14 August 2019

United Arab Emirates’ withdrawal from Yemen- the demise of the Arab Coalition?

Claudiu Nebunu

For over four years now, the Coalition led by Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) have launched an intense air campaign in Yemen, against the Houthi rebels supported by Iran. Despite the devastating effects against infrastructure and the population (especially children), two new aspects could change this war’s coordinates. One is Houthi’s increased capacity to hit “behind” Coalition’s forces (Thursday/ 1st of August, rebels have claimed two major attacks against the forces supported by the Coalition). The second one and the most important aspect, which did not get media’s attention that much, is UAE’s decision to reduce the military presence in Yemen. Why this measure, now? Which would be the consequences?... only two questions, whose answers would bring a little light over how UAE differently approaches its presence in Yemen.

Image source: Mediafax

Abu Dhabi’s “treason”…                                                                                   

At the beginning of last month (09th of July), UAE announced a “strategic redeployment” from the port city Hodeida and a limited tactical withdrawal from other part of Yemen, in order to go  from a “military strategy to the first peace strategy”. Emirate’s officials have reasoned this redeployment by stating that UAE forces must focus on Iran’s defeat and Abu Dhabi’s success emphasis in putting Houthi aside as major political forces in South of Yemen.

The withdrawal from Yemen was confirmed, in the past few weeks, by different witnesses and foreign officials. They did not give any details on troops’ moves, but witnesses are saying that a major withdrawal of troops and techniques is being developed in Marib and Hodeida, as well as in Aden.

Emirates’ forces responsibilities will be given to local Yemeni forces, trained by UAE, and the troops remaining in Yemen will particularly focus on terrorism combat efforts against Al-Qaida/AQAP and the “Islamic state”, than on the fight against Houthi. Abu Dhabi has stated that UAE will continue to be, however, part of the coalition led by Saudi Arabia, which interfered, in 2015, to stabilize the Yemeni government, at that time being overthrown by the Houthi rebels.

UAE’s withdrawal weakens Saudi Arabia’s military capacities in Yemen, increasing the pressures on Riyadh for finding rather a political solution than a military one, for the war in Yemen. No one knows, yet, if the local troops and partners from the Coalition will be able to fill the gap provoked by Emirates’ militaries withdrawal.

Withdrawal’s reasons? The ceasefire agreement from Hodeida and the Gulf tensions.

Last year, Hodeida became war’s major objective, when the coalition led by Saudi Arabia stopped taking the control over the city-port, Houthi’s main supply line. In December, UN has mediated a ceasefire agreement in the city, by which the Yemeni government, but also the Houthi rebels, should have withdrew, leaving Hodeida’s security responsibilities on a neuter local force.

On the other hand, many diplomats from Emirates, quoted by Reuters, have stated that Abu Dhabi prefers to have forces and equipment home, in case of an escalation between US and Iran, after the attacks over the oil tanks in the Gulf and the American military drone takedown.

Emirate’s authorities have denied the suggestions according to which the withdrawal marks an increasing different between UAR’s approaches and Saudi Arabia’s ones regarding the Yemen deadlock, or in terms of Teheran’s threat in the Gulf area.

Other reasons which are… less emphasized!

Although these local or domestic factors have led to UAE’s policy change in Yemen, Abu Dhabi’s decision to reduce the military participation in Yemen was, also, triggered by the international pressure and the will to cancel an extended military campaign.

Despite the close relationship between the American president, Donald Trump, and the crown prince of UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed, the US Defence Department has recently pressured UAE to allow the start of an investigation over the abuses made against prisoners in Yemen.

The reactions to UAE’s supposed armament transports to Al-Qaida from Yemen (AQAP) and the critics against UAE’s role in worsening the humanitarian crisis, have affected Emirates’ international reputation. Hence, there is another reason why the withdrawal means saving UAE’s foreign image.

As the civil Yemeni war extended, Abu Dhabi authorities also experienced domestic pressures to prove that the interference in Yemen will remain limited.  The self-restraint on the military intervention extension emerged among the official circles since the very first phases of the conflict. Since July 2016, UAE’s Foreign Minister, Anwar Gargash, was announcing that the war in Yemen “ended for our troops”, and Mohammed bin Zayed agreed with Gargahs’s statements on Twitter. Although these statements did not immediately change UAE’s behavior in Yemen, these are actually suggesting that Abu Dhabi was willing to unilaterally withdraw at the right moment.

On the other hand, people’s support decrease for UAE’s military presence in South of Yemen is, also, explaining the military decrease favoring an indirect large scale influence use. In the middle of June, in Shadwah region, which is oil-rich, have started anti-Emirate protests, the protestants asking for UAE’s “occupation” stop in south of Yemen. People in Aden are not that pleased with UAE. Many Aden inhabitants are still remembering port’s administration by the Emirate Company DP World, in the 2008-2012, and think that UAE’s exploitation policies have impoverished the local population.

By supporting the local military forces UAE can keep their influence in South of Yemen and forestall the large-scale popular demonstrations.

Not least, although great part of the critics related to American armament sales to Arab states are pointing Saudi Arabia, the UAE transactions are also starting to be carefully analyzed. Democrat senator Bob Menendez, member of State’s Foreign Relations Committee, has recently threatened that he will propose the blockage of American armament sales to UAE, as consequence of reports regarding the US missiles transactions to Libyan forces commander, Khalifa Haftar, by breaking the US and international legislation.

Indeed, UAE is worried about possible negative reactions from US after country’s role in Yemen and Libya. Even if Washington will not cancel the armament sales to Abu Dhabi, such a reaction and the negative monitoring are affecting UAE’s’ image in US.

Withdrawal… not giving up…

UAE is determined to remain a major player in Yemen, confronting the enemies assumed at the beginning of the war and strengthening its influence through proxies. Even though most of Emirates’ troops were withdrawn, there are still 90,000 trained Yemeni fighters, allies of UAE. They (members of tribes, former security forces and Southern separatists) will continue to receive arms and money from UAE.

In order to keep its favorable strategic position in Yemen, UAE will selectively engage in counter-terrorism operations, support its proxy elements to strengthen their control in Southern Yemen and expand its diplomatic involvement.

 By engaging in anti-terrorist efforts, UAE seeks both to prevent the development of AQAP to the detriment of Yemeni forces supported by Abu Dhabi, and to strengthen its partnership with the US.

The Security Belt, a paramilitary force in Southern Yemen, supported by the UAE, ensures a strong military presence throughout the country. There are also some media reports according to which UAE is supporting STC to establish a parallel armed force (52,000 fighters, recruited from South Yemen and a significant number of military advisers from the Emirates) with the Yemeni army controlled by President Hadi, to effectively prevent pro-Hadi or Houthi forces to expel UAE’s proxy elements.

The control of the secessionist organization The Southern Transition Council (STC, under UAE influence) over Aden has allowed the emirate authorities to assert that the military withdrawal is the result of consolidating gains, rather than admitting defeat. Even if they did that, Abu Dhabi remains involved in southern Yemen and could have a considerable influence over Yemen's future political path.

UAE’s decision consequences

When Saudi Arabia and a few Arab and African partners launched the Operation “Decisive Storm”, in March, 2015, to crush the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, UAE was Riyadh's most important ally in the Coalition. Saudi Arabia relied on the UAE for air campaigns, intelligence collection, ground operations and Yemen's anti-Houthi fighters training.

Now, the UAE withdrawal questions the future of Saudi-Emirati cooperation in Yemen and Coalition's ability to keep cohesion. Some voices are claiming that the UAE withdrawal is more of an illusion, aimed at protecting Abu Dhabi’s image in the West.

Despite the fact that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are close allies, the differences approaching Yemen have never been a secret. For years, UAE has sponsored Southern separatists, who reject the UN-recognized President Abd Rabbuh Hadi’s legitimacy and his support for Riyadh, and his efforts to preserve the unity of Yemen. These issues did not, at the time, lead to serious cracks in the Coalition or, at least, they were not made public.

However, it is not difficult to imagine the growing frustration of Saudi authorities regarding the evolution of UAE’s approach to Yemen’s war. The Saudi kingdom will remain the sole target of international outrage, as long as world's worst humanitarian crisis continues, amid the Houthi rebels.

Iran and the Houthi rebels are likely to exploit the withdrawal of UAE for propaganda reasons. After several months of Houthi demonstrating increased capabilities in drone and missile attacks against strategic Saudi targets, Iran and rebels will seek to portray the withdrawal of UAE as a sign of Coalition's weakness and division.


Finally, UAE’s withdrawal highlights the divisions within the Arab Coalition. For Abu Dhabi, the creation of a friendly administration in Aden was more important than the northern issue, controlled by the Houthi rebels. Strengthening its role in southern Yemen and the Red Sea is UAE’s top priority. From here, Abu Dhabi can project its influence in the rest of Yemen, the Horn of Africa and the Bab al-Mandab Strait.

UAE was a major player in the war in Yemen and the decision to reduce its military presence could be a catalyst for conflicts’ significant drop. In order to repair its image and to pursue its geopolitical agenda, Abu Dhabi is likely to expand its involvement in the diplomatic resolution of Yemen's civil war.

For Saudi Arabia, the idea of strengthening Houthi’s power in northern Yemen have direct implications for kingdom’s security. With the withdrawal of most of the forces from Yemen, Abu Dhabi left Riyadh with a major dilemma. Saudi Arabia's national security is indeed threatened by Houthi and this danger will only increase as Iran's allied insurgents make further progress in drone and missile capabilities.

Without UAE's direct military contribution against Houthi, Riyadh must face its own record of countless mistakes in Yemen. And Saudi Arabia has become isolated in a conflict that entirely belongs to the country, but especially the heir prince, Mohammed bin Salman ...

Translated by Andreea Soare