Since wading into Yemen's civil war more than two years ago, Saudi Arabia and its allies have struggled to restore beleaguered President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi to power. Not only have Yemen's Houthi rebels proved to be determined adversaries, but the United Arab Emirates — Saudi Arabia's most active military partner in the country — has also steadily revealed strategic priorities in Yemen that often differ from Riyadh's own. Chief among them is Abu Dhabi's deepening crackdown on al-Islah, the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. And as the United Arab Emirates steps up its effort to take down the organization, it risks undermining any peace settlement its coalition allies support while empowering militant groups throughout the war-torn country.
Eliminating an Existential Threat
Perhaps fittingly for a party whose name means "reform," al-Islah comprises a wide array of Sunni tribes, local business figures and political leaders who seek to "Islamize" public life in Yemen. Since its formation after the country's unification in 1990, the party has been prone to fractiousness and regularly switches sides in Yemen's complicated political environment. This tendency is clear in al-Islah's relationships with the recent administrations in Sanaa: Once a supporter of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the party quickly turned on him in 2011 during the Arab Spring.
Amid the same wave of protests, the party's Emirati counterpart moved squarely into the United Arab Emirates' crosshairs. In an unprecedented display of strength by the state, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan ordered the arrests of dozens of Emiratis — including a member of the royal family — on charges of sympathizing with al-Islah and the Muslim Brotherhood. But the long-awaited crackdown merely marked the start of a much larger campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, which the United Arab Emirates considered a popular form of political Islam that posed an existential threat to its governance structure. Soon the country began lending support to the party's opponents in Egypt, Libya, Qatar and Tunisia.
A few years later, it seemed that Saudi Arabia had gradually come around to the United Arab Emirates' way of thinking. In 2014 King Abdullah even declared Yemen's al-Islah party a terrorist organization. But as the country's Houthis steadily gained ground over the following year, Riyadh's stance toward al-Islah softened, particularly after the Saudi king died in January 2015. Facing both a physical and ideological threat in the Zaidi Houthis, al-Islah shifted its allegiance to the government of Hadi as the Saudi-led coalition — intent on preserving the president's position in power — intervened in the Yemeni conflict in April 2015.
Allies With Different Enemies
On the surface, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates appear to have the same goals in Yemen. Both hope to reinstate a pliant government that is friendly with the Gulf Cooperation Council in Sanaa. And both seek to defeat the Houthis, reduce Iran's influence and quell local militants, including al Qaeda and a budding Islamic State affiliate. But from there, the countries' objectives diverge.
The United Arab Emirates has long championed a more moderate version of Islam than Saudi Arabia has. Many Emirati royals, including Al Nahyan and Dubai's Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, are Maliki Sunnis who historically have been suspicious of Saudi Arabia's hard-line Salafist Sunnis, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Islah. In fact, Al Nahyan reportedly means to guide the Saudi kingdom's ambitious crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, away from the conservative Salafism that has long reigned in Riyadh and that, across the region, has mutated into the ideologies of groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
The United Arab Emirates' approach in Yemen reflects this subtle agenda. Whereas Saudi Arabia intends to restore the political status quo Yemen experienced prior to the Houthis' conquest of Sanaa, the United Arab Emirates aims to alter the country's political landscape in its favor. To that end, the United Arab Emirates — safely buffered from Yemen by Saudi Arabia and Oman — has worked to deprive its ideological rival, the Muslim Brotherhood, of its clout in the country by targeting al-Islah.
Over the past two and a half years, Emirati troops have waged a quiet war against the Islamist party. They have concentrated their efforts on controlling Yemen's southern port cities while backing secessionist fighters in the area to gain local support. Abu Dhabi then used these forces, dubbed the Security Belt, to detain hundreds of Yemeni citizens linked to al-Islah or other forms of political Islam within a network of at least 18 secret prisons scattered throughout the country's southern regions.
Parts of the Security Belt have focused on combating al Qaeda and the Islamic State, whose fighters increasingly roam the deserts and hills outside Yemen's southern cities. But to the United Arab Emirates and its allies on the ground, there is little difference between these groups and al-Islah — despite the fact that the latter organization won over 20 percent of the popular vote in parliamentary elections in 2003.
As a result, many of the Security Belt forces have focused their attention on al-Islah. In October, the group arrested at least 11 party members after storming political offices in Aden. The move brought the operation against al-Islah into public view, and after the raid a Security Belt official claimed that Qatar was providing financial aid to the party. (Qatar still faces a Saudi and Emirati blockade, in part because of its alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood.)
A Race Against the Clock
Ousting al-Islah won't be an easy task. The party is deeply entrenched in Yemeni politics, is part of the Hadi alliance and has the backing of the powerful Ahmar tribe on the battlefield. Furthermore, the United Arab Emirates has not yet offered a clear ideological alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen. Instead it is tackling the country's al-Islah branch as it did its own — with security solutions rather than political compromise or co-option.
As it stands, Abu Dhabi doesn't have the firepower or manpower on the ground in Yemen to accomplish its goal. And the more the Emiratis pressure al-Islah, the greater the risk that the Hadi government will split along yet another factional line. The party's disenchanted followers may even turn to the same forces that embittered Sunnis elsewhere have embraced: al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Egypt offers a clear example of this outcome. After the Egyptian military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood administration in 2013, its suppression of the party created resentment that fueled jihadist uprisings in Sinai and bombings in major cities across the country.
The United Arab Emirates has another possibility to consider as well. The longer the Gulf coalition's intervention in Yemen drags out, the more likely the international community will try to negotiate a peace deal that cuts short the operation against al-Islah. The conflict's humanitarian toll continues to climb, and Saudi Arabia has already begun to look for a way out of the war. Should the Emirati effort end prematurely, al-Islah — though weakened — would have the opportunity to recover and potentially counter the gains Abu Dhabi has made in Yemen. And if al-Islah retains its popularity, the intervention could backfire outright, giving rise to a government in Sanaa that is no friend to the United Arab Emirates.