In Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s struggle for domination in the region. So far the Houthis are winning
Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
The events in Syria overshadowed the civil war in Yemen to the outside world, where monarchies of the Persian Gulf, contingents of allied countries of the Arab world (under pressure from the financial situation compelled to support this operation of the “Gulfers”) and, indirectly, Iran take part in. In addition, military actions are not only carried out in Yemen but in border areas of Saudi Arabia, and recently spread to the African continent, to Eritrea and Somalia, who became support bases of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) on the Red Sea.
In Yemen the Gulf monarchies, who wage war in Syria against the Assad government, using their controlled jihadists, are forced to use their armed forces and have suffered significant losses. However, the goals that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are pursuing are different, and this largely eases the situation confronting (and supported by them A.M. Hadi) the Houthis and supporters of the ex-president A.A. Saleh. The situation in Yemen and its surrounding area is analyzed on source material prepared for the MEI by experts A.A. Bystrova and P.P. Riabova.
Riyals and Rockets
On September 18 the government, under the control of President Hadi, was reshuffled. A decree was issued on the transfer of the capital of the country from Sana’a, under Houthi control, to Aden to the Central Bank headquarters. Heads were appointed for several departments, such as the Ministry of Finance, information, matters of endowments and religion, tourism, education, culture, higher education and scientific research. The Central Bank was the only government structure, collaborating, quite effectively, with the official government and the Houthis. The decree on the transfer of its activities to Aden is the attempt by the KSA to create an alternative banking authority, to push back opponents of A.M. Hadi from the management of external assets in the attempt to centralise the country under their auspices.
Questions arise about the content of the new accounts of the Central Bank and the transfer of communications and management to Aden. So far not one minister of the Hadi government nor he moved to Aden, regardless of Riyadh’s efforts of forcing them to do this to strengthen the position of the “legitimate government” in the eyes of the population and the world community. Thus, Saudi Arabia and the Arabian coalition support the Yemeni ministers and president who are not ready to find themselves in a country even “liberated” from the Houthi territories but stay in the KSA together with their relatives. The change in the government is an attempt by Hadi to demonstrate to the Saudis that this government soon will be sitting in Aden.
Another version of the new appointments is an answer from Hadi (from Riyadh) at a meeting of the leaders of the Southern Yemeni “harakat” and former leaders of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in Dubai, where the independence of South Yemen was discussed. The event was held under the auspices of the UAE leadership, advocating for the sovereignty of Yemen in the South to the borders of the PDRY. This does not suit Riyadh and Hadi’s attempts to transfer the government entities to Aden represent the signal addressed by Abu Dhabi about this.
Although to what extent can he count on Southern tribes, the issue is more than substantial. The Southerners did not forget about the period when they were free of Sana’a nor about Hadi’s role in the suppression of the separatist movements of the 90s, when Saleh was still the indisputable authority for those that later participated in his removal from power.
Reshufflings also took place in the power block of the government. After the terrorist act by the suicide bomber in an explosive-laden automobile on August 29 (killing 75 people) in Aden, Hadi fired the head of the National Directorate of Security General Ahmed Saeed bin Brik, replacing him with Abdullah Nasser al-Mussawi, who headed the Political Security Directorate. However, in the classic sense both of these directorates simply do not exist. Their apparatuses have undergone a transformation. And as the former head of the political security General al Hamishi was a trusted man of former President Saleh, one can assume that the old guard and agency now work for him.
By the way, al Hamishi resigned only two years after Saleh under pressure from the Americans, or rather, from the Director of the CIA, J. Brennan, accusing him of cooperating with Al-Qaeda, as well as leaking information from the Political Security Directorate about planned U.S. operations of targeted killings of Islamist leaders and field commanders. This on the question of through which of his security officers, the former president of Yemen Saleh has used and will use to this day the radical Islamists to destabilise the situation through the conduct of full-blown terrorist acts (it is possible in the case of Shi’ites of Saudi Arabia, provoking them to rise against the ruling regime).
Saleh, despite Saudi claims, can bring them many problems, as evidenced by the presence of serious weapons. The Houthis and supporters of Saleh in Taiz actively use tactical missiles and the ammunitions of the Grad system, all the more intensely. In Najran, attacks by SCUD missiles continue on the Saudi territory. Most of them intercept the BMD Patriot that was seriously upgraded. One missile destroyed a local power station. With this, the Houthis are fully in control of Sana’a and adjacent heights, which refutes the Saudi command claims about the progress in the military movements of the Arabian coalition to the Yemeni capital.
The Saudi aviation carries out strikes in the villages and residential areas of settlements in Sa’ada. The Houthis took the heights around the Saudi city Najran, attacked training camps in Eritrea, preparing Yemeni mercenaries to be sent to Najran and Syria.
The Houthis are not capable for a broad offensive into the depths of Saudi territory but they do not need this. To divert significant KSA forces from Yemen it is enough to destabilise the situation inside Najran.
To return to the decree of the transfer of the Central Bank to Aden, we note that the Houthis blocked this decision and froze the bank assets, which panicked the financial traders, confused in the contradictory directions that they received. They hold meetings with the leadership of the Central Bank, trying to clarify the situation. Against this backdrop it is interesting and indicative to note the position of the World Bank, officially supporting President Hadi and his government, but conducting routine operations with the Central Bank in Sana’a. The bank does not advertise this, and in an unspoken directive from its leadership the employees are instructed not to express their support for whichever side of the conflict. In all this, we can recall that the USA at different levels indicates to Riyadh and Hadi that the storming of Sana’a in a classic sense is pointless.
Meanwhile the Yemeni foreign exchange currency reserves, amounting to 5.2 billion dollars in 2014, were reduced to 700 million dollars in August 2016, which in the short term bodes the country serious humanitarian problems. This is explained by the fact that Yemen needed to spend its foreign currency on the purchase of fuel and foodstuff. The situation is so critical that the Houthis appealed to the population with a request to donate 50 riyals (20 USD cents) to the Central Bank fund, however without any results.
Trade is paralysed as well by the civil war, which impacts the consumer market. To be fair, in Yemen there never was a normal economy by world standards, a stronger “black sector” and a more flexible “white sector”. Amounts circulate there, in order of magnitude, greater than the official foreign exchange currency reserves. As for the Houthis, they hope on the support from Iran, which has yet to agree to a one-time financial intervention under the guise of humanitarian projects.
In addition, President Hadi’s decree on the transfer of the office of the Central Bank to Aden gives Riyadh the possibility to start transferring large sums of money to his account to increase its influence on Hadi’s government over the population in the North and South of the country. This is another reason for Washington’s strange position, which carefully conducts a policy not only with Hadi but with the Houthis and with former President Saleh. They do not reject them as political outcasts as is demonstrated in Syria against Assad.
On September 21st the transfer of the Yemeni ministries and their employees from the KSA (in reality their expulsion) to Aden was announced. In Riyadh they took the path towards economic competition with Sana’a. As much as the Saudis cannot return Hadi to Sana’a by military means, they deemed it necessary to use economic levers – bribing the population through various “government projects”, which theoretically will undermine the domination of the Houthis and Saleh in the northern part of the country. But this is expensive and doubtful that the operation will have a quick effect. The transfer bet of Hadi to Aden, is the attempt by the UAE to unite the political forces of South Yemen into a single council, which indicates a new round of open confrontation between the UAE and the KSA over the right to dominate in the resolution of the conflict.
Berbera for Mistrals
The conclusion of the transaction between the President of Somaliland Ahmed Silanyo and the Emirati company DP Word (DPW) on the sale of the sea port infrastructure of Berbera caused an international scandal. A first group of military inspectors from the UAE and Egypt quickly arrived. This demonstrates that behind the transaction stands not a private company but the leadership of the UAE. The status of Somaliland, which no one of the world governments recognises as an independent state, is an obstacle for the realisation of investment projects, because there is no legal framework for the resolution of legal disputes.
The company clearly did this transaction at the request of Abu Dhabi, calculating the financial risks ahead of time. The prerequisites for this, judging by the fighting within the clans of Somaliland, in which Ahmed Silanyo will likely remain on the political periphery, are there. But Berbera seems to be important for the leadership of the UAE, since it has allowed the risky operation and guaranteed the company’s compensation for possible losses. This former Soviet naval and air base can berth ships with serious displacement as well as all types of transport aircraft (two runways are more than three kilometres long). It is located in an area that allows the control of the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa.
Officially the Egyptian and Emirati officers came for the preparation of a report on the use of the military base to contain the activities of the Houthis and supporters of former President Saleh in Yemen. In fact, although the two countries take part in the Arabian coalition, each carries out its duties and does not demonstrate any great zeal in the expeditionary corps under the aegis of Riaydh. In part, the Egyptians are paying the price for Saudi financial support. There is no interest in Cairo in the Yemeni conflict, it is not worried about the Shia threat and it is not ready to sacrifice its soldiers’ lives for its sake.
In the UAE, it is more complicated. For Abu Dhabi to establish dominance over seaports of the South of the Arabian Peninsula it considers the separation of South Yemen at the borders of the former PDRY. They do not see great danger in the Houthis and Tehran (according to the sealed report of the General Headquarters of the UAE of 2015 the likelihood of military aggression from Iran is considered as extremely low). They are more concerned about the threat from the Muslim Brotherhood. What concerns the containment of the Houthis, there was no need to make a deal on Berbera. The UAE has a base in Eritrea, which can receive small warships and aircraft, enough for sea and air patrols over the coastline.
The UAE and Egypt mission in Berbera is linked most likely with the study of the base conditions of the helicopter carriers “Mistral” purchased by Cairo, as well as the Egyptian and Emirati military aircrafts. For this the base in Eritrea does not have the desired resource. The main goal is to have a counterweight to the Turko-Qatari strengthening of influence in Somalia (the Egyptians and Emirati consider Ankara and Doha as the main sponsors of the Muslim Brotherhood). Second, the establishment of security guarantees for maritime shipping is what the UAE is interested in.
Egypt gets an air and naval base in Somaliland, which for Cairo is important for a constant power pressure on the government of Ethiopia, in order to force them to abandon the plans of constructing the Big Dam on the Blue Nile, threatening the food security of Egypt. In his time, President Sadat of Egypt threatened to bomb any construction of dams on the Blue Nile. But bombings are an extreme case. So far the Egyptians and Emirati actively utilise the opportunities of Asmara on the sponsorship of opposition groups in Ethiopia to destabilise the situation there. And the base in Berbera, under the strategic alliance between Cairo and Abu Dhabi, is a long-term factor of the military influence on the situation in many important points of the Horn of Africa and Indian Ocean.
Raid on Assab
The representatives of the Eritrean opposition movement Red Sea Afar Democratic Organisation (RSADO) on September 21 stated that the Yemeni Houthis attacked the international airport in the port city of Assab, Eritrea. Experts believe that the attack was carried out with the logistical support of RSADO. Its leader Ibrahim Harun announced that Houthis first gathered on the Yemeni islands of Hanish and Zukar, then they attacked Assab. They used armoured and motorised boats, from which with the help of the anti-tank guided missiles and RPGs fired on the headquarters of the Eritrean Navy, almost destroying it. After that they landed two groups of troops. The first attacked the airport of Assab to prevent the relocation of the Eritrean regime by air. The second, a larger group, attacked the Yemeni fighters training camp, which the Saudis started in Aden and were preparing in Eritrea with the help of local instructors. As a result the camp was much destroyed; the number of instructors, Yemeni and Saudi advisors killed is not yet known. The Eritrean military does not allow anyone inside the perimeter. Five thousand Yemenis were relocated to Eritrea almost two weeks ago; the monthly salary was 300 dollars. After the course of the month-long training, they were to be transferred to Najran and Jizan for the protection of the Yemeni-Saudi borders against the Houthis.
The Houthis’ raids on these territories happen regularly. The Saudi border protection cannot do anything against their groups, hence the idea of using mercenaries from Yemen. But the natives of South Yemen, constituting the bulk of the mercenaries, do not know the border area in the North of the country, populated with Zaidi tribes, related to the Houthis. So the effectiveness of this scheme is questionable.
Part of this contingent was to strengthen the ranks of the pro-Saudi factions in Syria, such as Jabhat al-Nusra (renamed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), having suffered serious losses during the recent fighting in Aleppo. Earlier the Yemenis were hired by Doha for fighting on the side of banned in Russia the Islamic State (under the pretext of work in Qatar in security companies). But then news started to come to Yemen about their massive losses in Syria and Libya. Given the negative reaction by local tribes, Doha did not repeat such experiments.
According to the RSADO head, the game of Asmara on the side of the Arabian coalition is driven by territorial disputes between Yemen and Eritrea over the islands of Hanish and Zukar, which became the springboard for attacks. In 1998 the International Arbitration Court recognised these islands as Yemeni, but Eritrea ignored the decision. The islands in fact are controlled by the Houthis and are used for the contraband of weapons and spirits from Africa into Yemen and back.
In fact, the support of Asmara by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who have in Assab a naval base (it was also fired at), is not driven by territorial disputes, but by financial interests. Asmara provides the Eritrean territory and camps in exchange for investment from the Arabian monarchy for road and port infrastructures. Moreover, Abu Dhabi and Cairo’s plans include the use of Eritrean rear base for subversive work against Ethiopia. In any case the Eritrean leadership earns the money, although it cannot but please the anti-Ethiopian activists of the UAE and Egypt.
The Houthis strike was unexpected for Riyadh and Abu-Dhabi, who looked at the Eritrean territory as a safe zone and were getting ready to use it as one of their own military bases on the Red Sea. These plans will be adjusted, which will call for new expenses for increased protection. The Houthis demonstrated that their combat potential is high, and the arsenals are full. The raid illustrated a good level of coordination, which is explained by the participation of Iranian advisors in the planning of the operation. It would not have been possible without Ethiopia’s special services, which oversee RSADO, whose role in this case was most likely limited by order to help the Houthis.
In the raid there was important accurate intelligence, taken by the militants and the underground RSADO. Addis Ababa’s interest is simple: it supports any action against Asmara. Ethiopia does not like the transformation of Eritrea into a KSA, UAE and Egypt base – because it has disagreements with the latter on the construction of the Big Dam On the Blue Nile. The Houthis in terms of freezing negotiation process on internal Yemeni political settlements clearly demonstrated that they stay as the leading military force in Yemen.
Behind the raid on Assab clearly stands the former president, ally of the Houthis Saleh who having old ties with the pirates and contrabandist in this part of the Red sea, knows how to appreciably hit Riyadh.
Evgeny Satanovsky, President of the Middle East Institute