The Regional Ramifications After the Developments in Shabwa


Sun, 06-02-2022 05:51 PM, Aden

Ameen Shandhor (Analysis file 5-6)

Due to the pivotal location of Shabwa on the map of the local and regional conflicts since 2015, it was natural that the drastic changes   in its local authority would lead to broad and rapid variables in the power balance on the ground. This is also related to big and quick consequences culminating in the Houthis' repeated attempts to target the United Arab Emirates.Since 2011 specifically, Yemen has become one of the most prominent arenas as the hub of more than one level of regional conflicts. From a regional perspective, the conflict in/over Yemen is emanated from two bets or dimensions: the first is finding a strong ally on the ground for using or not to use the country as a platform for targeting and exporting chaos. The second one is how to benefit from the Yemeni file at the negotiation tables as part of the difficult negotiations about other regional files, top of which is the Iranian nuclear file.

The developments in Shabwa and their regional consequences

This analysis tries to review the most prominent ramifications and possible consequences in light of the latest developments in Shabwa which would apparently move the path of the conflict in Yemen to new and different stages.

One day after the Southern Giants Brigades announced competing liberating Shabwa districts from the Houthi grip, the Arab Coalition’s spokesman, Brigadier General Turki Al-Maliki declared, from the Shabwa’s capital, the Coalition’s strategy for the next period during a joint press conference with the new Governor, Awad Al Wazir Al Awlaki. 

Those transformations in Shabwa looked as a new starting point for the Coalition’s operations in Yemen. Al-Maliki dubbed this strategy as “Freedom for Happy Yemen” which kicked off from Shabwa by moving all fronts and axes to “purge Yemen’s soil” until attaining its development and prosperity. By using such lofty language and big promises, it seems that the Saudi-led Coalition is determined to continue the battles against the Houthis. The Coalition accused the Houthis of rejecting the road of peace and building, and accused Iran of smuggling weapons to the Houthis through Al Hodeidah Airport.

This strategy seems closer to the Saudi firm opinion towards the Yemeni crisis. This is the strategy with which the Coalition engaged in Yemen under the so-called “Decisive Storm” and “Restoring Hope” operation to bring back the “legitimate elite” which is a mix of traditional forces affiliated with the KSA, to Sanaa, to avoid an Iranian foothold as Saudi Arabia hopes.

However, the Emirati strategy seems somewhat different. It shared with the KSA the goal of liberating Shabwa by moving the Giants Brigades which enjoy its support and supervision. This came in the wake of deposing the Islah-affiliated Shabwa Governor, Mohammed Saleh Bin Adyo who transformed Shabwa to a platform for attacking the UAE and its allies.

Thus, the UAE managed to restore its relationship with the KSA after a period of coolness and backstage disagreements about the way of managing the Yemeni file.[1] The UAE also secured restoring the influence of its allies over the governorate. However, the UAE didn't show enthusiasm towards opening all fronts and going to the depth of the Northern areas. It seems that it revised its intervening strategy in Yemen in light of 7 years of bitter harvest[2] although its elites share the common belief that “Defeating the Houthis is a victory against Iran” As expressed by sources close to the ruling authorities.

On the other hand, Iran bet on the Houthis’s achievment of big victories in Yemen to enhance its obstinate stance in the Vienna negotiations about its nuclear file, especially after the ascendance of the hardliner “Ibrahim Raisi'' to the top of the Iranian regime and his endeavors to strengthen the strategy of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. This has been in conjunction with the Houthis’ intransigence towards all peace negotiations and their insistence to bring down Marib in spite of all international appeals that call them to stop their attacks against the city. [3]

The death of Hassan Erlo, Iran's Ambassador to the Houthis and the former member of Iran's Revolutionary Guards in late December 2021[4] and the subsequent Houthi loss of large parts of Shabwa constituted a strategic blow against the ambitions of both Iran and the Houthis that seek to bring down Marib and control rich-resources areas, and then move to the other Southern governorates. The quick decisive operation has contributed to shaking the image of the Houthis psychologically and morally after two years of quick victories they had achieved.

After it announced withdrawal from Yemen in 2019, the UAE attempted to reduce the ramifications and risks of the open regional conflicts, so it worked to find a platform to manage the balances among the influential and competing regional countries by focusing on cooperation in the economic fields. It sought to benefit from the economic exhaustion which hit all states due to the Covid-19 crisis.

This was an Emirati proactive move before US president, Joe Biden, officially took office as he announced an agenda which totally contradicts the policies of the Arab Coalition. However, the latest agreements between the UAE and the KSA after the latter’s troubled position in Marib and Shabwa during the last months, and which led to moving the Southern Giants Brigades, supervised by the UAE, to reverse the consecutive defeats angered the Houthis and the Iranians.

Their reply began by kidnapping the Emirati Ship “Rawabi” In the Red Sea. On Jan 17th, the Houthis targeted a number of Emirati locations using ballistic missiles and drones which killed and injured a number of civilians.  The same day witnessed a meeting between a Houthi delegation, the Iranian President and Secretary General of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Admiral Ali Shamkhani in Tehran.[5] Some pointed out that Iran itself, not Yemen, was the source of launching the attack. [6] If this is true, it seems that the Houthi claim of responsibility for the attack is part of their services to Iran to seduce it to continue allying with them. The Coalition responded to these attacks with intensive aerial bombardment against Sanaa and other cities under the control of the Houthis, as a result of which a number of civilians were killed and wounded.

Circular trajectories

The UAE is apparently in the center of the regional consequences after the latest developments in Shabwa. Iranians and the Houthis seek to neutralize the UAE in the Yemeni conflict as it plays an active and decisive role.  They bet on launching flash strikes with low cost and wide impact. However, the UAE could absorb such reactions to develop a mechanism which could protect its airspace similar to what Israel did in the face of attacks by Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian factions. 

Moreover, targeting the UAE gives it the opportunity to deepen its relationships with the wider international community as shown in the solidarity statements with Abu Dhabi. Thus, it can exploit that in moving forward towards achieving important deals, top of which is the American jet fighters “F35”.

Meanwhile, the UAE seeks to mobilize the international and regional opinion behind designating the Houthis as a terrorist group. Some may not see this step as important in the course of the overall conflict.

Nevertheless, the removal of the Houthis from areas of wealth, as is currently happening in Marib, and the positioning of the UAE’s allies, such as the various factions affiliated with the STC and Tariq Saleh’s forces, on most of the fronts facing the Houthis who absolutely refuse all proposed peace initiatives, may put them under enormous pressures and challenges that eventually lead to weakening them and trimming their nails.

Accordingly, the Houhtis will no longer have the same importance in Iran’s regional calculations, especially in comparison with its economic interests with the UAE.  The latter sought, using a pragmatic policy, to help Tehran in finding a suitable deal regarding negotiations over its nuclear program.

On the other hand, the KSA will attempt to invest the latest victories to move forwards towards the depth of Northern areas to bring the Internationally-Recognized Government (IRG) back to Sanaa.

Nevertheless, the lack of an all-out and integrated strategy to address the Yemeni crisis to include the political aspect such as making drastic changes in the IRG’s structure, and solving the troubled economic conditions will necessarily lead to stir up discord within the anti-Houthi camp.

The Houthis can exploit this to rearrange their ranks and repeat the scenario of controlling new areas. Like what happened on the ground over the recent years, the whole result will be close to zero if the way of conducting affairs continues like the last seven years by relying on sketchy and corrupted figures in the IRG and the traditional forces.

This will prolong the war and lead to multiplying the Yemeni crisis into multiple crises: humanitarian, economic, social as well as deepening the tragic humanitarian crisis in an even more severe way. Such conditions make the UAE reluctant to engage intensively again in the Yemeni file, similar to the intervention in 2015, even as the Houthis continue to target it.

At the level of other regional states, Egypt is most likely to engage in the Yemeni crisis in the next stage, especially with its concerns about the growing risks in the Red Sea and after relieving the brunt of several files. The latest visit by Egyptian President, Abdulfatah Al Sissi to the UAE carried many indications. As for Turkey which was involved in the Yemeni file, it seems that it will now play no role at least until getting out of its stifling economic crisis.

The Qatari role will focus on the media aspects and the attempts to support the Islah wing inside the IRG, as well as coordinating with the Houthis and Iran to implement joint goals in the region.

Oman, which played a prominent role in peace negotiations but failed to convince the Houthis to accept the proposed offers, will only provide a platform to hold meetings among the local and regional parties of the conflict, and monitor the developments in Al Mahra Governorate which may push it to adopt different stances.


- A comprehensive process to prevail peace requires a more understanding of the driving regional dynamics, and the most active elements which can contribute in making a big and a sudden breakthrough on the path of efforts to resolve the Yemeni crisis.

- There is a need to understand that an endless conflict and the continuous humanitarian suffering across Yemen will have big regional ramifications at all political, economic and military levels.

- Commitment not to target civilians is needed as well as criminalizing such activities.

Ameen Shandhor
A writer and a political researcher and Member of Board of Directors at "South24" Center
- Photo: An Emirati helicopter flying over the city of Abu Dhabi (Reuters)

[1] Noel Brehony (2020). The UAE’s Role in the Yemen Crisisin Day, S.W. and Brehony, N. (Ed.), Global Regional and Local Dynamics in the Yemen

[2] @Abdulkhaleq_UAE | Twitter

[3] Jeremy M. Sharp (November 23, 2021). Yemen: Civil War and Regional Intervention, Congressional Research Service.

[4] Iran's Ambassador infected with Covid19- BBC News

[5] Al-Masirah - Urgent auf Twitter: "#Al-Masirah_Urgent | Head of the national delegation, Muhammad Abd al-Salam, holds a meeting in Tehran with the Secretary-General of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran

[6] Houthi Strikes on UAE Open Another Front in Yemen War | The Washington Institute

ShabwaSouth YemenUAEAbu DhabiHouthi AttackSouthern Transitional CouncilSouthern Giants BrigadesYemen