How the UAE and China Set Their Sights on Southern Yemen

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan traveled to Saudi Arabia and met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Tahnoon bin Zayed al-Nahyan the Crown Prince of the UAE, and India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval earlier this month. The White House stated the meeting was to “advance their shared vision of a more secure and prosperous Middle East region interconnected with India and the world,” which is undoubtedly an effort to rebut recent moves by China in the Middle East like the détente China brokered between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The UAE and the Southern Movement

Dave DeCamp reported on how the Saudis have reiterated that all sides are intent on peace, but it is unclear when a deal will be made. The report also highlights how the Southern Transitional Council signed a national charter to restore the 1990 borders in a new bid to split Yemen between the northern and southern regions. The Southern Movement was around long before the Houthis took over Sanaa, and they have tried to separate from Yemen since the country reunified in 1990.

The UAE changed the ecosystem in Southern Yemen by bolstering various fighting groups and quickly establishing a boots-on-the-ground presence in Aden after Saudi Arabia intervened in 2015. The UAE funds and controls the Hadrami Elite Forces, Shabwani Elite Forces, Giants Brigade, and the Security Belt Forces. All these groups support the National Resistance in Yemen and have proven to be fierce fighters on the battlefield who are well-trained and equipped with top-notch military gear from the UAE. The National Resistance was the main fighting force backing the internationally recognized government. In the past, government forces met any attempt by the Southern Movement to separate from Yemen with harsh crackdowns. Currently, no military group in the region is strong enough to prevent the Southern Movement from partitioning Yemen into North and South Yemen.

The UAE has always had three main goals in Yemen. The first and most important mission was to combat the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen and establish a strong ally in the region. The UAE did this by helping the Saudis and the Internationally Recognized Government in their fight against the Houthis. In October 2018, I reported how the UAE paid American and Israeli mercenaries 1.5 million dollars a month to assassinate Al-Islah Imams and political figures in Yemen.

The Armed Conflict Location Event Data project published startling data proving that over thirty Al-Islah Imams and political figures were assassinated in early 2018 in southern Yemen. Abraham Golan, the founder of Spear Operations Group, openly admitted to Buzzfeed that his mercenary group assassinated Al-Islah Imams and political figures in Southern Yemen. Golan told BuzzFeed News that his group would get targets directly from UAE uniformed military personnel for judicial reasons. One of Spear Operations Group’s failed assassination attempts was caught on drone video and released by BuzzFeed News.

The drone footage shows Spear Operations Group being escorted by UAE military vehicles and a Spear Operations Group team member firing on innocent civilians who got too close to their operation as another team member places a bomb on the office door of a prominent Al-Islah figure. Something goes wrong, and Spear Operations Group panics. One of the team members is seen sprinting up the street and hopping into a UAE military vehicle. The UAE vehicle in the rear of the convoy speeds up to where the Spear Operations Group team member is placing a charge, and the mercenary jumps in the UAE military vehicle just as the charge detonates. All the trucks speed off as a second explosion destroys the vehicle the mercenaries were traveling in.

The UAE strategically allied itself with armed groups in the port cities of Southern Yemen that dot the coast. The UAE isolated its most potent foe in the region by launching this proxy war against the Al-Islah party. At the same time, the UAE secured the waterways off Yemen’s coast to protect shipping lanes vital to the UAE’s economy. The connections between the UAE, the Southern Movement, and China go back to 1984, when the two nations established diplomatic ties. One of the UAE’s founding fathers Sheikh Zayed visited China in 1990, and their relationship blossomed over the last twenty years. In 2018 Xi Jinping became the first Chinese leader to go to China in 29 years.

China and Arabia Felix

Southern Yemen was an independent socialist nation from 1967 to 1990, and many of southern Yemen’s port workers are still unionized. China’s relationship with Yemen dates back to the 1950s when North Yemen’s Mutawakkalite Kingdom became the third nation in the Arab world to recognize the newly formed People’s Republic of China (Harris 1993, pp 90-91). Russia and China built relationships with Northern Yemen to counteract England’s colonization of Southern Yemen. Russia and China weren’t just interested in Yemen, as both countries were vital contributors to the Dhofar Rebellion in southern Oman against a British-supported regime that started in 1963.

China continued to back leftist groups in South Yemen and Oman, leaving a sour taste in the mouth of the West and wealthy oil-rich Gulf states. After the people of Aden rebelled against the British and drove them out of Aden in 1967, China helped rebuild and develop Southern Yemen with a 9.8 million dollar loan in 1968 and a 43.2 million dollar loan in 1970. Tensions between China and Gulf states began to thaw throughout the 70s as China became thirsty for oil and sought to rebuild its image in the eyes of the oil-rich Gulf states

Saudi Arabia and China launched a billion-dollar covert project to build an intermediate-range ballistic missile program in 1978 that the Western world did not know publicly until 1988. Iran and Oman were the only Middle Eastern nations supplying oil to China in 1990, but by 1999, Yemen was the world’s second-largest oil supplier to China. Sinopec and Sinochem began to invest in Yemen’s oil and gas fields in the early 2000s. Sinopec signed a deal worth $72 million to explore oil in Shabwa Province and Hadhramaut Province in 2005. China increased its investment in Yemen’s oil and gas three years later when Sinochem invested $465 million for a 16.78% stake in Block 10, located in Eastern Shabwa.

Investors worldwide were interested in Yemen’s gold as the World Bank reported in 2009 that Yemen has vast deposits of gold. The World Bank stated that one gold mine in Hijjah Province could produce 200 ounces annually for at least ten years. Investors shied away from exploring gold prospects in Northern Yemen because the Zaydi Revivalist Movement, known today as the Houthis, rebelled against the Saleh regime. The Yemen government faced pressure from Saudi Arabia to quell the uprising on their border and launched Operation Scorched Earth in cooperation with Saudi Arabia. Operation Scorched Earth killed 8,000, mostly Shia Muslims, and forced over 50,000 to flee their homes.

By 2010 Chinese exports to Yemen were valued at $1.2 billion, and Chinese imports from Yemen were valued at $2.78 billion. Yemen and China remained strong trading partners, but Yemen could not keep up with China’s demand for oil. As the Arab Spring gripped the Middle East and the Yemeni Revolution of Dignity shook Sanaa, China looked to Saudi Arabia to quench its thirst for oil. Saleh assumed China and Russia would vote against the GCC plan to remove him from power in 2011. Despite Saleh’s confidence, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to replace him with Mansour Hadi because the UAE and Saudi Arabia were much better suited to meet Chinese demand.

News reports broke in 2013 that China was planning to build two 5,000-megawatt power plants in Yemen and announced plans to fund the expansion of the ports in Aden and Molka. President Hadi planned a diplomatic trip to China to solidify economic and development deals, but the deteriorating situation in Yemen prevented Hadi from making the trip. China chose oil from the Gulf states and the security of vital waterways surrounding Yemen, which are critical to China’s economy, over the people of Yemen.

In 2016, a few days after the Houthis and Saleh declared what they called “the national salvation government,” Houthi leadership was invited to China. The Houthi delegation that traveled to China consisted of Hamza al-Houthi, Mohammad Abd al-Salam, and Mahdi al-Mashat. The Houthis were treated to a dinner in their honor and met with Deng Li, now China’s Vice Foreign Minister. China had to reassure the international community that they were not endorsing the Houthis or Iran, nor did they support unilateral moves made by any side.

The tide began to shift in 2017 when China offered to mediate relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. China and Saudi Arabia signed energy and space technology deals worth over 65 billion in March 2017 as Yemen became the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. China realized that with the UAE’s help, unrest in Yemen would not jeopardize their economic interests. The war in Yemen did not slow traffic through the Bel el-Mandeb Strait; maritime traffic and commerce have only increased (PDF) as the war progressed in Yemen. As long as the war in Yemen did not threaten the security or financial interests of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, they had no reason to end the blockade of Yemen. China secured its path through the Bel el-Mandeb Strait by building its first military and naval base outside of China in Djibouti.

The UN Security Council only started ardently trying to bring peace to Yemen after the Houthis used ten drones to destabilize the petro-dollar and shock the world. NPR reported that gas prices rose 10 to 20% overnight. “Benchmark Brent crude briefly surged almost 20% in early trading before settling closer to 10%. The U.S. benchmark West Texas crude rose more than 10%.” In 2019 100,000 Yemenis had fallen victim to direct violence, this news barely ever made the headlines, but an attack on Aramco’s Master Gas System had mainstream media frothing at the mouth.

There has been relative calm in a war that has killed 377,000 people since a truce was signed in April 2022, and despite the peace deal lapsing, all the parties involved in the conflict have not resorted back to an all-out war. There are reports of skirmishes and accusations of truce violations by all sides. Sanaa Airport is now open to more international flights, and Yemen’s ports are getting back to normal traffic. People in Yemen have told me that there are no longer long lines for gas or groceries, and roads that have been blocked since the beginning of the war are reopening, allowing people to travel more freely.

Joziah Thayer is a researcher with the Pursuance Project. He founded WEDA in 2014 to combat mainstream media narratives. He is also an antiwar activist and the online organizer behind #OpYemen.