In a Gulf region in which everything seems subject to change, the conflict in Yemen seems to represent the only variable standing still. The six-month ceasefire agreed in April 2022 is holding up, even though the parties to the conflict have failed to renew their commitment to the truce. The situation on the ground continues to be extremely fluid, leaving the fragmented country prone to sporadic flare-ups that threaten the fragile peace process. Clashes on the 10th of June in al-Musnaiya between suspected militants of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the UAE-backed Shabwa Defence Forces that left three people dead highlighted the resurgent terrorism risk, in a country often considered as a safe haven for extremist organisations. Despite frequent counterterrorism operations (including the killing back in February of a leading figure of the group, Hamad bin Hamoud al-Tamini, in a US drone strike), AQAP continues to thrive in several regions of Yemen, representing a thorn is the side of pro-government forces and foreign partners alike.
The location of the clashes is particularly noteworthy. Together with nearby Marib, Shabwah is considered to be home to the most productive oil and gas fields in Yemen. Part of the strategic central region of the war-torn country, Shabwa is also adjacent to the Hadhramaut governorate, where significant developments have recently occurred. Indeed, just a few days after the attack in al-Musnaiya, tribal elders and leaders announced the establishment of the Hadhramaut National Council (HNC) after almost one month of talks in Riyadh. The new political entity has been portrayed as an alternative to the secessionist aspirations of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), supported by Abu Dhabi. In a recent interview the STC President Maj.-Gen. Aidarus al-Zoubaidi (also Vice-President of the Presidential Leadership Council – Yemen’s internationally recognised government) reiterated his vision for a partition that could revert Yemen to the 1967-1990 period, when the country was divided in two with a separate socialist state in the south and the Yemen Arab Republic ruling the north from Sana’a.
Since 2014 the capital has instead been under the control of the Houthi movement (also known as Ansar Allah), which have received considerable support from Teheran during the Middle East Cold War that, in the decade after the Arab Spring, pitted Iran against Saudi Arabia. However, as the two Gulf powerhouses start to warm ties thanks to the meditation of China, paving the way for confidence building measures in Yemen like the swap of 900 prisoners back in March, the wheels of the competitive collaboration between Saudi Arabia and the UAE start to fall off. After joining forces in the 2015 intervention to face the common threat of the Houthis, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh seemed to have parted ways in Yemen and elsewhere. Seen from this perspective, the recent establishment of the HNC could just represents an attempt by Saudi Arabia to carve up a sphere of influence between Iran’s affiliated Houthis in the north and the UAE-backed STC in the south, easing its way out of the conflict. An eventuality that will leave Yemen caught in a trilemma between major Gulf powers oscillating between accommodation and conflict in a dynamic that will test the boundaries of the normalisation drive in the sub-region and beyond.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region