By Imad K. Harb
Since the start of the Arab Spring in 2010-2011 and the rise in demands for democratic change in the Arab world, a special relationship has developed between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that has served several common causes. The two countries helped the return of authoritarianism to Egypt by bankrolling the regime of Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi after he toppled the former late President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. They started an intervention in Yemen purportedly aimed at restoring its legitimate president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, to Sanaa. They imposed and now maintain a boycott and blockade of neighboring Qatar after accusing it of plotting against them and weakening joint Gulf Cooperation Council action. They supported and now fund General Khalifa Haftar in his challenge to a United Nations-led political process in Libya. And they claim to be the enforcers of status quo Arab politics in the face of calls for political and other changes in Arab countries.
But now this alliance is experiencing some challenges as the UAE has decided to pull at least part of its military contingent in Yemen out of the country. On the one hand, the Emirati move highlights serious problems in the continuing intervention there, pursued by the UAE and Saudi Arabia since March 2015. On the other hand, it points to differences in how the two countries perceive their four-year joint endeavor, one that they have considered pivotal in preventing a future Iranian sphere of influence in the Arabian Peninsula. These two considerations take on special significance today as the war appears stalemated and the Houthis seem to insist on bringing it to targets in Saudi Arabia itself, both military and civilian, and on occasion to the UAE.
Considerations Surrounding the UAE Move
On July 8, the UAE announced that it is moving to a diplomatic stance from a “military first” strategy in Yemen and is redeploying and reducing troops there. A Yemeni official confirmed the news and said that UAE soldiers fighting Houthi rebels in the western part of the country have “totally vacated” a military base in al-Khokha, which is about 130 kilometers south of the Red Sea city of Hodeida. UAE officials denied that the withdrawal was sudden and affirmed that it had been discussed with Saudi Arabia last year. An Emirati official said the action is not supposed to leave a vacuum because the UAE has trained 90,000 Yemeni tribesmen, former security personnel, and militiamen from the south who could take on the necessary work.
Considering the serious Houthi challenge on the border with Saudi Arabia, the UAE action cannot be a positive development for Saudi Arabia. In fact, Saudi officials are reported to have been disappointed and had “intervened with the Emirati leaders to try to dissuade them from the drawdown.” Failing that, Saudi forces took over command in al-Khokha and the port city of Mokha to its south and sent troops to the southern city of Aden and the adjacent Perim Island in the strategic Bab al-Mandab waterway. The UAE had been instrumental in taking back Aden in 2015 from the Houthi rebels––who occupied it during their sweep of the south in 2014––and liberating coastal areas as far up as Hodeida. In strategic terms, the Saudi replacement and takeover of these important military positions means that the Emirati withdrawal is much more serious than originally announced. The Saudi action also may prevent the loss of ground liberated from the Houthis since the beginning of the 2015 intervention. Vacating bases on the Yemeni seashore threatens to open the area to infiltration and sabotage, no matter the effect of the current Saudi-led coalition’s naval blockade of the western part of the country.
Additionally, withdrawing from Yemen’s south exposes many of the militias the UAE nurtured and opens the possibility of competition and conflict among them. The Emirati intervention and conquest of Aden and other areas gave sustenance to the southern secessionists whose efforts had been stymied before. Today’s Southern Transitional Council—led by former Governor of Aden Aidarous al-Zubaidi, who was sacked by President Mansour Hadi in 2017—has for all practical purposes taken over government functions in Aden and plans for self-determination. The UAE also supported militias like the Security Belt Forces and the Shabwani and Hadrami Elite Forces, all nominally part of the Yemeni Army, as well as the Salafi Amaliqa and Abu al-Abbas Brigades in addition to elements of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), which ceased to exist in 1990. In 2018 and again in 2019, the UAE attempted to control the distant Yemeni island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean where it maintains a military base.
The UAE’s role in Yemen and its support for militias caused much consternation among the members of President Hadi’s government who considered the UAE’s actions an infringement on Yemeni sovereignty and a challenge to the president’s legitimacy. In May 2017, the president himself clashed with the UAE’s strongman, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, accusing his country of behaving like an occupier. (Hadi tried to patch up relations in 2018 by visiting the UAE ahead of a June 2018 attack on Hodeida.) That expanded role was brought about mainly by the UAE’s desire to exert influence beyond its small size. Its military and economic relationships with littoral countries populating the geographic expanse from the Arabian Sea to Libya afforded Abu Dhabi a golden opportunity to project power, and Yemen was and remains a pivotal node in that strategic landscape.
This overall picture of UAE work in Yemen thus makes Abu Dhabi’s decision to withdraw from Yemen an intriguing development. Important reasons must have necessitated it, given the significance of the Saudi-Emirati relationship and the level of investment the UAE has made in the war effort. These reasons include the following:
You can read the full opinion article at Lobe Log here.