The war in Yemen, and the humanitarian crisis it has inflamed, is usually thought of as Saudi-led and controlled. But the reality is more complicated, and involves a major role by the United Arab Emirates.
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The conflict has killed at least 10,000 people, put millions under threat of starvation, worsened the global refugee crisis, and divided Arab governments from each other and from their allies in the West.
Sanaa, along with large amounts of territory. Since then, though, the conflict has diverged into two separate but overlapping campaigns.
The Saudis and their Yemeni allies are concentrating their efforts in the north of the country and are mainly opposing the Houthis. That’s where the war has turned into a desperate quagmire.
But in the south, the U.A.E. and its more effective Yemeni allies have largely driven out Houthi forces and have been concentrating on a counterinsurgency against terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State, often in coordination with U.S. special forces.
A key ideological division has emerged between the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia in how to end the conflict. The U.A.E. is categorically opposed to all forms of political Islam. Saudi Arabia detests the terrorist groups and is wary of most Islamist parties, but is not as rigid as the Emirates.
In particular, Riyadh has been willing to work with the Yemeni party al-Islah, which is associated with the oldest and most established Islamist network in the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood, because they share an uncompromising antipathy towards the Houthis and their Iranian backers.
The Saudis think al-Islah’s cooperation can help stabilize the situation, especially in the northern parts of the country where the kingdom is most influential.
And they’re optimistic about al-Islah’s claim to be part of a post-Islamist wave of religiously-oriented political groups that are getting rid of the revolutionary,
conspiratorial and transnational aspects of Islamism and re-emerging as law-abiding conservative nationalists.
The U.A.E., by contrast, has continued to view al-Islah and all Brotherhood-oriented parties with suspicion, and dismisses any claims about a post-Islamist tendency as opportunistic hypocrisy.
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