Last month, the United Arab Emirates announced that it will reduce its forces significantly in Yemen. After this announcement, the Emiratis started pulling out its military hardware and thousands of troops from Yemen. The UAE is a major coalition partner in the Saudi-led military campaign which was launched to quash Iran backed Houthi rebels. The Emiratis has intervened in the Yemeni war since March of 2015.
Since the beginning of the Saudi-led campaign, Saudi Arabia has relied heavily on the UAE for air support, intelligence gathering, on-the-ground operations, and training of Yemen’s anti-Houthi fighters. Since the start of the Arab Spring and rise in demands for democratic change in the Arab world, a special relationship developed between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that has served various common causes. But it looks like now that Abu Dhabi is parting from Saudi Arabia over Yemen. The Saudi objectives in the Yemen war has been to dislodge the Houthis from the capital Sana’a and weaken their military capabilities along the Saudi-Yemeni border. Years of devastating airstrikes and fighting have been unable to achieve either goal.
This Emirati pull out is not a haphazard decision but a well-planned one which was being planned for quite some time. Abu Dhabi feels that its objectives in Yemen more or less are achieved and it is the right time to reduce its presence. The UAE has already trained thousands of allied Yemeni forces and fighters which operate in the south and work as Emirati proxies. These proxies are comprised of tribesmen, former security forces and southern separatists and are heavily dependent on the UAE for weapons and money. The UAE also effectively runs a paramilitary force known as the ‘The Security Belt’ that is outside the rule of both the Saudis and the Yemeni government and only reports to the UAE. Now the UAE is confident that these forces can do their job and protect its interests in Yemen.
The UAE’s long-term goals in Yemen are very clear, that is to divide the country and create a southern state which will in effect be a client state of the UAE. In this way Abu Dhabi will be able to secure trade routes through the port of Aden to the rest of the world and exploit Yemen’s natural resources. To push these goals, the UAE is actively supporting the southern secessionist movement called the Southern Transitional Council (STC). Moreover, the UAE has directed the STC to establish a parallel army to the ousted President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. This process is underway and once completed the STC’s military force will consist of more than 50,000 South Yemeni troops which will be supported by a sizable numbers of Emirati technical advisors. Therefore, Abu Dhabi feels that it only has to nurture the forces which are allied to them rather than having its own regular troops in the war-torn country. Also, the rising unpopularity of the UAE’s military presence in southern Yemen also explains Abu Dhabi’s shift towards more indirect power projection.
In mid-June, large anti-UAE protests erupted in the oil-rich Shabwah region and demonstrators have called for an end to the UAE’s occupation of southern Yemen. The civilian population of South Yemen and especially of Aden have started seeing Emirati forces as occupiers. By empowering its local allied forces, the UAE is confident that it will be able to shroud its hegemony in southern Yemen and prevent large-scale popular unrest that would weaken its long-term influence.
The Arab coalition participants have been the target of global condemnation for the way in which they have conducted the Yemeni war in which thousands of civilians have died. Abu Dhabi is very much concerned about its international image and doesn’t want to be labeled as the state which doesn’t give a damn about war crimes and human rights abuses. So, withdrawal of most of its forces will place global attention on the coalition’s killing of civilians squarely on Saudi Arabia. As Riyadh will likely continue its bombing campaign, while the UAE has adopted its own strategy, creating an illusion that it is less involved in the conflict.
Across the Yemeni map, the UAE has created a complex network of local allies and loyal military formations that run their interests in Yemen, and are capable of fulfilling the UAE’s geopolitical ambitions on Abu Dhabi’s behalf. The UAE remains firmly committed to advancing its strategic interests in Yemen. The UAE is most likely to preserve its hegemony over southern Yemen and could exert considerable influence over Yemen’s future political trajectory. So, this force reduction of the UAE should not be seen as an Emirati exit from the Yemeni conflict. Rather it should be viewed as beginning the next phase of Abu Dhabi’s involvement.