icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Youtube
Horn of Africa States Follow Gulf into the Yemen War
Horn of Africa States Follow Gulf into the Yemen War
Op-Ed / Africa

Horn of Africa States Follow Gulf into the Yemen War

Originally published in The Africa Report

In the Horn, where cash-strapped regimes often teeter on the brink of financial survival and alliances are made and broken with bewildering regularity, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has found willing partners as Saudi-Iranian tensions escalate.

In the commercial melting pot of Dubai, where British bankers rub shoulders with Afghan carpet sellers, you would be hard-pressed to imagine that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is fighting a major war in Yemen that has sucked in several other Gulf states and four Horn of Africa countries.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two key external belligerents, have small populations and large bank accounts filled with revenue from vast oil and gas reserves. The former has made the largest financial contribution with the latter supplying most of the troops.

When they decided to intervene militarily in Yemen, in March 2015, to halt a Houthi (a Zaydi, Shiite group) rebel takeover attempt, it became apparent that they would need additional boots on the ground. Conveniently situated ports and air bases were also needed. They found willing partners in Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan and Somalia across the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

Most of Yemen, especially its second city, the port of Aden, is closer to Asmara, Djibouti, Khartoum, Mogadishu and Hargeisa than Riyadh, Doha or Dubai. At the Bab al-Mandab – the straits where the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden meet – the country is just 30km from the Eritrean and Djiboutian coastline. Geographically, Horn of Africa involvement in the war makes sense.

The other half of this equation involves the political dynamics of the Gulf states, which collectively form the GCC. The GCC is also attempting to assert itself as a grouping capable of countering a perceived Iranian encroachment. In this context, and whether justified or not, the Houthi rebellion was seen as an Iranian-backed proxy.

Follow the money

Gaining supporters for the Yemen intervention wasn't simply about military power, but was also an assertion of diplomatic strength – particularly with Sunni Arab partners such as Sudan. Regional dynamics are thus likely to provide opportunities for willing partners in the Horn. Sudan, to take one example, has a complex relationship with the Gulf, historically based on two factors.

First, the weak economy has pushed many professional Sudanese to seek employment outside the country. Saudi Arabia hosts up to 900,000 Sudanese migrant workers, the UAE 75,000 and Qatar 30,000. Since the 1989 Islamist coup in Sudan, the diaspora has become a key source of remittances, propping up the very system they were forced to leave due to a stagnant employment market and repressive political culture.

Second, due to the parlous state of the economy, Sudan is perennially searching for new financial backers. In the late 1990s and 2000s, it experienced an oil boom, relying on Chinese, Indian and Malaysian companies to fill the investment gap left by Chevron (a US oil major), which exited in 1990. The 2011 secession of South Sudan brought a sharp dip in oil revenues and exposed the limited Asian appetite in the non-oil economy.

The ideological legacy of the 1989 coup – including the new regime's refusal to show solidarity with the Gulf states by denouncing Iraq's Kuwait invasion in 1990 – brought isolation, and a close relationship with Iran. It was also a source of arms vital for fighting the war in southern Sudan.

Saudi Arabia found Sudan's Iranian links and Islamist sympathies deeply concerning and, as recently as 2014, imposed financial restrictions on its banking sector, and threatened to deport thousands of migrant workers.

A windfall for the Horn of Africa

But in late 2014 Sudan made a much-publicised shift away from Tehran, closing Iranian cultural centres in Khartoum, which it accused of spreading Shiism. When the war in Yemen started, the Saudis made an offer far in excess of what Iran was prepared to commit, with unconfirmed reports stating that Sudan received $2.2 billion in return for diplomatic and military support. Initially Khartoum made only a notional military contribution, but as Saudi and Emirati losses mounted, they asked more of the Sudanese, who in October 2015 deployed what reports estimate to be between 350 and 700 ground troops.

Eritrean, Djiboutian and Somali involvement in Yemen is more opaque. In Eritrea's case, the port of Assab is being used as an air-sea logistical hub for Saudi-Emirati operations. However, unlike Khartoum, Asmara has been silent as to whether it has deployed troops. The UN Somalia Eritrea Monitoring Group wrote in September 2015 that Eritrean troop deployments would constitute "a clear violation" of UN resolution 1907 – which imposed an arms embargo on Eritrea in 2009.

The development of Eritrean relations with Saudi Arabia also appears to have worried Ethiopia, which wants to keep its erstwhile rival diplomatically isolated.

The role of Somalia and Somaliland is even murkier. Somalia made public that it has granted permission for GCC countries to use of its airspace, but it has not confirmed reports that Somali National Army soldiers are, like the Sudanese, deployed in Yemen as mercenaries. And while Somaliland has agreed to rent out port facilities at Berbera it is unknown whether this offer has been taken up. Meanwhile, Djibouti – an established Saudi ally and host of US, French and Japanese military bases – also appears to have permitted the use of its airport infrastructure for some coalition bombing missions, despite some recent tensions in relations.

The internationalisation of the Yemen war is proving a major windfall for the Horn of Africa, providing a source of ready cash and diplomatic support for governments in the region. Their involvement illustrates how regional conflagrations can drag in multiple actors with their own varied motivations. In the meantime, the Saudi-led alliance-building with countries in the Horn is likely to increase.

Yemen’s Multiplying Conflicts

A Huthi suspension of hostilities in Yemen and an apparently positive Saudi Arabian response offer a chance to avoid regional conflagration. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 - Third Update for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to encourage inclusive dialogue between the warring factions, which can lead to intra-Yemeni negotiations.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2019 - Third Update.

As 2020 approaches, Yemen confronts two acute security challenges: avoiding further entanglement in the wider regional conflict between the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Iran, and preventing a war within a war among anti-Huthi forces. On 14 September, the Huthis claimed responsibility for an attack on Saudi oil facilities that temporarily cut off nearly 50 per cent of the country’s oil production capacity. Riyadh, Washington and several European governments accused Iran of the attack, and the Huthis’ claim has tied the group more closely to Tehran in the eyes of its opponents.

While the conflict could turn into a true proxy war or trigger a wider regional confrontation, there is still a chance to avoid such outcomes. Signs are tentative but promising. A week after the Aramco attacks, the Huthis unilaterally suspended cross-border attacks into the Kingdom and called for the Saudis to freeze airstrikes in exchange. Riyadh has reportedly responded positively, limiting but not entirely halting its aerial campaign in Yemen. The fragile arrangement needs to be preserved and built upon.

As Yemen’s war intersects with and fuels regional tensions, it is also becoming more internally complex and harder to resolve.

As Yemen’s war intersects with and fuels regional tensions, it is also becoming more internally complex and harder to resolve. An August 2019 takeover of the internationally-recognised government’s temporary capital of Aden by separatist forces aligned with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – Saudi Arabia’s main coalition partner – could set off a larger battle between UAE- and Saudi-aligned components of Yemen’s anti-Huthi bloc for control of the country’s southern governorates.  Here too, there has been progress toward an understanding, but it is far from done.

International actors, including the EU, need to move quickly to turn the fragile de-escalation between Saudi Arabia and the Huthis into an agreement that ultimately yields a ceasefire and restarts UN-led negotiations among Yemeni political groups to end the war. Continued diplomatic support is also needed to reconcile opposing forces within the anti-Huthi camp. A deal between the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and separatist southern forces, in particular, would offer an opportunity to update the UN peace process for Yemen and make negotiations more inclusive.

Recommendations for the EU and its member states include:

  • Support EU-wide and French initiatives to de-escalate tensions between Iran and the U.S., and between Saudi Arabia and Iran; push local and regional parties to the Yemen war toward a political settlement.
     
  • Coordinate diplomatic pressure on Saudi Arabia and the Huthis to reach a de-escalation agreement that includes a halt to cross-border attacks, which in turn could enable a return to UN-led intra-Yemeni talks.
     
  • Advocate for broadening the UN-led peace process to include Yemeni actors beyond the Huthis and Hadi government, both in official negotiations and in informal Track II meetings.
     
  • Work with the office of the UN special envoy to coordinate all EU-sponsored Track II initiatives, especially those related to the south and women’s participation in the peace process, so that these talks better inform UN-led negotiations. To do this, the EU could fund a coordinator role within the envoy’s office.
     
  • Swiftly deliver technical assistance and staffing support to the UN Mission to Support the Hodeida Agreement (UMMHA) to which the EU and its member states have already committed, and increase support to the mission.

Preventing further escalation in the region

Huthi claims of responsibility for the 14 September Aramco attack threatened to drag Yemen deeper into the regional power struggle between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other. Although the Trump administration decided against a military response and there have been signs of potential Iranian-Saudi engagement, the situation remains fragile. Another major attack of this kind, attributed to Tehran or its allies, could raise again the threat of retaliatory measures, with consequences throughout the region, including in Yemen.

In the eyes of Iran’s regional and international rivals, by claiming the Aramco attack the Huthis signalled their complicity with Tehran in its regional power struggle against Saudi Arabia and broader struggle with the U.S. Some Huthi officials seem to see a major regional war involving the U.S. and Iran as inevitable, and argue it would benefit them, as it would divert Riyadh’s attention from its southern neighbour. Others want to avoid such an outcome and have offered de-escalatory measures.  

On 20 September, the Huthis announced a unilateral suspension of cross-border attacks against Saudi territory. The move offered an opportunity for direct Saudi-Huthi talks and mutual de-escalation. Although Saudi officials remain sceptical of the Huthis’ intentions, wary that they might use a pause to replenish and reposition their forces, they have signalled both publicly and privately an interest in testing the proposition. The Saudis reportedly reduced airstrikes in response. Huthi hardliners mirror Saudi scepticism and question the logic of the move. Any resumption of Huthi strikes on Saudi territory – notably a successful attack on critical infrastructure or one that results in civilian casualties — could spark a broader conflagration, especially if any of the victims were American. Such a resumption would be hard to avoid if the two sides fail to reach agreement not only on cross-border strikes but also on easing Saudi-led coalition restrictions on access to Huthi-controlled territories, particularly limitations on fuel imports.

Yemen’s multiplying internal conflicts

Yemen now hosts multiple overlapping internal conflicts driven by three central belligerents: the Huthis in the north west, the UAE-backed separatist Southern Transition Council (STC) in the south and Saudi-backed Yemeni government forces, whose main hub is Marib in the north east. Both the STC and government-aligned forces are battling the Huthis, but the two nominal allies are also fighting each other, reflecting deepening divisions between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. On 10 August, UAE-trained and -equipped forces affiliated with the STC seized control of Aden, the Hadi government’s interim capital, in what the government described as a UAE-backed coup. After Saudi-aligned government forces mounted a counter-attack, UAE airstrikes stopped them in their tracks. In an escalating war of words, the UAE claimed it had targeted “terrorists”, while the government asked the UN to intervene against what it described as a direct assault on its sovereignty by a foreign power. 

The power struggle between the STC and the government could ignite another war within Yemen’s civil war, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia on opposing sides.

Left unresolved, the power struggle between the STC and the government could ignite another war within Yemen’s civil war, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia on opposing sides. In September, the Saudis stepped in to mediate between the Yemeni sides, gathering the parties in Jeddah. But tensions remain high, and both STC- and government-backed forces are reportedly preparing for another round of fighting over oil-rich Shabwa governorate. Tensions are also high in neighbouring Hadramout between the government and the UAE-backed governor, Faraj al-Bahsani, who remained neutral during the August battle for Aden.

There are some grounds for optimism. At proximity talks in Jeddah, Riyadh proposed forming a technocratic government with a prime minister acceptable to both sides. Also under discussion is an STC quota in the government’s negotiating team that would participate in future UN-mediated talks with the Huthis. If agreed, this would be an important step toward greater inclusiveness in the peace process, potentially paving the way toward a more credible and durable political settlement. Any deal to end the war will require buy-in not just from the Hadi government and the Huthis, but also from the STC and other Yemeni groups, such as Islah (the country’s main Sunni Islamist party), the former ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) party and non-STC affiliated southern groups.

A Role for the EU and its member states

Ending the Yemen war is increasingly urgent given both its dramatic humanitarian costs and regional tensions. EU member states are already involved in direct mediation efforts with Iran, including through EU and E4 (France, Germany, Italy and the UK) consultations and individual initiatives, such as France’s direct diplomacy with Tehran and Washington. The EU and member states should build on these efforts to strengthen the UN-led political process to end the Yemen war. In that context, the EU and its member states should advocate for a clear de-escalation plan between the Huthis and Saudi Arabia, which in turn would facilitate starting intra-Yemeni negotiations.

The EU and member states are well-placed to advocate a more inclusive [...] political dialogue.

The EU and member states are well-placed to advocate a more inclusive (and therefore more credible) political dialogue. EU institutions and member states have sponsored Track II dialogues among Yemeni groups on a range of local and national issues since the beginning of the war. A core criticism of these initiatives is that they are not sufficiently linked to formal UN efforts. In cooperation with the UN special envoy’s office, the EU and member states could help ensure findings from Track II meetings on the south and women’s participation in the political process, as well as on tribal and local perspectives, feed into UN-led negotiations, and that Track II exercises are informed by the UN envoy’s approach.

The EU and member states, which have direct channels with Riyadh, are in a strong position to press the Hadi government and Saudi-led coalition to broaden participation in the official peace talks by diversifying the government negotiating team to make it more representative of the anti-Huthi bloc. The EU and member states should also use their channels with the Huthis to press for greater inclusivity on their part, including by women. The European External Action Service should also continue to meet with and channel perspectives from groups not involved in the UN-led process to the UN envoy, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The 2018 Stockholm Agreement, and particularly the agreement to demilitarise the port city of Hodeida, can be either a stepping-stone toward a more comprehensive peace process or, should it remain stalled, a stumbling block. EU member states have offered technical and staffing assistance to the UN Mission to Support the Hodeida Agreement (UNMHA), the UN body set up to oversee the agreement through technical assistance and personnel secondment. But they have delivered little to date. UNMHA remains severely understaffed, in part because of delays in personnel transfers.  EU member states should promptly fulfil their commitments in this regard.