The UAE, the second power in the coalition, has openly intervened on behalf of southern separatists battling the Saudi-backed forces loyal to former president for control of the south, launching air strikes on the forces trying to regain their interim seat of power in Aden port, according to Reuters.
The escalation risks further fracturing the Saudi-UAE alliance and emboldening the Houthi movement, which the coalition was formed to fight. The United Nations is trying to restart talks to end the 4-1/2 year conflict.
UAE-backed separatists, who seek self-rule in the south, seized Aden, base of former president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadis government, in early August after they accused a party allied to Hadi of complicity in a Houthi assault on their forces.
The two sides were nominal allies under the Western-backed coalition that intervened in Yemen in March 2015 against the Houthi movement, which ousted Hadi from power in the capital Sana’a in 2014.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE called for talks to resolve the crisis. Forces loyal to Hadi insisted that separatists first cede control and that the UAE stop supporting southern fighters it has armed and trained.
The separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) said it would not withdraw until the Islamist Islah Party and northerners are removed from power in the south.
STC fighters tried extending their reach in the south but were repelled by Saudi-backed forces. Those forces tried to retake Aden but retreated when UAE warplanes attacked them. Abu Dhabi said it targeted “terrorist organizations”.
Hadi, who resides in Riyadh, asked Saudi Arabia to stop what he called the UAE interference.
“Saudi Arabia finds itself in a quandary. Aggressive Saudi action to rein in the STC could trigger a civil war within a civil war in which Riyadh’s allies are far from sure to prevail,” the International Crisis Group said in a recent brief.
Saudi Arabia formed the alliance to neutralize the Houthis. The current crisis makes it harder for Riyadh to counter the Houthis, who hold most major urban centers and point to the Aden standoff as proof that Hadi cannot rule.
The Houthis, meanwhile, stepped up attacks on Saudi Arabia, twice hitting energy assets in the world’s top oil exporter.
The UAE, which led the coalition’s limited gains in the war, scaled down its presence in Yemen in June as Western criticism of the coalition mounted, saddling Saudi Arabia with an unpopular war.
Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have said their alliance remains strong, but differences emerged as the UAE moved to protect its image and interests.
The UAE drawdown aimed to cast Abu Dhabi as the more mature partner and peacemaker, diplomats said, as Western allies pressed for an end to the war that has killed tens of thousands and pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.
Abu Dhabi said its decision was a natural progression given a UN-sponsored truce in the contested main port of Hodeidah in the west, which the coalition twice tried to seize last year. It said this new stage required political, not military tactics.
Diplomats say it was because the UAE accepted there could be no military solution due to global criticism of coalition air strikes that have killed civilians and the humanitarian crisis. Heightened US-Iran tensions, which risk triggering a war in the Persian Gulf, precipitated the move.
The UAE built a force of 90,000 Yemeni fighters, including thousands of separatists, to battle the Houthis.
But the war, which has been in military stalemate for years, revived old strains between north and south Yemen, separate countries that united into a single state in 1990.
This is not the first separatist uprising. They briefly seized Aden in January 2018. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi helped end that standoff as the focus of the war shifted to Hodeidah, the Houthis’ main supply line and a lifeline for millions.
As military options faded, the UAE focus switched to UN efforts toward a political solution. While Saudi Arabia wants to remove the Houthis, the UAE’s main concern has been stamping out militants and securing Red Sea shipping lanes, analysts say.