The Yemeni government may not have the funds to employ the armed groups created by the UAE
Left without pay, UAE-backed fighters in Yemen’s south face precarious future
A war within a war, the feud between the government of Yemen and the pro-separation Southern Transitional Council (STC) has taken center over the last year, particularly with the signing of the Riyadh Agreement in November 2019. Though the STC maintains a degree of popular support across the south, particularly amongst locals from Al-Dhale’a and Lahj governorates, its armed strength is largely derived from the Security Belt Forces and Elite Forces, paramilitary bodies led by battle-hardened Salafis. Despite being characterized as the armed wing of the STC, in reality these armed groups were established by and effectively controlled by the UAE.
Under the umbrella of the government-STC feud, a more fundamental issue is at play – one that was set in motion before the STC came into being. The Security Belt Forces were first established in Aden and then Abyan governorates to the exclusion of existing security and military institutions loyal to the Yemeni government chain of command. Rather than incorporate forces into a unified command, UAE-backed forces and brigades loyal to President Hadi have clashed on several occasions. This has encouraged both nominal allies to further empower their own loyalists, with Hadi notably empowering the Presidential Protection Brigades.
As a result of the UAE’s purported drawdown and the signing of the Riyadh Agreement between the STC and the government, Emirati funding has dried up for the Security Belt Forces, bringing the foreign-funded fighters to an almost inevitable crossroads: will they be incorporated fully into the Yemeni government’s security and military institutions, or collapse and leave thousands of well-trained, unpaid and predominantly Salafi fighters vulnerable to recruitment by non-state actors?
A halt to salary payments
Security Belt Forces helped the STC push the government out of its interim capital in Aden in August 2019, taking control of swathes of neighboring governorates as well. Saudi Arabia pressured STC-aligned forces and those under the Yemeni government to cease hostilities, and facilitated months-long mediation between the two sides. This ultimately culminated a deal signed in November, referred to as the Riyadh Agreement, which stipulates a reshuffling of the cabinet and restructuring of the military and security sector as to incorporate the UAE-backed groups into the Yemeni state structure.
However, progress on implementing the agreement has been slow, and on some issues non-existent. The UAE formally transferred control of the interim capital to Saudi forces, although maintaining its influence over the STC, and in an apparent sign of a genuine drawdown in the country, has halted its salary payments to all Security Belt Forces personnel, continuing only to support individual leaders and commanders. For its part, the UAE argues it is merely acting in accordance with the Riyadh Agreement, while the government is arguing it should not be made responsible for salary payments unless authority has been transferred and it is exercising authority over the forces.
Article 3 of Annex 1, the political and economic portion of the Riyadh Agreement, states “the Prime Minister of the current government will begin his work in the interim capital Aden within 7 days of the signing of this agreement to activate all state institutions in the various liberated provinces to serve Yemeni citizens, and work on the payment of salaries and financial benefits to employees of all military sectors.” However, multiple points from annexes 2 and 3, which relate to military and security affairs, respectively, stipulates that the government is to take full control of all armed groups in liberated areas – a step that has yet to occur.
In response, the unpaid fighters have begun taking measures into their own hands. After a couple months without pay, in early January the Security Belt Forces began levying taxes on transport trucks entering and leaving Aden, amounting to 20,000 Yemeni riyals (around $32) for each commercial vehicle departing Aden by road, and 15,000 riyals (around $24) for those entering the city. Several fighters have also begun protesting over the lack of salary payments.
There are several barriers preventing the Yemeni and UAE governments to agree on this issue. The majority of Security Belt personnel are registered in the Fourth Military Region, and thus prior to the recent developments they were receiving funds from the Yemeni government, via the Ministry of Defense, in addition to the relatively higher funds the UAE was providing. Some of the fighters were only getting half or a fraction of their purported salaries, as commanders and other senior officials would pocket the rest. After the battle for Aden in August, the Yemeni government lost control of the Fourth Military Region, and as a result the government announced it was halting salary payments.
Moreover, the fighters are demanding to receive the same amount the UAE was previously paying them, and there are several challenges surrounding this. The government pays in Yemeni riyals while the UAE was paying in Saudi riyals, and Security Belt commanders are demanding to receive cash to distribute themselves, arguing that not all of the security personnel were registered in the Fourth Military Region and so they would make sure everyone gets paid. However, it is more likely they want to maintain influence on these troops, and potentially skim off the top as well. Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed has said that payments must be made through currency exchange companies, which is how salary distribution in Yemen typically works.
More fundamentally, however, it is clear that without a large influx of foreign assistance, the Yemeni government does not have the funds to employ the armed groups created by the UAE. Prior to the ongoing national conflict, the government paid salaries to about 400,000 troops across all of Yemen, and already struggled to do so at the time. Now, the Fourth Military Region – one of seven military divisions across the country – includes almost 400,000 registered troops alone. Moreover, the vast majority of those soldiers are not engaged in the conflict against the Houthis, and thus the government would prioritize funding to other military regions.
Vulnerable to recruitment
Previous investigation by Almasdar Online found a major uptick in assassinations in Aden from October to December 2019, which appears to be heavily focused on eliminating security and military officials from both the government and STC-affiliated sides. In many cases, these have been an apparent effort to kill witnesses and those familiar with past abuses, including the secret prisons the UAE ran and supported in Aden. Though not as extensively documented, assassinations of officials aligned to both sides have been noted in neighboring Abyan governorate as well.
Abyan has already suffered from cycles of revenge, and is acutely at risk of falling into further turmoil if the main players in the south are unable or unwilling to compromise and cooperate to stabilize the military and security sectors. Abyan has a storied history with violent extremism, dating back to the 1980s. In the period before unity in 1990, the governorate was one of the key Islamic fronts supported by the late president Ali Abdullah Saleh and Ali Mohsen, now vice president, in addition to the US and Saudi Arabia. At that time, large numbers of Yemenis fighting in the Afghan war were resettled in Abyan and funded by the northern authorities to weaken the ruling party in the south, the Yemeni Socialist Party.
In 2011, with the protest movement against him gaining momentum, Saleh is widely accused of having allowed AQAP to expand in Abyan by relocating or standing down the military forces in the governorate. After Hadi became president, with the military still dilapidated and heavily influenced by Saleh, who remained head of the ruling GPC party, the new government supported popular committees in Abyan to push back AQAP. After the transitional government collapsed in late 2014, AQAP members began to recoup. Some joined forces with resistance and soldiers in the fight against the Houthis, while the majority turned their attention inward against local actors that had targeted AQAP in the past.
After the dust settled in Aden and Abyan from the localized battle against the Houthis, the UAE funded and equipped paramilitary bodies across much of the south, including the Security Belt Forces in Abyan. The state military and security institutions were sidelined, and remain weak and largely ineffective. Security Belt Forces have conducted counter-terrorism operations against AQAP in Abyan and reduced their public footprint, but at the same time heavy-handed crackdowns against civilians in Abyan have caused resentment amongst many locals toward the SBF and its external sponsor.
There are concerns that AQAP may be able to feed off of local anger toward the security forces, and that without proper integration either into state institutions or back into civilian life – including much needed financial support from regional countries – AQAP and other criminal groups will be able to recruit from among its ranks. This is particularly the case given the UAE has largely employed fighters with similar religious leanings, who now have weapons training and combat experience.
With the Riyadh Agreement stalling on several issues, it remains to be seen how the Security Belt Forces fit into the equation. However, given the financial obstacles and the continued discord between the Yemeni and Emirati governments, there is an acute risk of further clashes and instability in Aden, Abyan, and beyond.