Despite formal agreements and vast financial resources, Saudi Arabia has largely failed to integrate the various armed groups operating in Aden and southern Yemen under one national security sector. This adds to Riyadh’s ineffectiveness to date in establishing military-political influence in southern Yemen or in limiting the United Arab Emirates’ continuing leverage in the strategic coastal area of the southern Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb, and the Gulf of Aden. The Saudis face these difficulties even though they brokered the Riyadh Agreement in 2019 between the internationally recognized government and the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC).
In an effort to address this problem and strengthen the kingdom’s influence in the provisional capital area, since late 2022 Saudi Arabia has established new armed formations in Aden and nearby governorates, such as the Nation Shield Force (NSF), answering to them. The NSF has quickly turned into a top-down, presidential-like force: In late January 2023, the chairman of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), Rashid al-Alimi, upon returning to Aden from Riyadh, formalized the NSF through a republican decree as a reserve military unit under his direct supervision — thus falling outside the Ministry of Defense (MoD). The move is a risky one as it seems driven, once again, by power dynamics rather than an inclusive step toward security sector reform. In the medium to long term, it could spark a new cycle of violence in the southern region, altering the complex local balance of power and indirectly benefiting the Houthis.
Why the Saudis face so many difficulties in Aden
According to the 2019 Riyadh Agreement, all of the forces under the internationally-recognized government and the STC-affiliated ones legally fall under the “direct supervision” of Saudi Arabia during the implementation phase of the deal. But that implementation has largely stalled, thus closing the window of opportunity the Saudis had opened for themselves to re-establish their role in power dynamics in Aden, which have been strongly influenced by the Emiratis instead.
There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, the military and political weakness of the Saudi-backed Islah party, which represents the bulk of the remaining recognized institutions, has complicated Riyadh’s goal of rebuilding Yemen’s central structures. Second, the relationship between the Saudis, who support a united Yemen, and the STC has revealed all its contradictions. The latter, which is also internally divided along local fault-lines, entered national institutions while still advocating for secession from the central state. Moreover, the STC continues to fight Islah, as well as to cultivate ties with the UAE, especially at a leadership level.
Saudi Arabia’s recent course correction in Yemen hasn’t improved its leverage on the ground. In 2022, the PLC was established under Saudi pressure to overcome the stalled implementation of the Riyadh Agreement, while accelerating the unification of the anti-Houthi front. But far from resetting the balance of power, the PLC has further legitimized UAE-backed leaders (especially STC leader Aydarous al-Zubaidi), providing secessionists with formal institutional membership and greater bargaining power than before. After the PLC was formed, infighting within the government camp has continued, to the detriment of Saudi-backed forces. For instance, in August 2022, STC-affiliated groups and the UAE-backed Giants Brigades fought Islah and army units, forcing them to withdraw from key positions in Shabwa, home to key energy resources, and then in Abyan.
The STC and the salary issue in Aden
There’s another dynamic that highlights Saudi Arabia’s problematic strategy in Aden and the neighborhood: The Saudis are not regular in paying fighters’ salaries.1 Since the Riyadh Agreement entered into force, the kingdom has paid the salaries of military forces affiliated with the STC. These include the Security Belt Forces (SBF), which mainly rallies Yafi tribesmen and since 2016 has technically been under the Ministry of Interior; the Support and Reinforcement Brigades, which supports the SBF in Aden and Lahj but has a distinct chain of command; and the Facilities Protection Force, which is tasked with guarding institutional buildings in Aden. Before 2019, these groups were financed by the UAE.
Unlike the Emiratis, however, Saudi Arabia hasn’t been paying the salaries of the STC’s affiliates in Aden regularly, with wages going unpaid for several months. Because of these delays, the STC recently provided its forces with wages for one month.2 The Yemeni army and the police frequently have to deal with low or irregular salaries, or even go unpaid, due to the dire economic situation of Yemen’s government. This is generally not the case with foreign-backed armed groups, although delays in payments by the Saudis are not a new issue. Poor coordination can’t be ruled out as an explanation: For instance, it’s usually the Yemeni government that actually pays the soldiers’ salaries with Saudi funds. However, delays and missing payments could point to a significant trust problem between Saudi Arabia and the STC, given that the wage issue has bubbled since the creation of the PLC. The recent official establishment of the NSF sheds new light on the previous delays, confirming the formation of new Saudi-backed military players in the area.
How Saudi Arabia is building loyalist armed groups around Aden
This behavior may reveal that Saudi Arabia is partly reconsidering its — now limited — network of local allies in Aden and neighboring regions. Since late 2022, the Saudis have been actively supporting the formation of new armed groups, or the reorganization of existing ones, mostly recruiting from tribesmen in Lahj, the southwestern governorate bordering Aden. For instance, the NSF in Aden (formerly known as al-Yemen al-Saeed Forces) is financed by the Saudis, who supervised its organization until the PLC chairman’s formal decree. The force is primarily made up of tribesmen from al-Subaiha (who run the Subaiha Resistance against the Houthis in western Lahj) with a Salafi orientation and secessionist goals. Al-Alimi appointed Brig. Bashir Saif Qaid al-Subaihi as the NSF’s commander. Tribal membership sometimes forges connections between different armed groups: For example, the leader of the Subaiha Resistance, Sheikh Hamdi Shukri al-Subaihi, is also one of the commanders of the UAE-backed Giants Brigades. In addition, the Saudis are financing fighters from the former Popular Committees/Sons of Abyan to build units able to control the western side of Abyan Governorate, just outside Aden.
Due to local disputes, Subaiha tribesmen, who are also the backbone of the new NSF, oppose the STC. For instance, clashes erupted in December 2022 between, on the one hand, Subaiha tribesmen and the NSF and, on the other hand, SBF units on the road linking coastal Lahj with the Bab el-Mandeb strait area. The SBF was later forced to withdraw from its previous positions. The NSF is also in control of the strategic al-Anad air base, after the withdrawal of secessionists and Sudanese soldiers. Since the Subaiha tribe, and thus the NSF, supports the southern secession cause as well as the STC, the main rationale driving Saudi Arabia’s new strategy seems to be an effort to build a loyalist armed group in the neighborhood of Aden that can, at a minimum, constrain the STC’s power. The STC, whose leadership is mainly composed of people from Dhalea Governorate — who fought alongside Lahj in the 1986 civil war in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) — has already labelled the Saudi-backed armed groups as “northerners” and even detained some of the NSF’s members.
Saudi Arabia plays the (armed) Salafi card
In the southern regions of Yemen, secessionism is often entrenched among armed Salafi groups. Although the UAE also supports some armed Salafi groups (most prominently the Giants Brigades), Saudi Arabia’s current strategy around Aden focuses on the organization of Salafi forces. These armed groups contend for territorial control with Emirati-backed forces, such as the SBF, which mainly rallies local insurgents, veterans, and sympathizers of the former PDRY. Apart from the NSF and the Subaiha tribesmen, the Saudis also finance the Amajid Brigade in Abyan. Founded in 2019 and based between the districts of Lawdar and Mudiyah (on the border with al-Bayda), this armed group is led by a Salafi sheikh, Salih Salim al-Sharji, rallies fighters from the former Salafi Dar al-Hadith Institute in Dammaj (Sa'adah), and has never been legalized under the national security sector. As recently stressed by the scholar Ahmed Nagi, Salafism in Yemen is, for Saudi Arabia, no longer just a soft power tool, it has also become a hard power instrument.
Searching for geostrategic space in the southern Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb, and Gulf of Aden
From a geostrategic perspective, the lack of local forces loyal to Saudi Arabia limits Riyadh’s influence in the Aden, Bab el-Mandeb, and southern Red Sea subregion, especially compared to the UAE and Iran. This comes at a time when the kingdom is in particular need of safe waterways — and not only for energy transit. Riyadh is also developing many Vision 2030-related projects along the western Saudi coast and its islands. Moreover, recent Houthi attacks against oil export ports in Hadramawt and Shabwa emphasize the importance of having coastal allies. At this stage, Saudi Arabia can’t rely on Yemeni loyalists or proxy forces in the subregion, unlike its allied competitors (the UAE) and rivals (Iran); this also partially explains the Saudi strategy behind the formation of armed groups around Aden. The UAE supports the National Resistance Forces of Tareq Saleh in Mocha and maintains ties with the STC, while the Iranian-backed Houthis are still in control of Hodeida and neighboring waters.
Establishing Saudi-financed armed groups along the southwestern coastline could help Riyadh to carve out a coastal and maritime zone of influence close to the Bab el-Mandeb, especially if these groups gain lasting territorial control. Commanders from the Subaiha tribe — which makes up most of the NSF — are already in charge of many brigades under the Bab el-Mandeb axis of the army. Nevertheless, it seems quite striking that the failure of effective force integration and security sector reform, as the Riyadh Agreement prescribed, is prompting Saudi Arabia to build its own loyalist armed groups in Yemen at last. Not only is this likely to further destabilize the PLC, but it contradicts the Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement, which called for the unification and reorganization of southern military forces under the MoD. This course correction around Aden occurs while Saudi Arabia and the Houthis are holding talks, facilitated by Oman, without the formal presence of the PLC. In this framework, recently established pro-Saudi armed groups in Yemen could provide fresh forces to be deployed against new Houthi military offensives, in case the Saudi-Houthi talks collapse. Otherwise, this choice suggests the Saudis consider the northern regions to be lost territory at this point, and thus have started to rethink their strategy and forces in the south to maximize gains, where possible, vis-à-vis Emirati-backed groups. Amid all of these shifting dynamics, the political-military balance around Aden seems increasingly on the brink.
Eleonora Ardemagni is an Associate Research Fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), a Teaching Assistant at the Catholic University of Milan, and an Adjunct Professor at the Graduate School of Economics and International Relations-ASERI.
Photo by Saudi Kingdom Council/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
1. Author conversation with a Gulf-based source, December 2022.
2. Author conversation with a Gulf-based source, December 2022.
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