Clashing UAE and Saudi interests are keeping the Yemen conflict alive

Bethan McKernan Middle East correspondent
Photograph: Ahmad Al-Basha/Getty

Aisha al-Temmimi, 21, has never adjusted to the dust and heat of the Yemeni desert city of Marib. Her family are from the lush green highlands of Hajjah in the country’s north, but were forced to leave after fighting between the Iran-backed Houthis and government forces reached their village two years ago.

Marib, already rich in oil and gas reserves, has become something of a boom town since Yemen’s war broke out, a place where those displaced by violence elsewhere in the country have found relative safety. Even Marib’s stability, however, has proven fragile after fierce new battles to the north and west of the city.

“We thought we’d be safer here,” al-Temmimi said. “Sometimes they fight just for the sake of fighting.”

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At the beginning of this year, the UN’s special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, praised the country’s warring parties for largely sticking to a 2018 de-escalation agreement: hopes were high that months of relative quiet could lead to more substantive talks. Just two months later, as the fifth anniversary of the Saudi and Emirati coalition intervention in the war dawns, the prospect of peace is further away than ever.

Yemen’s civil war escalated on 26 March 2015 after the president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, fled to neighbouring Saudi Arabia and a coalition of 20 Arab nations intervened to try to drive the Iran-backed Houthis out of the capital, Sana’a.

Since then the conflict has morphed into the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, killing an estimated 100,000 people and leaving 80% of the population – about 24 million people – dependent on aid to survive.

Both sides have been accused of indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets, but according to the Yemen Data Project, at least 30% of more than 20,000 coalition bombing raids are estimated to have hit civilian infrastructure.

The coalition, which is supported by the UK, US and other western nations, has also imposed a blockade of Houthi territory that has pushed around half of the total civilian population to the brink of starvation and led to outbreaks of cholera and diphtheria. Yemen is now facing a potentially devastating new crisis in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Graphic - map showing areas of control

The latest round of violence erupted after Hadi’s forces tried to advance along the highway from Marib to the rebel-held capital, Sana’a, but the attempt backfired spectacularly after the Houthis responded with counterattacks on several fronts, advancing to seize al-Hazm, the capital of al-Jawf province, earlier this month.

Heavy fighting in al-Jawf, which is north of Marib, has sent at least 1,750 families fleeing, overwhelming local aid agencies already working in displacement camps on the outskirts of Marib city, where around 70,000 people are now in need of daily help.

A total of 35 civilians, including 19 children, were killed by coalition airstrikes on al-Jawf in a single day in February. In one of the single bloodiest attacks of the war to date, 116 soldiers loyal to exiled President Hadi died in a missile attack on a mosque at a Marib military camp that was blamed on the Houthis.

Those fighting and suffering in the latest violence are Yemeni, and new alliances currently being formed between local tribes and the Houthis are shifting the local balance of power even more strongly in the rebels’ favour. Yet the derailment of the three-year-old ceasefire in the area and the resulting new setbacks to the peace process appear to reflect the ever-diverging interests of the Saudi and Emirati elements of the coalition.

After the fall of al-Hazm to the Houthis, Mohammed Jumeh, Yemen’s permanent representative to Unesco, tweeted that the loss was the result of a “betrayal” that “reflected the interests and side-battles of political and military leaders from outside the country”.

The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are already in competition for the upper hand in Yemen’s south, where the UAE supports a separatist movement which says it wants renewed independence for South Yemen.

The Saudis, struggling with their limited military capabilities and the financial strain of the conflict, have engaged with the Houthis in backchannel talks facilitated by Oman over the last few months, an apparent recognition of the fact that the Houthis are stronger than ever after five years of war.

Instead, it is believed the Emiratis, who back Yemen’s new chief of staff, Lt Gen Sagheer bin Aziz, pushed for the offensive, in part to curb the ambitions of Saudi-backed clients such as the Islah party, the Muslim Brotherhood-linked bloc of the Yemeni government, which is strong in Marib.

“It is no secret at this point that in Yemen Saudi Arabia only cares about securing its borders and distancing Ansar Allah [the Houthis] from Iran,” said Abdulghani al-Iryani, an analyst at the Sana’a Center thinktank.

“What gets underestimated is how high the level of antagonism is between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, particularly when it comes to support for Islah. The personal rapport between [Saudi crown prince] Mohammed bin Salman and [ruler of Abu Dhabi] Mohammed bin Zayed is what keeps the relationship together. If it were left to institutional channels the coalition would collapse.”

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With university classes cancelled thanks to the looming threat of coronavirus, al-Temmimi says she has had plenty of time to think about the recent clashes and what they mean for Yemen’s future.

“If the Houthis and the Saudis are talking, you would think we could get back to peace talks,” she said. “Instead, we get more fighting. The rest of the world argues about the war and what ordinary Yemenis want doesn’t seem to matter any more.”