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On July 8, 2019, the UAE announced a “strategic redeployment” from the port city of Hodeidah, along the western coast of Yemen, in addition to a tactical retreat in other areas. The move is a major turn in the Saudi-led coalition‘s offensive in the country, within which the Emirati nation has played a major supporting role.
The Gulf nation justified its decision by saying that it was navigating toward a “peace-first” strategy. Reports suggest that troop numbers in Hodeidah, a Houthi-held area, have already gone down from 750 soldiers to 150, while helicopters and heavy artillery have been removed. The weekend’s announcement was the first confirmation of a shift that has been in discussion for months.
A war between the Houthi-armed movement and the forces of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, of the officially recognized government, has been ongoing in Yemen since 2014. A coalition of international forces led by Saudi Arabia has been backing the regime since March 2015, providing air force personnel and troops against the Houthis, a rebel group that is, according to many sources, supported by Iran. The UAE has been one of Saudi Arabia’s most important allies, providing their air force, weapons, funding and an estimated 5,000 troops. On the southeast end of the Arabian Peninsula, the Emirati forces have reportedly trained 90,000 soldiers. Although it is said to have a smaller army compared to larger regional allies, it became the dominant force after the coalition took al-Mokha, Khokha and other areas on the western Yemeni coast in early 2017. There were trained the Yemeni forces al-Amaliqa and the fighters loyal to Tareq Saleh, the deceased Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s nephew. Both groups joined together to form “Guards of the Republic.”
The fallout of the conflict has been described by the U.N. as one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world. More than 70,000 people have died since the beginning of the conflict, according to data collected by the Armed Conflict and Location Event Data Project, while up to 14 million people may be on the brink of famine and an estimated 85,000 children, five-years-old or younger, may have died from acute malnutrition. Saudi Arabia has also been implicated in potential war crimes.
In December 2018, coalition parties supported a U.N.-led peace agreement signed in Stockholm that called for a cease-fire, the opening of humanitarian corridors and the possibility of prisoner swaps.
The UAE’s involvement in the war has been iterated by Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, as fundamental to security in the Middle East. While Iran does support the Houthis, economic relations between the Persian country and the UAE does not seem to have been affected, as the two countries’ annual trade, worth $20 billion, appears unhindered.
In the meantime, the UAE has established a number of strategically located bases in and outside Yemen (in Perim Island in Yemen, Assab in Eritrea, Berbera in Somaliland and Bosaso in Puntland) that has boosted its security role in the region.
There is no definitive answer to the reason for the country’s withdrawal, but a few events can be pointed at.
Substantial opposition to the coalition’s activities in Yemen has been seen through civilian protest and political criticism, for instance, by Congressmen in the U.S, which has hurt the UAE’s international reputation.
As well as training groups on the western coast, it has been working closely with groups in the south, where it has also maintained a reduced military presence, such as the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC).
According to the American geopolitical intelligence platform Stratfor, by working closely with southern groups, where it maintains military presence, the UAE has created its “Security Belt”: a security infrastructure to stabilize the south, using local forces to detain citizens with links to Islamist groups.
In this regard, it would be an error to think that drawdown is a case of UAE absence in the conflict, or that it is a victory for the Houthis and Iran, as some officials say might be feared by the US or Saudi. The UAE’s presence is still felt in the area, even if they don’t have as many boots on the ground, according to locals.
You could say that the UAE never envisaged being on Yemeni ground for the long-term and that the aim of its involvement was to stabilize Yemen – therefore its redeployment of resources is not a digression from this objective. Rather than focusing on fighting the Houthis, the UAE’s efforts will now be geared towards counter-terrorism. The continued Emirati presence in the south as well as on the island of Socotra also indicates that the country has greater political ambitions in the region, according to some analysts, along the lines of access to development projects and trade. Peter Salisbury from the International Crisis Group has suggested that the move lays bare fissures among pro-government and anti-Houthi groups, as the UAE’s goals have been different to its coalition partners from the beginning of the war in Yemen. Progress seen in Hodeidah has enabled them to seek these out.
A drawdown is also the result of battle lines moving beyond where the UAE has been most active. Therefore, in essence, less troops from the Emirates may barely affect the conflict, as the current Yemeni frontlines are controlled by other countries’ forces, according to Stratfor.
It is nonetheless important to note that southern Yemeni interests have been diverging from the overall war effort, so strengthening groups in this part of the country could spur new separatist movements as well. The Hadi government, therefore, sees the U.A.E’s strengthening of militias in this part of Yemen as a challenge to his government and leadership. The UAE’s new strengthened security role, including its web of bases and strong ties with local groups, has allowed for deeper involvement in Libya in support of General Khalifa Haftar‘s offensive in the country.
“The Emirati withdrawal from Yemen won’t lead to peace and stability in this country,” said Adel Dashela, a Yemeni researcher and freelance writer, previously of BAMU in India, speaking to Fanack Chronicle. “The UAE has succeeded in dismantling Yemen into rival cantons on tribal and sectarian bases. In addition, this withdrawal means that there is an Iranian-Emirati understanding,” Dashela added: “The U.A.E will accept the militias of al-Houthi to govern some of the northern regions, and the transitional council (Southern Separatist militias) controls some southern regions of Yemen.”
Dashela also said that the UAE wants to improve its image after accusations of crimes in its secret prisons in southern Yemen, and that it “does not want to escalate against Iran.” Declaring its withdrawal from Yemen was also a way to convey a message to Tehran, Dashela, said. In doing so, the UAE told Iran: “We are not against you.”
Saudi Arabia has now moved in to secure two strategic Red Sea ports and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, while also taking command of military bases at al-Mokha, Kokha, Aden and Perim Island. Already, Saudi reports suggest that Houthis have moved in to attack commercial vessels in the Southern Red Sea and the Bab- al-Mandeb Strait, which they deny.
While the decision of the UAE to reduce its troops presence in Yemen is a notable turn in the four-year conflict, the UAE still plays a key role within it via its proxies and through counter-terrorism efforts. It has also carved itself a new strategic security role in the region and its reduced military footprint in Yemen could serve to mitigate reputational damage from participating in the war. Now, further Saudi engagement is likely to amplify international criticism of the Kingdom but with almost 19,000 trained troops in its place in Hodeidah, the fact that there are fewer UAE feet on Yemeni ground does not indicate the end of this war.