A Houthi controlled court in Yemen sentenced internationally recognized President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and six of his top associates to death for treason on March 25. The ruling comes as advances by Yemeni forces loyal to Hadi have slowed in key areas of the country, despite the support from a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
This small episode is symptomatic of the larger political fissures that have not been successfully addressed between the opposing sides. The current conflict began two years ago after Houthi rebels marched on the Yemeni capital of San’aa and forced the current President Hadi to resign and flee the country. This led to a violent military intervention by Sunni Gulf Arab states on behalf of Hadi to remove the Houthis from power, in accordance with a United Nations Resolution asking the Houthis to evacuate the cities they had occupied. The ensuing war has pitted a coalition of tribal, southern secessionist, and Sunni Islamist groups against the Houthis and forces loyal to the former President and Dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The ruling comes at a time when President Hadi is facing opposition to his leadership from within his own ranks. In early March, Hadi visited his allies in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, where it is reported that he and UAE Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed al-Nahyan had a tense meeting. Issues have persisted over the role of southern secessionist forces as part of the pro-government coalitions, as well assupport for Hadi by the Islah party, an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen that the UAE has targeted across the region. Whereas secessionists feel Hadi will not deliver on autonomy or independence for the south given his past attempts at dividing Yemen’s historic regions along new federal lines, Islamists see Hadi as their only hope for a united Yemeni state.
In fact, the UAE has been at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia over the future of Yemen. While Saudi Arabia has so far backed Hadi as a reliable solution for maintaining a united Yemen, the UAE has garnered extensive support from southern secessionists. Such support considers a long history of tribal relations between the tribes of Southern Yemen and the UAE, as the al-Nahyan family originally hails from that region of Yemen. This support amongst southern tribes allowed the UAE to successfully expel Al-Qaeda from parts of Southern Yemen. It has also led the UAE to demand that Saudi Arabia remove Hadi, lest the UAE withdraw its forces from the Yemeni coalition.
Division within the Arab coalition over Hadi’s role as well as unequivocal opposition by the Houthis question Hadi’s future as leader of a united Yemen. It remains to be seen how Hadi and his Saudi allies will respond to mounting criticism.