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Horn of Africa States Follow Gulf into the Yemen War
Horn of Africa States Follow Gulf into the Yemen War
The Beginning of the End of Yemen’s Civil War?
The Beginning of the End of Yemen’s Civil 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.

Mohamed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman witness the signing of the Riyadh Agreement between the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council, at the Saudi Royal Diwan. SPA/Riyadh and Mohamed Bin Zayed Twitter account

The Beginning of the End of Yemen’s Civil War?

For the first time in years, a viable pathway to peace in Yemen is in view. But obstacles remain, chiefly the gaps between the conflict parties’ positions. 

The Riyadh Agreement, signed on 5 November, has averted a war within Yemen’s civil war, at least for the time being. The deal prevents a collapse of the fragile alliance of Yemeni forces that Saudi Arabia has supported since intervening in Yemen in March 2015 to prevent Huthi rebels from taking over the country. The question now is whether the agreement can act as a bridge to a nationwide political settlement or if it simply marks a pause before another round of violence. 

By signing, the two parties to the agreement – the internationally recognised government of Yemen, led by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) – have ended a three-month standoff that threatened to split the anti-Huthi bloc. In August, simmering tensions between STC-aligned forces and the Hadi government boiled over following the killing of a senior STC military commander. The Huthis claimed the attack, but the STC suspected a government hand in the event and soon took Aden by force. The STC then attempted to consolidate control over all the territory of the former south Yemen, an independent state prior to 1990, with the goal of declaring self-rule. The government charged the UAE, the STC’s main backer and at the time the leading player in the Saudi-led coalition in the south, with supporting a coup, and launched a counteroffensive. With the Saudis’ Yemen campaign in peril, the kingdom’s deputy defence minister, Prince Khaled bin Salman, intervened, calling the STC and Hadi government first to Jeddah and later to Riyadh in the hope of reaching a compromise. 

The agreement calls for formation of a new, Aden-based, 24-member government comprising equal numbers of northern and southern ministers and for integration of STC-affiliated forces into national military and security structures as part of an initiative that will see fighters and heavy weapons removed from towns and cities across the south. In addition, it stipulates that the STC be included in government delegations to future UN-led talks with the Huthis over a political settlement to end the war. 

Diplomats and UN officials say they are hopeful that the agreement will clear a path to a national-level political settlement. For the time being, the deal halts government-STC fighting that would have strengthened the Huthis and delayed the prospect of national peace talks. It also makes prospective talks more inclusive, helping address a shortcoming of previous UN-led talks, which were built around an April 2015 Security Council resolution that frames the conflict as a two-sided war between the Huthis and the government and effectively demands that the Huthis surrender. The Hadi government may have international legitimacy, but it does not represent the full assortment of political and military forces that make up the anti-Huthi bloc, particularly the separatists, whose agenda the Hadi government rejects but who have a strong presence on the ground. 

The Riyadh Agreement places Saudi Arabia at the epicentre of Yemeni deal making. Khaled bin Salman will oversee its implementation and thus help shape the new government and security structures. The Saudis have also assumed coalition command in the south from the Emiratis, who have been withdrawing their forces from Yemen. Beyond the STC-Hadi talks, Saudi officials have reportedly been convening senior politicians from Yemen’s major parties in the hope of uniting anti-Huthi groups under one political umbrella. 

Meanwhile, in the north, discussions between the Huthis and Saudis over a de-escalation of cross-border attacks and front-line fighting have been inching along since September. If these talks succeed, a reduction in the conflict’s intensity could be a starting point for a nationwide ceasefire and facilitate the opening of political talks between the rebels and a more broadly representative government delegation. The Saudis thus have a chance to bring the various channels of negotiation together into a national political process under UN auspices.

If these talks succeed, a reduction in the conflict’s intensity could be a starting point for a nationwide ceasefire and facilitate the opening of political talks between the rebels and a more broadly representative government delegation.

The Riyadh Agreement, however, bears hallmarks of past intra-Yemeni deals that have failed. It is loosely worded, likely because vagueness was required to induce the rivals to sign it, and it leaves a number of questions around implementation unanswered. For example, the deal calls for both formation of a new government and a series of security sector reforms in Aden within 30 days of signing. The reforms include the formation of new mixed security forces, the removal of military units from the city and the transfer of heavy weapons to sites that the Saudis will oversee. But the deal does not specify in which order the parties are to take these steps. The Hadi government would prefer that the security track proceed first, as a prerequisite for movement on the political side; the STC would prefer it the other way around. Other outstanding issues include who will get the posts of defence and interior minister in the new-look government, with both being potential deal-breakers for the STC. 

Most importantly, neither side seems to have fully bought into the compromise to which they agreed on paper. A signing ceremony for the deal had been scheduled for 31 October, but it was postponed after fighting between STC and government forces in Abyan governorate, to the east of Aden. In common with past deals, delays and mutual recriminations can be expected once implementation begins. A return to fighting in the south is certainly in the realm of the possible. 

A return to fighting in the south is certainly in the realm of the possible.

A pivot to national political talks is by no means guaranteed, either. The Huthis say that talks with Riyadh are going well but that the Saudis are moving too slowly doing their part in de-escalation. They also report Saudi troop buildups along key front lines and worry that the Riyadh Agreement may presage a concerted military push against them. From their side, Hadi government officials say they are unsure what Riyadh plans after the deal, but concede that a reinvigorated campaign against the Huthis is an attractive option. In fact, part of the STC’s sales pitch for Saudi patronage – which its leaders believe they have now secured – was willingness to play a stepped-up role in or even lead the fight against the Huthis. 

In any case, lasting peace will not come easily to Yemen. The main parties to the conflict have barely changed their positions since the beginning of the war: the Hadi government wants the Huthis to hand back Sanaa and other areas they control. The Huthis demand a power-sharing arrangement that gives them significant weight in a unity government. The STC and its allies want to break away from Yemen altogether. The Saudis want the Huthis to sever ties to Iran, give up heavy weapons to the state security forces and guarantee border security. The gaps between these positions are not minor. Nonetheless, for the first time in years, a viable, albeit bumpy, pathway to peace is in view.