Many observers describe recent relations between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Islah Party in Yemen as a “temporary marriage,” while others believe they are far from that, even temporarily. The UAE and the Islah Party quickly agree with that assessment, only to disagree again even more quickly. They share opportunistic relations marked by distrust on both sides.
The UAE and the Islah Party are united by a common enemy — the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen — but separated by their own interests. Islah is tightly linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, but has had to deny its connections because the UAE considers the Brotherhood a terrorist group. The movement in the UAE was accused of trying to stage a coup, and many members, including Yemenis, were arrested a few years ago.
Despite their sudden meeting Nov. 14, it seems the UAE and Islah have no intention of breaking the ice between them. Islah Party leader Mohammed al-Yadomi and Secretary-General Abdul Wahab al-Anesi traveled to the UAE to meet with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. But the meeting was a tactic by both parties to make some stopgap political gains — which are likely to be followed by mutual attacks.
The two parties had also met a year ago in Riyadh, in the presence of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for talks on rapprochement between them under Saudi auspices. But a month later, Islah sided with the internationally recognized Yemeni government against pro-UAE forces represented by the separatist Southern Transitional Council in Aden. This happened when clashes broke out in January between council forces and government fighters affiliated with Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
In other words, they have a rocky history.
And recently, something very ugly came to light. On Oct. 16, the US BuzzFeed News website revealed that Abu Dhabi has been paying mercenaries — former US special forces — to carry out assassinations of Islah Party leaders and cadres.
So, no reconciliation seems imminent. Islah will remain in the circle of UAE targets. Likewise, the UAE will not be spared Islah’s distrust and loud media campaigns against Abu Dhabi.
The aim of Islah’s recent visit was to ask the UAE to halt support for Islah Party opponents who are targeting its leaders and cadres. The UAE’s aim, however, was to pressure the party leaders to offer concessions, such as giving UAE-backed Yemeni forces — represented by the Salafist current — a geographic and political space in Taez, especially after Islah succeeded in kicking Salafists out of Taez.
Rahman Moazab, a Yemeni parliament member representing the General People’s Congress, believes “the Islah-UAE relations are long gone, but potential risks are uniting the two sides,” he said, referring to the Houthis.
Moazab told Al-Monitor, “The recent visit held a political message from the UAE to the different political parties in Yemen to tell them that there is an alternative, in reference to the Islah Party. The UAE is seeking a strong ally and it might have to settle for Islah temporarily and make deals with it.”
In the wake of Yadomi and Anesi’s visit, two prominent Islah ministers were dismissed from the Yemeni government Nov. 26 based on a presidential decision from Hadi.
This step reflects the meddling of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The two countries worked to ensure Ali Haitham al-Ghareeb, the leader of the Southern Movement, gets a ministerial portfolio in exchange for the movement recognizing new Prime Minister Maeen Abdul Malek Saeed, according to exclusive information from political sources for Al-Monitor.
It seems the Cabinet reshuffle constitutes a political settlement between the Southern Movement and the UAE, after the latter had established the Southern Transitional Council, which conflicts with the Southern Movement. The aim behind this step is to find a good model for peace and coexistence in the areas liberated by the Saudi- and UAE-backed Yemeni government. This model would serve as an assurance to the other Yemeni areas where battles are still raging between the Houthis and government forces, according to the sources.
Ali al-Jaradi, head of Islah's Media Department, told Al-Monitor, “Islah Party relations with the UAE are part of the Yemeni legitimate authority's relations with the countries of the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which united to defend regional security facing Iranian expansionism.”
Jaradi noted, “Islah’s relations with the UAE are dictated by the need for joint defense of security, stability and Arab nationalism of the Arabian Peninsula.” He considered the visit “a door for friendly and positive ties to build on. It promises to dispel doubts from relations and invest in common points, as well as offer a successful model of Arab relations marked by cooperation and complementarity, in light of shared risks, interests and fates.”
The Islah Party, facing unlimited UAE support for Salafists in Taez and southern governorates, has to get closer to the UAE and try to prove its good intentions after the recent visit.
In a Dec. 1 Facebook post, Yadomi congratulated the UAE on the occasion of its 47th National Day, and he expressed praise and gratitude for what Abu Dhabi is offering Yemen.
Abdel Bari Taher, former head of the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate, told Al-Monitor, “Relations between Islah and the UAE tend to ebb and flow. The tactical meeting only served as appeasement and constituted political work for Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” referring to their efforts to stop Islah's media campaigns against them.
Taher told Al-Monitor, “The Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood [represented by Islah] — whether it acknowledges or denies its affiliation — is facing tough times. Its members are subject to elimination, arrest and assassination in several Yemeni regions, especially those under UAE control.”
He added, “Serious and sane relations are not in the cards, because each party has its goals and special interests that diverge shortly after they meet. They have too many differences. Even if they agree on some issues, their rivalry and suspicions cannot be overcome in a fleeting meeting.”
Reliable political sources told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Several issues were discussed in the recent visit, including accepting a political settlement that would transfer the powers of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to a deputy [agreed upon] between Saudi Arabia, [the Yemeni parties] and the UAE, and that would oust Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar — the leader of Islah’s military wing and the shield for its activities.”
According to the sources, Hadi will remain in his position until a referendum over a new constitution and presidential elections are held.
Any positive relations between the UAE and the Islah Party undoubtedly fall under one goal: defeating the Houthis. But the devil is in the details. The UAE advocates fighting political Islam and considers covert work national treason. Besides, Islah can't remove itself ideologically and politically from its Muslim Brotherhood roots, and still has ties with Qatar and Turkey, both of which the UAE and Saudi Arabia despise.
Domestically, the Nihm Offensive against the Houthis — led by the pro-Islah national army and Islah members who voluntarily joined the army — lasted from December 2015 to March 2018, when it was halted because of the UAE and the coalition’s lack of trust in the Islah Party.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Aziz al-Jabari told Yemen Today channel Sept. 22, “The coalition doesn't want Islah replacing the Houthis.”
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