AQAP will increase attacks on Emirati-backed troops in the South to exploit rising tensions between President Hadi and separatists
Saudi-backed President Hadi dismissed the Governor of Aden and replaced five Cabinet Ministers, including the Minister of State, on 27 April. The move caused protests in the city the following day, as well as low-level violence in the militia-dominated al-Mansoura district. All six men have strong links to the UAE, and to southern separatists that Abu Dhabi has increasingly backed as part of wider efforts to strengthen its influence across southern Yemen (see today’s UAE Report). In particular, the ousted Governor is a prominent figure in the Southern Movement, an alliance that wants greater autonomy or secession for the South. Hadi replaced them with loyalists, including his former advisor as the new Governor, whose arrival in Aden on 4 May led several thousand people to protest in the city.
The dismissals came after months of heightened tensions and violence in Aden between pro-Hadi forces and rival UAE-backed militias, which have increasingly jostled for control of key infrastructure sites. For instance, the city’s airport has been a focal point for disputes since Hadi ordered its Security Director, Saleh al-Omari, to resign on 10 February over charges of insubordination. This prompted three days of clashes between Hadi’s security forces and militias loyal to al-Omari, who refused to step down. Then, on 27 April, the airport’s security officials refused to let a senior pro-Hadi military commander disembark his plane in Aden, instead forcing him to return to Riyadh.
Instability in Hadi’s temporary capital poses a significant challenge to the President’s authority, and his growing struggle to exert influence in the South likely prompted him to remove the high-profile figures associated with his political rivals. The decision was firmly supported by Riyadh, which continues to back Hadi and so is keen to limit threats to his credibility. The Kingdom will also likely welcome the curtailment of Emirati political influence, since the two countries are increasingly rivalling each other for influence in Yemen despite their broad cooperation in the conflict against the Houthis.
In an effort to improve coordination and limit tensions between Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Hadi’s administration, the Vice President chaired a trilateral committee, which met in Jeddah for the first time on 4 May. However, neither the talks nor the recent dismissals will solve the underlying problems. Secessionists will continue to agitate in the South, and Abu Dhabi will maintain its support for these groups as it seeks to avoid losing more political influence. Further protests and clashes are therefore likely in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will likely seek to exploit security lapses caused by the increased instability, and look to build support among local Sunni tribes that oppose the Southern Movement, which it will need to do if it is to regain lost territory as and when the conflict ends. It may therefore step up its operations against Emirati-led troops in Aden and other areas of the South to win support. Indeed, the group claimed a small IED attack on UAE-backed forces near the Lahij-Aden border, 15 km north-west of Aden city, on 1 May, demonstrating the heightened risk to Emirati-linked interests, as well as the wider threat of persistent instability in Hadi-controlled areas.