Aden, Two Years since Liberation: a Grim Warning for Yemen?
It has been two years since a Saudi-led alliance, in conjunction with the internationally recognized Yemeni government announced the liberation of the city of Aden from Houthi rebels. The freeing of the city was expected to be a turning point in the ongoing conflict in the country, and a signal of the impending defeat of the alliance which brought the Houthi rebels together with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. It was also expected to mark a return to normalcy for the everyday lives of Yemenis, by giving the internationally recognized government a chance to reactivate state institutions before being able to do the same in a liberated Sanaa. Despite these lofty aims, however, Aden was plunged into a state of turbulence and instability. Instead of being the calm base from which the Yemeni government could retake Sanaa, Aden has instead become a battleground for a number of domestic and foreign parties, completely sapping away the momentum of victory and the symbolic value of declaring Aden to be a “temporary capital” of the country before Sanaa could be freed from the Houthis.
Aden: in the Wake of “Operation Decisive Storm”
For the various rivals jockeying for primacy in Yemen, Aden holds a special, strategic value. In addition to the harbor’s vital coastal location, it is also the economic heart of Yemen and the city’s second-most important city. A further aspect of the historical and symbolic significance of the capture of Aden is its role as a putative capital of South Yemen. Although dormant following the unification of Yemen in 1990, Aden has been the focal point of an increasingly vocal, reinvigorated secessionist movement since 2007. Through this movement, South Yemenis have voiced their objections to what they see as the exclusionary policies of successive governments of a unified Yemen. This sense of grievance drove members of the southern separatist movement to fully embrace the Yemen-wide popular revolution of 2011, while the leadership of the southern movement was also party to the National Dialogue Conference of 2013 which brought together the various political forces of Yemen towards a new constitutional arrangement for the country. In 2015, the Southern Movement was also quick to provide armed resistance to the Houthi rebels attempting to take Aden, which by that time had become the base of operations for elected president Abd Rabo Mansur Hadi and was acting as a de-facto “temporary capital” for the government.
By March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia announced the formation of a far-ranging coalition which included all of the GCC states except for Oman, as well as Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan, Morocco and Jordan. The coalition launched what became known as Operation Decisive Storm to reinstall the government of elected president Abd Rabo Mansur Hadi and to disarm the Houthi rebels who had destabilized his rule. Legitimized by backing from the Arab League, the first phase of Decisive Storm was centered on Aden. At first, the coalition’s efforts to re-take Aden by an amphibious attack seemed to succeed in driving out the Houthis. The coalition forces took Aden as a base from which they intended to drive the Houthis out of the remaining governorates of southern Yemen. With Hadi installed in Aden, and the return to operation of Yemen’s Central Bank, an air of increased confidence had seeped in, with supporters of Yemen’s legitimate government expecting to be able to defeat the Houthis across the entire country. By April, 2015, the coalition forces had launched “Returning Hope”, the second stage of the operation to defeat the Houthis outside of Aden. Yet the early optimism of this push was met with a complex reality on the ground that showed the inability of the legitimate government of Yemen to bring about lasting political stability and security.
An Abortive Restoration
As part of the wider coalition effort to restore Yemen’s elected president, the United Arab Emirates was given responsibility for overseeing security and stabilization of Aden and the other governorates in the south of the country. This was reflected in the relative sizes and geographical distribution of military contingents of the respective countries within the coalition, with UAE forces being the largest group in the south of Yemen. Abu Dhabi was quick to use this reality to its own ends, however. It used its clout in South Yemen to advance its own objectives, which were not entirely in line with those of the wider Saudi-led coalition. One of the first actions taken by the UAE government was the marginalization of the Yemeni Rally for Reform, a group with associations with the Muslim Brotherhood. It also tried to form a paramilitary fighting group, known as the Security Belt Forces, drawn from Salafist groups and tasked with protecting Aden. The UAE used a similar approach across Hadhramaut, Taaz and Shibwa. The UAE also pointedly refused the integration of the fighting units it armed and sponsored into Yemen’s national military.
In parallel, the Emiratis also backed a fighting force loyal to the former president of South Yemen, Ali Salem Al-Beed, which had previously received financial and logistical backing from Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. The Emirates facilitated the domination by those forces of South Yemen’s administrative, social and political institutions. This included the appointment of Aidarous Zubaidi to the position of Governor of the Aden Governorate, and Shalal Shaye to the position of Chief of Security within the same governorate. This group of Al-Beed loyalists, centered mostly on the Radfan region of the Dahle Governorate, was paramount in efforts in resisting the entrenchment of President Hadi in Yemen. Their approach to undermining Hadi included refusal to carry out his directives, or to allow the deployment of the presidential guard in Aden, and even preventing Hadi’s presidential plane from landing at an airport in Aden.
A Southern Transition Council
The eagerness with which separatist southern forces attacked President Hadi served to intensify tensions between Hadi and the UAE. It also had a negative impact on the economic and political circumstances across Yemen, the problem of the Central Bank and intensified the rate of assassinations attacking both political activists and government officials, including Jaafad Mohammad Saad, former Governor of Aden. Aden itself was given over to outright warfare between the Presidential Guard and UAE-backed forces, including armed factions of the Southern Movement. Hadi’s response was to issue a directive on April 27 of this year to remove both Zubaidi and Minister without Portfolio Hani Ben Breik from their positions. Both of the men had close ties with the UAE. Ben Breik in particular is widely described as Abu Dhabi’s man in Aden.
Zubaidi then took the wind out of the sails of the National Dialogue Conference, and in fact undermined the very legitimacy of attempts to thwart the Houthi rebellion, by announcing the establishment of the “Southern Transitional Council”, made up of 26 individuals who purported to administer and represent the southern governorates of Yemen. President Hadi was quick to denounce this attempt to solidify secession as a transgression against the Yemenis’ national consensus comparable to the one carried out by the Houthis in 2014.
Voicing a tacit threat to the Emirates, Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed Abeid Ben Dagher demanded that the Arab coalition stop meddling in Aden, and instead focus on helping to solve its problems. Speaking on May 12, Ben Dagher described the crisis in Aden as “either the beginning of the end of resolving Yemen’s problems or the beginning of a new defeat for us which will only get bigger.” the new Governor of Aden, Abdulaziz Maflahi, was even more direct, stating on August 4 that the UAE needed to deal with Yemen’s internationally recognized government as “genuine partners”, and to abandon its ambitions of “dividing Yemenis into separate cantons”. The Central Bank of Yemen would later step into the conflict within Aden, pointing to a “cell linked with the [Saudi-led] coalition” and which controls the airport at Aden that prevented the Central Bank to carry out its work by blocking the circulation of new, Russia-printed currency. That decision impacted the ability of the Yemeni authorities to pay salaries to its bureaucrats.
The Emirati Role
An increasing proportion of the Yemeni people believe that machinations by the UAE are not aligned with the overall goals of the Arab coalition, namely the restoration of legitimate government and the crushing of the Houthi rebellion. In contrast, the growing consensus is that Abu Dhabi is seeking to advance its own interests in Yemen, and particularly in regards to maritime trade routes and the islands within Yemeni territorial waters. The Emirates’ objective would be solidifying its position as a regional power which would be indispensable to the United States. Today, Emirati forces already control the Yemeni coastline from Maklaa to Mocha, in addition to the islands of Socotra and Mayoun at the Bab Al Mendeb Straits.
Many observers believe that the roots of the Emiratis’ plans for Yemen like in 2012, when Yemen’s first post-revolutionary government cancelled a deal that leased Aden Port to Dubai Ports World, a UAE government-controlled ports operator. The cancellation of the lease agreement, a result of DPW failing to live up to its obligations, drove Abu Dhabi to demand President Hadi to remove then-Governor of Aden, Abdulaziz Maflahi who it regards as an opponent of its plans for South Yemen.
Overall, the mismanagement of Aden and the rest of South Yemen by the coalition-backed forces has had disastrous consequences. Aden is not today the forward base for the liberation of the rest of Yemen from the Houthis. Indeed, fighting in Aden has drained the forces loyal to the country’s elected government, the only body capable of legitimizing the actions of the Saudi-led coalition.
Perplexingly, and notably, violent confrontations in Aden escalate whenever the National Army moves towards Sanaa. This was most clearly seen in the battles to regain the strategically vital Hodeida Port in February. With backing from some of the coalition states, the Yemeni government moved to retake Hodeida, the last coastal stronghold of the Houthis, in what seemed to be a foregone conclusion. With government forces moving towards Houthi positions at the port, however, infighting in Aden spoiled the coalition’s efforts. More menacingly, tensions and political divisions in Aden threaten a wider armed confrontation across the governorate and other parts of South Yemen. All of this threatens to undo all of the political and military gains made during Operation Decisive Storm, leading to a prolonging of the conflict in Yemen and a sharpening of human suffering in the country at a time of unprecedented famine and disease.
In parallel, the inability of the government to offer restore services in the Aden Governorate has only diminished the credibility of efforts to return the elected leadership to power across Yemen. Thus far, the elected government has failed to set an example of a well governed area under its control which could project authority domestically and form diplomatic relations abroad.
As a result of infighting between the parties to the Saudi-led coalition to restore Yemen’s elected president, as well as rivalry between local actors, the liberation of Aden has not had the much hoped for positive military and political consequences. Instead of leading the way for the rest of Yemen, the collapse of South Yemen has been used to illustrate the failures of the Arab-led coalition to administer the liberated regions. Beyond that, growing assertiveness for separatism within Aden and South Yemen more broadly has served to fan the flames of sub-national regionalism in other parts of the country. These could even extend to within South Yemen itself, for example conflicts between Rafan and Abin. In sum, these tensions could tear Yemen’s social fabric apart.
 “Ben Dagher Warns of the Fall of the Yemeni Republic at the Hands of Secessionists,” Al Khaleej Online, May 12, 2017, available online (Arabic): http://goo.gl/5rGWyU
 “Al Maflahi Demands that the Emirates Deal with Yemen’s Legitimate Government as Genuine Partners and with True Transparency,” Akhbar Al Yemen, August 5, 2017, available online (Arabic): https://goo.gl/12SvKt
 “A Coalition-backed ‘Cell’ at Aden Airport Holds Back Cash Circulation,” Al Jazeera Net, August 21, 2017, available online (Arabic): https://goo.gl/gjvhzg