DUBAI: The Saudi-led coalition has struggled to subdue its enemies in Yemen. As pressure mounts to stop that costly war, its choice of battlefield allies could end up wrecking peace efforts.
In their drive to oust Houthi rebels said to have ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have roped in a wide range of local groups – including radical Islamists with links to Al-Qaeda.
To anyone familiar with the region’s recent history, from the 1980s U.S. war in Afghanistan to conflicts in Syria and Libya, that flashes a warning signal: jihadists can help defeat a shared enemy, but their guns often end up turned against their erstwhile sponsors.
Saudi Arabia got U.S. backing for its war with the Houthis, but it’s now being pushed toward peace talks after the murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Even if there’s progress on that front, the tangled web of extremist groups could mean it’s a long time before hostilities end.
The city of Taiz illustrates the complexities. The Saudi bloc in 2016 broke through a Houthi siege of Yemen’s third-largest city with the help of local Salafists, members of a revivalist Islamic school that underpins the religious thinking of groups like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State. With other coalition-backed forces and equipment, they carved out a corridor from the city’s southwest. Stability didn’t follow.
Instead, parts of Taiz fell under the control of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) until earlier this year and remain a battleground for rival militias, according to local residents.
The rise of extremist Salafists, and the general proliferation of armed groups, is “creating a situation where there’s a huge risk of a conflagration,” said Adam Baron, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. “Even if the Houthis disappear from the picture, it’s pretty hard to put that cat back in the bag.”
No quick wins
When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman waded into Yemen’s civil war in March 2015, his advisers expected a quick win – declaring a few weeks into the campaign that the Houthi threat had been neutralized. Almost four years later, the death toll is believed to be in the tens of thousands, while millions face hunger and disease.
On the front line, the western port of Hodeidah where about 70% of food and aid enters Yemen, both sides halted attacks in the past week and signalled their readiness to attend peace talks in Sweden this month.
Behind the Saudi lines, however, the war has at times enabled AQAP to strengthen its grip on remote eastern provinces, while militants have only been driven out of cities like Mukalla with UAE help. Islamist groups also played a key role in capturing other southern provinces and Aden, where the government, headed by Saudi ally President Abd Rabhuh Hadi Mansur, now faces pressure from secessionists close to the UAE.
That mess is undermining Hadi’s ability to assert his authority, even in areas far from Houthi heartlands.
Fighters like the Salafist Adel Abdu Fari, known as Abu Al-Abbass, personify that conundrum. Abu Al-Abbass started his militia with support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. His gunmen, some dressed Afghan-style, used vehicles draped with Yemeni and Emirati flags to help push the Houthis back in areas of Taiz. He was designated by the US – and eventually the Saudis and Emiratis – as a terrorist.
Abu Al-Abbass has been fighting for years. He fought on the government side in a sporadic conflict with the Houthis that lasted from 2004 till 2010, while studying at a Salafist school in the northern village of Damaj.
Three years later, Abu Al-Abbass, once known for his athleticism and love of Argentina’s national soccer team, was driven out along with hundreds of other Salafists when the Houthis attacked the village. Sports faded from his life as religion came to dominate.
Another graduate of the same Salafist school, Hani Bin Buraik, helped capture Aden and has appeared in pictures with the UAE’s de facto ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Bin Buraik was a state minister in Aden, before he threw in his lot with southern secessionists.
Former students from Damaj comprise some of the senior ranks of the Al-Amaliqa Brigades, which also include Al-Qaeda members, according to fighters in the group. The brigades have been at the forefront of the fight for Hodeidah. They’re commanded by Abdulrehman al-Mahrami, a 35-year-old who argues that filming is against Islamic law.
Al-Qaeda set up a base in Yemen, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, a decade ago, attracting militants from around the world. Before the war, AQAP had been weakened by U.S. drone attacks and deals with the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“The UAE and Saudi Arabia are playing a seriously risky and adventurous game by arming them, ’’ said Farea Al-Muslimi, associate fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House. “The militarization of the Salafists is a double threat. They are the new Afghan Arabs.”