There’s Actually Hope for an End to the Yemen War

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The war in Yemen, and the humanitarian crisis it has inflamed, is usually thought of as Saudi-led and controlled. But the reality is more complicated, and involves a major role by the United Arab Emirates.

That’s why a meeting in Abu Dhabi this week between the leader of the U.A.E. and the heads of the main Sunni Islamist political party in Yemen is a dramatic development, and could be a crucial step toward ending the war. The conflict has killed at least 10,000 people, put millions under threat of starvation, worsened the global refugee crisis, and divided Arab governments from each other and from their allies in the West.

Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. intervened jointly in Yemen in 2015 in response to the takeover by Iran-backed Houthi rebels of the capital, Sanaa, along with large amounts of territory. Since then, though, the conflict has diverged into two separate but overlapping campaigns.

The Saudis and their Yemeni allies are concentrating their efforts in the north of the country and are mainly opposing the Houthis. That’s where the war has turned into a desperate quagmire.

But in the south, the U.A.E. and its more effective Yemeni allies have largely driven out Houthi forces and have been concentrating on a counterinsurgency against terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State, often in coordination with U.S. special forces.

A key ideological division has emerged between the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia in how to end the conflict. The U.A.E. is categorically opposed to all forms of political Islam. Saudi Arabia detests the terrorist groups and is wary of most Islamist parties, but is not as rigid as the Emirates.

In particular, Riyadh has been willing to work with the Yemeni party al-Islah, which is associated with the oldest and most established Islamist network in the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood, because they share an uncompromising antipathy towards the Houthis and their Iranian backers.

The Saudis think al-Islah’s cooperation can help stabilize the situation, especially in the northern parts of the country where the kingdom is most influential. And they’re optimistic about al-Islah’s claim to be part of a post-Islamist wave of religiously-oriented political groups that are getting rid of the revolutionary, conspiratorial and transnational aspects of Islamism and re-emerging as law-abiding conservative nationalists.

The U.A.E., by contrast, has continued to view al-Islah and all Brotherhood-oriented parties with suspicion, and dismisses any claims about a post-Islamist tendency as opportunistic hypocrisy.

But as pressure from the West increases on Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., the coalition’s leaders are clearly trying to think through an exit strategy.

Saudi Arabia has been pressing the U.A.E. to join Riyadh in putting aside doubts about al-Islah and working with the group to craft a domestic political alternative to Houthi domination.

So when al-Islah Chairman Mohammed Abdullah al-Yidoumi and Secretary-General Abdulwahab Ahmad al-Anisi suddenly appeared in Abu Dhabi this week to meet with the de facto ruler of the U.A.E., Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, something significant was going on.

After all, bin Zayed could have met al-Islah leaders quietly if he wanted to. Indeed, relatively senior Emirati officials have sat down with Yemeni Islamists in Saudi Arabia on more than one occasion over the past two years in response to prodding by Riyadh.

But on this occasion, the senior U.A.E. leader met publicly in his own capital with the heads of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood group and publicized it aggressively on all forms of media, including through his own Twitter account, complete with pictures and mainly in Arabic.

The message was not primarily aimed at Washington, but at regional neighbors and his own domestic audience. It was intended to show Saudi Arabia that the U.A.E. is serious about helping Riyadh work with al-Islah to stabilize those parts of Yemen in which its influence predominates, and possibly to signal a willingness to cooperate with the group in Emirati areas of influence as well.

There’s every reason to hope that this is a signal that both the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia are seeking a way to get out of Yemen, as Washington and most of the world are increasingly demanding.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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