By James A. Dorsey
A United Arab Emirates decision to withdraw the bulk of its forces from Yemen shines a spotlight on hard realities underlying Middle Eastern geopolitics.
The pullback suggests that the UAE is preparing for the possibility of a US military confrontation with Iran in which the UAE and Saudi Arabia could emerge as prime battlegrounds.
It also reflects long-standing subtle differences in the approaches of Saudi Arabia and the UAE towards Yemen.
It further highlights the UAE’s long-standing concern for its international standing amid mounting criticism of the civilian toll of the war as well as a recognition that the Trump administration’s unquestioning support may not be enough to shield its allies from significant reputational damage.
The withdrawal constitutes a finetuning rather than a reversal of the UAE’s determination to contain Iran and thwart political Islam witness the Emirates’ involvement in the Libyan civil war and support for renegade field marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar as well as its support for the embattled Sudanese military and autocrats like Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
While the UAE may have withdrawn the bulk of its troops from key regions of Yemen, it leaves behind Emirati-trained local forces that will continue to do its bidding. The withdrawal, moreover, is not 100 percent with the UAE maintaining its Al-Mukalla base for counterterrorism operations.
The UAE’s commitment to assertive policies designed to ensure that the small state can continue to punch above its weight are also evident in its maintenance of a string of military and commercial port facilities in Yemen, on the African shore of the Red Sea, and in the Horn of Africa as well its hard-line towards Qatar and rivalry with Turkey.
As part of its regional and international projection, the UAE is keen to maintain its status as a model for Arab youth and preferred country of residence.
The UAE’s image contrasts starkly with that of Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s policies, including the clampdown on domestic critics and the Yemen war, have prompted embarrassing calls by prominent Islamic scholars for a boycott of the pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the five pillars of Islam.
Wittingly or unwittingly, the withdrawal leaves Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed, the instigator of the more than four-year long war that has sparked one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, exposed.
Nonetheless, despite differing objectives in Yemen, the UAE too suffered from the reputational fallout of bombings of civilian targets that were largely carried out by the Saudi rather than the Emirati air force.
Operating primarily in the north, Saudi Arabia focussed on countering Iranian-backed Houthi rebels whose stronghold borders on the kingdom while the UAE backed South Yemeni separatists and targeted Muslim-Brotherhood related groups.
With the withdrawal, the UAE may allow differences with Saudi Arabia to become more visible but will not put its alliance with the kingdom at risk.
If past differences are anything to go by, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are able to manage them.
The differences were evident in recent weeks with the UAE, unlike Saudi Arabia, refraining from blaming Iran for attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
Leaked emails written by Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s influential ambassador in Washington, laid bare the Emirates’ strategy of working through the Saudi court to achieve its regional objectives despite viewing the kingdom as “coo coo.”
Similarly, differences in the two countries’ concept of Islam failed to rock their alliance despite the effective excommunication in 2016 of Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism at a UAE-sponsored conference in the Chechen capital of Grozny.
The alliance is key to the two countries’ counterrevolution aimed at maintaining the region’s autocratic status quo in the face of almost a decade of popular revolts, public protests and civil wars.
You can read the full opinion article at Lobe Log here.