Located in Dammam in the UAE

In the Yemen war there are signs of a rift between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates

In the port city of Aden in Yemen, fighting broke out between separatists and supporters of the Hadi government for the second day in a row. This also divides Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, who are pursuing different interests in the civil war country.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are actually close partners in the Yemeni civil war. They are both members of the military coalition that was formed in 2015 to fight the Zaidi Houthi rebels. The Houthi still control large parts of the north of the country. And they are supported by Iran - the common opponent of the Saudi and Emirati.

But the longer the war lasts, the clearer the cracks in the anti-Houthi alliance become. Fighting broke out again in the port city of Aden between supporters of the Prosaudic government of President Abedrabbu Mansur Hadi and supporters of the so-called southern movement (al-Hirak al-Janubi). Since the Houthi came to power in the north, Aden has become the seat of the Hadi government and the provisional capital. But the Hirak separatists who set the tone in Aden are pursuing their own goals. They want independence for the southern part of the country. And they always saw the alliance with the government troops only as an alliance of convenience to drive the Houthi from the south.

A fragile alliance from the start

As eyewitnesses to the Reuters news agency reported, the two forces fought on Wednesday near the presidential palace and the Yemeni central bank. At least six people are said to have been killed. According to the Arab television station al-Jazeera, shots echoed through the port city all Thursday. Smoke and fire rose around Jebel Hadid, the hill in Aden on which the presidential palace is located.

The fact that the separatists are asking the question of power is certainly not a new development. At the latest since the dismissal of the former governor of Aden, a Hirak supporter, in April 2017 by President Hadi and the subsequent establishment of a “southern transitional council”, the Hadi government and the Hirak movement have been at odds with each other. This, in turn, creates considerable potential for conflict within the military coalition: while Saudi Arabia cannot negotiate the unity of its neighboring country, the Emirates can live well with a divided Yemen. The strategists of the small Gulf state discovered Hirak as a partner in order to establish themselves as a sea power in the region. Troops and mercenaries in the service of Abu Dhabi have since controlled almost all important ports except Hudeida in order to secure the sea routes through the Gulf of Aden and Bab al-Madab.

Precarious security situation in Aden

But parallel to the fighting that has now flared up again within Aden, the joint fight against the Houthi is by no means over. This was demonstrated in a devastating drone and missile attack on a military parade in Aden last week: at least forty dead and dozens of injuries were killed in the attack that the Houthi claimed to be involved in. According to the news agency AP News, the rebels boasted that they had collaborators in the port city. Dozens of suspects from North Yemen are said to have been deported from Aden by Emirati mercenaries, according to an Arab media report.

The Houthi did not confess to another attack that was carried out on the same day on a police station in Aden, in which at least 30 people were also killed. According to security circles, it should go to the account of IS, which is a further indication of the extremely precarious security situation in the port city. The extremists of IS, but above all of Qaeda, represent a power factor in the south.

Drone strikes on Saudi Arabia

A television station controlled by the Houthi also proudly announced last week that the militia had shot at a military target in Dammam in eastern Saudi Arabia. The recent increase in drone and rocket attacks by the Houthi on airports and strategic targets in the neighboring country are now just as much part of everyday war life as the Saudi retaliatory strikes on targets in North Yemen, which repeatedly kill civilians.

The spirit of optimism that was associated with the Yemen talks in distant Stockholm last year has been forgotten. Since then, a volatile ceasefire has been agreed for the important port city of Hudeida, from where humanitarian aid arrives in the country. The UN special envoy for the country, Martin Griffiths, is also fighting for a political solution between the Houthi rebels and their opponents. But it is not just the recent escalation of violence in Aden that shows that there is little room for optimism in one of the most opaque wars of our time.

Follow the NZZ Middle East editor Daniel Steinvorth on Twitter.