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What does the return of Yemen's exiled prime minister mean?

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Adam Schreck/AP

(Read caption) Yemeni fighters who are allies with the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels visit a United Arab Emirates military base in Yemen, Monday. The exiled prime minister has returned to Yemen after coalition fighters have taken new ground.

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The exiled government of Yemen has made another gain for Sunni power against the Houthi rebels, and two governments may soon operate in Yemen. 

The fighting is not over, but Prime Minister Khaled Bahah is returning to Yemen after six months in Saudi Arabia, The Wall Street Journal reports. Officials from the Yemeni government, which fled the country after Houthi rebels seized power in March, have been trickling back into southern Yemen since July.

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The fight for Yemen is split along sectarian lines. Soldiers from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia fight with Yemeni soldiers who support the exiled president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The Houthi rebels have been funded by Iran for years.

Sunni soldiers from the neighboring countries feel brotherhood with the Sunni Yemenis who support the exiled president, and they are fighting alongside them in Yemen, Reuters reports.

"I know Yemen's an important country and next to all of ours. Whatever happens here we can't ignore – it will spread to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Iran won't stop until it spreads its Persian empire over everywhere here," a young soldier from Dubai named Salem told Reuters. 

The nation-state of Yemen has never been more than lines on a map,  said Roby Barrett, a scholar at the nonpartisan Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. He told The Christian Science Monitor the tribal and sectarian groups have been at odds for years, and separate governments offer a better solution. 

"I think this idea of separate Yemens is a great idea," Mr. Barrett said. "It will never be a stable state otherwise."

He said while the US supported the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh for years, the Sunni government in Saudi Arabia is tired of his constant switching of sides to stay in power and is ready to support a state in the southern, coastal area that has been a Sunni stronghold. 

"Yemen never ever functioned as a state, even Saleh knew that," Barrett said. "In fact it's four to five distinct groups that are all masters of their own fate."

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The Houthi rebels still control northern Yemen from San'a, but a coalition of troops from Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates took the southern city of Aden in July. The two parts of the country are now deeply split, and the setting up of a rival government in the south does not make reconciliation appear likely.

The Houthi rebels in the north are allied with supporters of Saleh, Yemen's former president. Mr. Saleh stepped down from power in Yemen during Arab Spring protests in 2012. In the spring of 2015, he asked leaders in Saudi Arabia if he could safely leave Yemen, but they said no, Al Jazeera reported. 

The newly returned government's focus will be on restoring security and stability, first to Aden and then to the country, an official told the Associated Press. Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi remains in exile in Riyadh.