On July 9, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) withdrew its military forces from Yemen’s port city of Hudaydah, in order to transition from a "military-first strategy to a peace-first strategy." Emirati officials justified this redeployment by claiming that UAE forces needed to focus on confronting Iran and highlighting Abu Dhabi’s success in marginalizing the Houthis as a major political force in southern Yemen.
Although these factors contributed to the UAE’s policy shift in Yemen, the UAE’s decision to scale back its military intervention in Yemen was also triggered by international pressure and a desire to suspend a protracted military campaign. In spite of U.S. President Donald Trump’s close relationship with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the U.S. Department of Defense recently pressured the UAE to allow an investigation into the abuse of detainees in Yemen. Backlash against the UAE’s alleged arms shipments to al-Qaeda in Yemen and criticisms of the UAE’s role in worsening Yemen’s humanitarian crisis have also damaged the UAE’s international reputation. As the UAE’s geopolitical vision depends on blending hard and soft power, Abu Dhabi’s withdrawal announcement was aimed, in part, at salvaging the UAE’s tarnished reputation.
As the Yemeni civil war drags on, UAE officials have also faced internal pressure to demonstrate that their involvement in Yemen is finite. Reservations about the sustainability of the UAE’s military intervention first surfaced in official circles during the early stages of the conflict. In July 2016, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash announced the Yemen war was "over for our troops," and Mohammed bin Zayed concurred with Gargash’s statement on Twitter. Although these comments did not change the UAE’s conduct in Yemen, they suggest that Abu Dhabi would be willing to unilaterally withdraw from Yemen, if the timing was suitable. The UAE-aligned Southern Transitional Council (STC)’s hegemony over Aden has allowed Emirati officials to claim that their withdrawal is about consolidating gains, rather than an admission of defeat. This narrative frame has helped Mohammed bin Zayed smoothly navigate the UAE’s drawdown from Yemen.
Even though the UAE is downsizing its military presence, Abu Dhabi does not wish to surrender its influence in Yemen. To preserve its favorable strategic position, the UAE will selectively engage in counter-terrorism operations in Yemen, assist its proxies in their efforts to consolidate hegemony over southern Yemen, and expand its diplomatic involvement in Yemen. These actions will help ensure that UAE-Saudi Arabia relations are not severely damaged by Abu Dhabi’s unilateral withdrawal and that the UAE will secure its interests in an eventual Yemeni peace settlement.
In spite of the UAE’s troop drawdown from Yemen, initial reports suggest that Abu Dhabi will maintain a military presence in its base on al-Mukalla, a former al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) stronghold that was overrun by the UAE in 2016. The UAE will keep this deployment because it fears that AQAP could gain supporters by claiming that the UAE is plundering southern Yemen’s resources and instigating south Yemeni separatism. UAE officials are also concerned that their south Yemeni separatist proxies lack preparation for a counter-terrorism campaign against the AQAP, as they have traditionally relied on support from the UAE armed forces.
In addition to ensuring that al-Mukalla does not fall into AQAP hands, the UAE’s continued participation in counter-terrorism campaigns strengthens its partnerships with Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Although the UAE insists that it consulted with Saudi Arabia before announcing a drawdown from Yemen, Abu Dhabi’s hostile relationship with Saudi-aligned President of Yemen Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and support for the STC rankle Saudi policymakers. By engaging in counter-terrorism missions against what it describes as a Houthi-ISIS-AQAP coalition, the UAE preserves its high level of military cooperation with Saudi Arabia. The UAE also wants to highlight its value as a counter-terrorism partner to U.S. officials, as Abu Dhabi is concerned that its close alliance with the U.S. will weaken if a Democratic Party candidate defeats Trump in 2020.
As Abu Dhabi’s hegemony over Aden complements its rising military presence on the Red Sea and Horn of Africa, the UAE will ensure that its troop drawdown does not weaken its influence in southern Yemen. The Security Belt, a UAE-aligned south Yemeni paramilitary force, continues to maintain a formidable military presence throughout southern Yemen. The UAE has also reportedly directed the STC to establish a parallel army to the Hadi-controlled Yemeni military. Once this process is complete, the STC’s military force will consist of an estimated 52,000 south Yemeni troops and sizable numbers of Emirati technical advisors. This level of military strength effectively prevents pro-Hadi or Houthi forces from expelling the UAE’s proxies through military force.
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 UAE is also unfavorably viewed by the civilian population of Aden. Many residents of Aden negatively recall Dubai-based port company DP World’s administration of the port from 2008 to 2012 and believe the UAE’s exploitative policies impoverished the local population. By empowering local military forces, the UAE is able to shroud its hegemony in southern Yemen and prevent large-scale popular unrest that would weaken its long-term influence.
In order to repair its tarnished image and further its geopolitical agenda, the UAE will likely expand its involvement in the diplomatic resolution of the Yemeni civil war. It is noteworthy that the UAE’s withdrawal announcement followed UN special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths’ July 2 trip to Abu Dhabi to discuss the peace process. As the UAE’s credibility as a mediator has been damaged by its involvement in egregious human rights abuses and adversarial relations with both the Houthis and Hadi’s government, Abu Dhabi is unlikely to promote cross-factional dialogue in Yemen. Instead, the UAE will likely use its economic clout and links to paramilitary groups as points of leverage to influence the development of Yemen’s post-war political institutions.
Once multilateral peace negotiations resume, the UAE will lobby for Hadi’s replacement by a new president that is more amenable to Emirati interests. The UAE is also expected to support the federalization of Yemen, as this outcome will give southern Yemen greater autonomy and prolong Abu Dhabi’s influence over this strategically valuable region. These policy proposals could exacerbate frictions between the UAE and Saudi Arabia on Yemen, but Abu Dhabi hopes that both countries’ common focus on isolating Iran and Qatar will prevent these disagreements from weakening their strategic alliance.
Even though many international media outlets have conflated the UAE’s troop reductions in Yemen with a military withdrawal, the UAE remains firmly committed to advancing its strategic interests in Yemen. The UAE is likely to preserve its hegemony over southern Yemen and could exert considerable influence over Yemen’s future political trajectory. Even if these successes are achieved, however, Mohammed bin Zayed will struggle to distance the UAE from its instrumental role in bringing about Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe.
By Samuel Ramani
- The writer is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to The Washington Post and The Diplomat.