Divergent Saudi-Emirati Agendas Cripple Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council

Two years into its existence, Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) still has not effectively addressed critical problems facing the country: a dire economic situation, an enduring Houthi threat, and escalating military tensions in the Red Sea. In particular, the PLC’s obvious inability to prevent the Houthis from attacking maritime traffic in the Red Sea signifies its profound ineffectiveness, raising concerns about whether it can fulfill its mandate of governing the Yemeni polity. The fundamental reason for the PLC’s dysfunction, however, rests today in the divergent approaches and lack of harmony between its main backers, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which hinder unified leadership and decision-making within the council and perpetuate its state of paralysis.

Divergent Saudi and Emirati Approaches

The PLC was established in April 2022 with a dual mandate: to lead the internationally recognized government of Yemen and to unify anti-Houthi factions against their common adversary. The eight-member council is chaired by former interior minister and deputy prime minister Rashad al-Alimi. The UAE and  KSA are the PLC’s main backers, but their different agendas and approaches constrain the council’s operations.

First, the two countries support different members within the PLC and do not treat it as a unified entity. The UAE provides support to four members on the council: Aidarous al-Zubaidi, Tareq Saleh, Faraj al-Bahsani, and Abdulrahman al-Mahrami. Al-Zubaidi heads the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a secessionist body calling for the reestablishment of the erstwhile state of South Yemen (formerly named the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen). The STC’s membership in the PLC is troubling and directly contradicts the council’s primary mandate to unify and strengthen the state. The UAE also provides military support to Saleh, a nephew of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh; to al-Bahsani, former governor of Hadramawt; and to al-Mahrami, a commander of the Southern Giants Brigade forces. For its part, Saudi Arabia supports Sultan Ali al-Arada, Governor of Marib and member of the Saudi-backed Islah Party, and Abdullah al-Alimi, who was the director of former President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s office and belongs to the Islah Party.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi avoided setting a clear mandate for the PLC president’s powers and privileges.

Second, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi avoided setting a clear mandate for the PLC president’s powers and privileges. This allowed each member to remain basically free to have his own agenda and preserve his independence. This has led to a paralyzed leadership and in fact further fragmented state institutions. The entrenched rivalry between PLC factions makes it nearly impossible to forge a clear vision for Yemen’s future or to implement coordinated strategies.

Third, the PLC lacks a unified military force. Each member of the council effectively controls his own military unit, and some units have more power than the council president. For example, al-Zubaidi, the most powerful member, commands stronger forces than even the PLC president. STC-affiliated forces have seized the presidential palace in Aden multiple times. Efforts to merge these forces under the ministries of defense and interior have failed.

The fragmentation within the PLC and Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s divergent agendas are also evident in other areas. Riyadh supported the formation of the Hadramawt National Council, ostensibly as a competitor to the STC. It also helped PLC President Alimi in establishing the Nation’s Shield Force as a unified military formation encompassing many units loyal to the PLC that would counter the UAE-backed STC and its Security Belt forces. Only time will tell, but the proliferation of political formations could encourage conflicting loyalties and rivalries that in turn could fuel the very military fragmentation that the PLC is trying to arrest.

Amid the growing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, media reports show that tensions between Saudi- and UAE-backed forces have escalated in parts of the east and south of the country, leading to near-armed confrontations between opposing forces. Such incidents include UAE-backed forces taking control of key military positions in Socotra—a small archipelago of Yemeni islands in the Arabian Sea—adjacent to Saudi-supported forces. Additionally, the STC’s sharing of revenue sources, such as customs and taxes with the government in Aden, has raised concerns about who is in control of the country’s finances. The divergent UAE-Saudi approaches also contributed to deepening security troubles and tribal clashes in provinces such as Shabwa. The UAE-backed STC has intensified its efforts to dislodge forces loyal to the PLC.

The PLC’s Ineffectiveness in Addressing the Red Sea Crisis

The impact of Saudi-Emirati divergence was evident in the council’s weak stance toward the Red Sea crisis and the attacks by the Houthi armed group. Despite the significant threat posed by the Houthis to Red Sea shipping lanes since October 2023, the PLC as a unified entity has been ineffective in exerting influence there. This was particularly apparent when the Houthis extended their control over the airspace within the PLC’s jurisdiction, disrupting international flights at airports managed by the council. Houthi forces recently blocked a UN plane from landing in Yemen’s Marib province, controlled by the PLC. This incident at Marib followed another situation two days earlier, in which the Houthis prevented a Sudanese civilian plane carrying Yemenis from Port Sudan from landing in the same area.

The US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian airstrikes on Houthi targets in Yemen also highlighted the PLC’s inability to assert sovereignty. In 2015, the Saudi-led coalition launched its military campaign against the Houthis after President Hadi appealed for support, coordinating efforts with the national army. But during Operation Prosperity Guardian, the United States conducted airstrikes independently, without PLC coordination or approval, demonstrating the PLC’s lack of control over Yemeni territory and diminished global influence.

The fractured leadership within the PLC undermined its ability to forge a unified strategy.

In response to these challenges, instead of capitalizing on the international focus on Houthi strongholds to strengthen its position, the fractured leadership within the PLC undermined its ability to forge a unified strategy. Council members pursued disparate strategies, each seeking separate military support from the United States and the United Kingdom, which only served to emphasize the lack of a cohesive strategy and further fragmented the council’s response. Vice-chair of the PLC and STC President Al-Zubaidi and PLC member Tareq Saleh,  each called for Western help in building up their naval forces to defeat the Houthis. This disunity has not only prevented the PLC from exploiting potential strategic openings but also has significantly weakened its ability to present a united front in the Red Sea conflict, which has exacerbated the crisis.

The Houthis’ continued ability to challenge international interests, combined with the PLC’s failure to assert authority over sea and air, demonstrates a profound governance and leadership failure. The PLC’s ongoing ineffectiveness in addressing external threats and coordinating with major international actors continues to erode its credibility and operational capacity.

The US Position on the PLC’s Divergent Agendas

The United States has not publicly criticized Saudi Arabia and the UAE for supporting competing military and political factions operating outside the control of Yemen’s internationally recognized government. The United States views the PLC as one of many factions that is ineffective in addressing crises. This perception of ineffectiveness also dates back to Yemen’s previous governments. Since 2015, Washington has not condemned the Saudi-led coalition for insufficiently supporting the Yemeni Army in its war against the Houthis. Similarly, the United States took no action when the UAE killed 30 Yemeni soldiers in airstrikes during infighting between government forces and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council in Aden. Hadi had previously accused the UAE of behaving like an occupier in the country, rather than as a liberator.

As the PLC weakens and the Houthis grow stronger, the United States now recognizes the need for a more effective council to protect its regional interests, particularly regarding military bases and personnel in neighboring countries. So the US government began making a shift in its strategic priorities in Yemen. It began to take a firmer stance against the Houthis, reclassifying them as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) and linking a peace deal in Yemen with the group ending its Red Sea attacks. Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi declined to participate in Operation Prosperity Guardian due to concerns about retaliatory Houthi attacks like those on Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2022. Despite the lack of Gulf allies’ involvement (save Bahrain), Operation Prosperity Guardian demonstrates Washington’s willingness to lead independently. Although the United States now takes a firm stance against the Houthis, it continues to overlook the driving factors empowering them: the divergent approaches of Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the inherent flaws in the PLC.

The United States Can Play a Constructive Role

A first step that the United States can take to help end the Houthi threat in the Red Sea is to prioritize diplomatic efforts to end Israel’s war on Gaza. Washington should also promote stability in Yemen pressuring its Saudi and Emirati allies to harmonize their strategies within the country. Effective US mediation is crucial considering Washington’s strategic relationship with both Gulf countries and the United States’ ability to foster cooperation between them. While the two countries are intimately involved in many aspects of Yemeni affairs, coordinating their approaches can help forge a unified political and military structure under the PLC.

Given the UAE’s resistance to making compromises in its Yemen policy, compared to Saudi Arabia’s willingness to negotiate, US efforts should focus on mitigating the UAE’s obstructive role. This can be achieved by supporting the PLC in enhancing its authority and effectiveness through technical assistance, capacity-building, and diplomatic efforts aimed at unifying its decision-making processes.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that helping the PLC and strengthening its position vis-à-vis other actors in Yemen must be accompanied by efforts to preserve the council’s autonomy.  Yemenis have long suffered from external interference in their affairs, mostly at their own expense. Therefore, any interference or strategy must carefully balance the benefits of external support with the preservation of Yemeni sovereignty and self-determination.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image: Facebook/Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council