Southern Yemen is perhaps the region where strategic divergences within the Saudi-led coalition have become most visible. In the southern Lahij, Abyan and Shabwah governorates, the continued presence of militants linked to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – which seized control of several southern towns in the past few years – encouraged the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to fund and train local counter-terrorism forces (see figure below). The most important of these groups, the Security Belt Forces, was created in Aden in March 2016 to fill the security vacuum in the port city and consists of around 15,000 fighters operating throughout most of the south (Associated Press, December 24, 2016). In the Shabwah governorate, the UAE recruited 3,000 to 4,000 local fighters in late 2016 to form the Shabwani Elite Forces, replicating the creation of the Hadhrami Elite Forces in Mukalla (Panel of Experts on Yemen, January 26, 2018). Although these groups are officially part of the national armed forces, they virtually constitute the armed wing of the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC), acting outside the formal command structure.
UAE-backed forces are also largely absent in the battlefronts of northern Lahij and northwestern Shabwah, where the Yemeni army and allied militias, with the air and ground support of the Saudi-led coalition, have long been battling pro-Houthi forces. Key conflict hotspots included the desert districts of Usaylan and Bayhan, where the Houthis controlled transit points and smuggling routes. In December 2017, a military offensive conducted after the collapse of the Houthi-Saleh alliance succeeded in liberating several villages in Usaylan and Bayhan from Houthi presence. However, while the UAE have played a limited role in the war against the Houthis compared to Saudi Arabia, Yemeni UAE-backed forces are reported to have participated in military operations north of the mountainous Kahbub area, which overlooks the Bab al Mandab strait in Lahij. UAE’s involvement in the Yemen Civil War, along with its expanding military presence in the Horn of Africa, reflects its strategic interest over southern Yemen to control trade and maritime routes across the Gulf of Aden.