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Saudi – UAE Split on Yemen Not What it Appears to Be

September 18, 2019

Antony Loewenstein parses the fog around UAE & Saudis in Yemen, how it is connected to the chaos in Libya, the drone attack, and wider chaos of the Middle East

Antony Loewenstein parses the fog around UAE & Saudis in Yemen, how it is connected to the chaos in Libya, the drone attack, and wider chaos of the Middle East


Saudi - UAE Split on Yemen Not What it Appears to Be

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us.

For the last four years, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition in a military campaign in Yemen. This has claimed almost 100,000 lives, mostly civilians. 18,000 bombs have been dropped, 14 million people close to starvation, and the United States Congress is at war with Trump over funding this war. Now it appears that Saudi Arabia’s main partner in this war, the United Arab Emirates, the UAE, is pursuing its own agenda. It seems to be backing a separatist group not allied with those supported by Saudi Arabia. Are the sides splitting, or is something more insidious and strategic at work here?

When the party Islah, which is supported by Saudi Arabia, captured the city of Aden in early August, the UAE decided to back the separatists of Southern Yemen, leading a counterattack. After the UAE bombed the city of Aden in late August, separatist troops took over that city. One of the soldiers, Mohammad Abd Rabu, spoke with Reuters and had this to say.

MOHAMMAD ABD RABU: Aden has been retaken completely from the invaders who entered and were kicked out. We are currently inside Aden and in complete control. Thank God we have kicked them out completely. We are currently inside the governmental building. God willing, we will push them until [foreign language 00:01:19]. We will have victory. God willing, we will have victory of these invaders with Ali Mohsin and the Houthis. God willing, we’ll remove every person in Aden who represent Al-Islah Party.

MARC STEINER: Well, in some ways, that could be almost any side speaking. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE blame Iran for supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen. But are they on the same side now? And why is the UAE now exerting influence in Libya? Instead, we are joined by independent journalist Antony Loewenstein, who wrote the book Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe, and wrote and co-produced the film Disaster Capitalism. Antony, welcome. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

MARC STEINER: So let’s try to make some sense of this kind of very confusing situation. I mean, you have the Emir Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan who runs UAE, and Mohammad bin Salman from Saudi Arabia, the crown prince there. They’re both young. They’re not exactly the same, but they seem to get along. But there seems to be a difference. What do you see this – is this really a split we’re watching here, or is this something more insidious taking place between them in Yemen, seemingly backing different sides? What do you think is really under this?

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Before I answer, let me say the United Nations just this week, in fact, said that Yemen faces an existential threat. They literally use those words, the UN envoy to Yemen, essentially saying that this four-year-plus crisis has left the country on the verge of literal collapse. It’s been said for a long time, but the humanitarian issue there has never been worse, and the number of people starving and dying is unprecedented. So that’s sort of a bit of context about what we’re dealing with.

In terms of what seems to be happening here between the Saudis and the UAE, my understanding is that this is not really a particularly major split between the two parties. I think what it is in many ways is a hope that when this war finally ends, which will happen at some point, that both sides will be able to decide which parts of the country they can majorly control, which territory, which people, which groups.

The war has been going on for so long now that there’s so many fractured organizations within the country itself. In some ways, it’s become a classic proxy war. Both sides, UAE and Saudi, have been deeply frustrated that for years they can’t win this war. I mean, militarily, in some ways they are far more powerful. They have much more military equipment. But the truth is, they haven’t been able to beat the Houthis, who have remained not just in control of many major cities, but in some ways, in fact, have expanded their influence in the country. So my sense of it is this is actually more about the frustration that both sides have at the current strategy that they’ve been using for years has not worked, and they’re sort of almost freelancing. But ultimately, my sense is they’re actually not mostly on different sides of this at all.

MARC STEINER: I mean, that’s interesting. I mean, when I think of this war in Yemen and you what you just said, the Houthi rebellion in Yemen reminds me a lot of Vietnam and the Vietnam War, that it was supposed to be so easy to kind of stop the National Liberation Front in North Vietnam. But it wasn’t that easy, and clearly that same thing is happening in Yemen.

But I wondered, from what you were just saying, that some people have written that this is a plan by the Saudis and UAE to create permanent chaos in Yemen. On the other hand, this could be a plan to control Yemen by splitting the country in two, with each one of the people and the groups that they back, whether it’s the STC or the actual government, which is supported by Saudi Arabia— not the actual government, the government they support in Yemen, controlling that, and actually that way they control the region and might be able to stop the Houthis. It seems—I mean, they’re making a huge deal about this split, but I’m not so sure there really is a split between UAE and the Saudis.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: I think in some ways, both could be true. I mean, the truth of the matter is internationally, there’s very little pressure on this war to stop. I mean, you might say that there’s UN pressure and there’s growing outrage in the US and the US Congress. But the truth is that Trump’s White House continues to support the Saudis, arming them, supporting them. And ultimately internationally speaking, the European Union has been very ineffective at best. The Arab countries have mostly stayed out— although except the ones, of course, that are directly involved in the conflict. So it’s possible that they’re trying to maintain massive pressure on the Houthis, while at the same time imagining, as I said before, what the country will look like when the war finally ends. Colleagues of mine who have been to Yemen in the last few months have been saying that the situation, particularly in the south and elsewhere, where they sort of almost split in the proxy war, has made the humanitarian situation worse.

But causing chaos can be a strategy in itself. I mean, Mohammad bin Salman and the leader of the UAE are both not known for their military strategies. I mean, let’s face it. The country is being destroyed by this war. It was already the poorest country in the Middle East, I might add, before the war began. This is Yemen. And it’s become even worse since. So my sense is really the fact that they’re trying to split the country in a way that when there is finally a resolution, either enforced by the UN or Arab countries or the US— hard to imagine that happening with the Trump administration, but there could be a change of US government in 2020, who knows?

MARC STEINER: Could be.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: So I think there really is a sense that they’re trying to maintain pressure on the Houthis. But again, as you rightly say, the Houthis are not actually losing the war. And I think it’s a bit of a myth that many in the media portray, which is somehow this is an Iranian proxy. The Houthis have had Iranian support. That’s not exactly a secret. But this idea somehow that the Supreme Leader directs the Houthis every day is an absurd comment. I think that also explains the recent attack on the Saudi oil facilities that allegedly are done by Iran. Maybe, but also maybe not. And I think we too often blame the Iranian regime for every apparent problem in the Middle East. Well, that’s at least often the message in the US media, rather than the reality on the ground.

MARC STEINER: I mean, that’s interesting. Not to divert our conversation, but just to pick up where you left off here for a moment. You know, when you look at what’s going on in Yemen and what’s happening in Libya, which we’re going to get to in a moment, and how that plays into this, when you think of the attack that just took place in Saudi Arabia, the Houthis are saying they did it. And clearly Trump, in many ways, is reluctant to go to war, but who knows how this could fall out. I mean, these things are not disconnected. I mean, the war in Yemen, what’s happening with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, whatever they’re plotting, the tension with Iran, the bombing of the oil refinery by the drone… These are really connected. These are not disconnected parts.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN:            Definitely. And one of the things that’s been the major shift in the Middle East in the last 10 years is that the alliances have radically changed. Whereas years ago, for example, a lot of Arab countries at least gave lip service to wanting to address the Palestinian crisis with the Israelis, for example. Well, the truth is today, tragically for the Palestinians, that the majority of Arab states see their alliance as far more with Israel and Saudi against Iran.

Iran is framed very much as the enemy of peace in the Middle East, which is an absurd idea when you see the kind of damage that a country like Saudi Arabia does, not just to its own people, but also to countries in the Middle East. So I think you very much are seeing a growing Arab and Western pressure on Iran, which is an attempt to try to crush it militarily, but also economically, and Iran is undeniably suffering economically. I’ve got friends in Iran who say that the situation on the ground there for the middle class, let alone others, is really difficult. So US sanctions are having a major negative effect.

But I do agree with you that these issues are connected, because ultimately, I’m not saying everyone is coordinating every single plan about what’s going to happen in Yemen or elsewhere, but there’s no doubt that this is a growing concerted effort to pressure Iran, not just to change its behavior in the region as a country, but also to curtail its proxies. And the Houthis, of course, are at least wanting to have some influence in that region, particularly in Yemen.

MARC STEINER: So meanwhile, we have Libya and the civil war there. It’s shaping up in some ways be a real proxy war. I mean, Turkey’s supporting the government in Tripoli, which is recognized by the UN for whatever that means. And now we have the UAE getting involved, a nation that has no real army of its own, and Egypt, and they’re both supporting Haftar, who’s kind of trying to take over Tripoli and is another warlord-type. So I mean, these developments here, I mean, are really important to this, so in some ways it’s almost as if the Saudis are saying, “Look, we’ll deal here with Yemen and you’re dealing with Libya,” and creating this kind of chaos. How do you analyze that one? I mean, what is the dynamic there, do you think?

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN:Well, Libya, of course as viewers will be aware, since 2011 has been in a state of chaos. I mean, the country, since the overthrow of Gaddafi led by Obama, but also backed by his European allies, the country in some ways now has been split between a UN-recognized government and other proxy forces around the country. The really disturbing element here is particularly the involvement now of Turkey, who are using a lot of drones. They are funding their proxies in the country as well. They are attempting to almost, I think, keep alive a Muslim Brotherhood-aligned forces in Libya, which is only making the situation worse. I mean, Erdogan, the leader of Turkey, I think very much sees his power in the region declining, which is ironic in a way because domestically he’s relatively strong. Although he lost a recent election in Istanbul, but he’s relatively strong. But in the region, in fact, his influence is declining from Syria and elsewhere.

So the idea of injecting far more military assets and violence to a country like Libya, which apart from the fact that it’s been at war since 2011 is also, as many viewers will be aware, the cause of one of the major refugee crises. So Libya is being funded by the European Union to essentially house and manage thousands and thousands of refugees, many of whom are treated to literally slave-like conditions. So that’s the context for this.

I think the idea somehow that other states are allowed to sort of play with fire in a country that is already suffering so much is really outrageous. But again, like with Yemen, where is the international pressure to end this? I mean, ultimately the international pressure, at the moment principally from the European Union, is to pay the Libyan regime to maintain refugees in their country, not send them into Europe. I mean, that’s what the international pressure looks like, which shows, like so many other issues, that there’s kind of been a complete breakdown in international order— I’m not just saying because of Trump because this was happening before Trump came into power— to address these kind of issues because the UN often is ineffective in doing it.

MARC STEINER: No, it is before Trump. I mean, we almost have to close here in a minute. But I mean, whether it’s Libya or Iraq, I mean, the United States that I’m a citizen of is a nation that destroyed these two countries and set up this chaos that other people in the Middle East are now trying to fill the vacuum in, which is creating further chaos. And all these weapons are now flowing in for the United States to the Saudi coalition, which means to the UAE and all their kind of surrogate Sudanese troops that are going to come in and do the fighting for them since they have no army. I mean, and this could lead to further chaos, and who knows where these weapons will end up.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Well, usually we—Absolutely. I mean, often, what you saw, for example, in Syria and Iraq often the weapons that were provided by the US have now ended up in the hands of insurgents. I mean, that’s always what happens. It happens in Afghanistan, for example, in the last 15 years. In fact, it’s happened for the last 30 years since Carter got involved after the Iranian Revolution in ’79. But particularly in the post-9/11 environment, weapons that are a key factor in this region, the Middle East.

I’ve never argued that these wars happen solely because US defense contractors want more money. That’s not true. But having said that, they are a major factor. And since, for example, Trump became president, the sheer price of many of these companies, and indeed for that matter, private prison companies in the US have soared because these wars are self-perpetuating. Unfortunately, although I do agree with you, Trump himself is a contradiction. On the one hand, he’s not a John Bolton, although he did obviously hire John Bolton until he fired him recently, I don’t think he necessarily wants a lot of new wars. But I think Trump in some ways has inflamed many of the conflicts, not least in Yemen and Libya and elsewhere. It’s not like Trump is a peacenik. Let’s face it, he’s not.

MARC STEINER: Hardly, yes.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: He’s actually inflamed the situation in many places. Whether a change of president in 2020-2021 in the US would alter this, possibly some democratic candidates might. Joe Biden, maybe not.

MARC STEINER: Well, Antony Loewenstein, this has been a fascinating conversation. I appreciate the nuance of your analysis, and we look forward to many more conversations. Thank you so much.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

MARC STEINER: Good to have you with us. And I’m Marc Steiner here with The Real News Network. Good to have you with us. Let us know what you think about these conversations. Take care.