a wedge between the two countries. What is certain is that their backing of an ever-growing number of factions and militias in Yemen will do little to achieve their overt objective of defeating the Houthis and eliminating Iranian influence. Instead, their policies will ensure that the Houthis will remain ensconced in the northwest where they may become more susceptible to Iranian influence.


While Yemen faces years of low-level conflict, there are glimmers of hope. The 2018 offensive on Hodeidah was not a complete failure. Forces backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE did put significant pressure on the Houthis. All sides were, at least for a while, able to see that continuing the battle for Hodeidah was going to be incredibly costly for their forces—to say nothing of the terrible toll it would take on the nearly six hundred thousand residents of the city.

In December 2018, the Stockholm Agreement was signed by the Houthis and the internationally recognized government of Yemen. While far from comprehensive, the agreement laid the groundwork for a ceasefire and a withdrawal of fighters from all sides from within and around the city. Despite numerous violations, the agreement remains in place (al-Jazeera, January 17). However, there are indications that Saudi and Emirati backed forces are preparing for a renewed offensive on the city. The Houthi leadership, which is showing some signs of internal divisions, stated that they did not agree to cede control of the city but only to remove their military forces. Undoubtedly, the Houthis and forces opposing them have used the months of relative calm to shore up their positions and resupply their forces.

A renewed battle for Hodeidah is likely without sustained pressure on all sides by the international community. Civilians will pay the highest price, just as they have for the past four years. The capture of Hodeidah will do nothing to bring peace and stability to Yemen. Instead the city’s capture will exacerbate what has been ranked as the world’s most serious humanitarian crisis by further limiting vital food imports. It is also likely that the factionalism that now plagues Yemen will intensify as various militias, army units, and security forces compete among themselves for control of Hodeidah and its lucrative infrastructure.

The involvement of outside powers and the money and weapons that they continue to provide to those forces they back are fueling factionalism and continued conflict in Yemen. As is shown by the battle for Hodeidah, there is no military solution to the war in Yemen. The Stockholm Agreement, while limited in its scope, points to the only way forward for Yemen: gradual de-escalation that will produce pockets of relative stability. Over the long-term, the conflicts in Yemen will only abate once outside powers—namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE—stop lavishly funding and equipping what is an ever-growing number of factions. The cessation of outside support will more than anything else disrupt the interlocking nature of Yemen’s conflicts.


[1] See: Deutsche Welle, December 2018

[2] See:

[3] Author interviews with Yemen based analysts/ journalists, February 2019.

[4] Author interview with Yemen based analyst, February 2019.