The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has reaffirmed its commitment in Yemen within the Saudi-led Coalition to support the country’s legitimate government and help it to reclaim the country from the Iran-backed Houthi rebels while at the same time curbing the terrorist threat of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group.
When the news broke a couple of weeks ago of an Emirati military drawdown in Yemen, it stirred speculation and sometimes far-fetched analysis. However, a UAE official briefed reporters last week about the redeployment of the country’s troops in Yemen, putting the news in a plausible context.
What stirred the reports was news of the scaling down of the UAE military presence in Khokha and Makha in Yemen. The UAE forces had been sent to the region in 2017 in the build-up to free Yemen’s main Red Sea port of Hodeida from Houthi control. After the peace agreement reached in Sweden and started to be implemented by the UN last year, the redeployment of the troops started.
The UAE official said last week that “we are reducing troop levels in the area for strategic and tactical reasons,” adding that “it is very much to do with moving from what I would call a military-first strategy to a peace-first strategy, and this is what we are doing.”
In other parts of Yemen where Emirati forces had taken the lead in driving Houthi rebels out or clearing Al-Qaeda elements, the UAE military only redeployed after making sure that local groups were capable of protecting them.
This strategy has been agreed within the coalition command, which is why coalition spokesman Turki Al-Maliki said both the UAE and Saudi Arabia were committed to achieving common goals in Yemen.
The Emirati official said that the Emirati redeployment was “not a last-minute decision. This is part of a process within the coalition that’s been discussed extensively with our partners the Saudis.”
“The United Arab Emirates and the other countries in the coalition continue to achieve their strategic goals,” he added.
Some media outlets, particularly those linked to Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, have pointed to the military movements as evidence of the UAE withdrawing from Yemen in the wake of disagreements with the Saudis.
Saudi journalist Abdulaziz Alkhamis told Al-Ahram Weekly that an antagonistic media was fabricating these claims. “Coordination between the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Yemen is at the same level as it was on day one. It’s even improving day by day. The redeployment of the UAE troops was planned within the coalition.”
“Military decisions are taken by leaders on the ground in cooperation with the two main parties of the coalition,” Alkhamis said. “The political leaderships in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi work closely on all issues, including Yemen.”
Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst for the Arabian Peninsula at the International Crisis Group, a NGO, also tweeted that local (Yemeni) partners had taken control of areas where Emirati forces had been redeployed. “It isn’t a complete withdrawal; some Emirati forces are remaining. UAE-aligned Yemeni brigades remain in position,” she wrote.
“The UAE now plans to focus on its partner-led approach, both in the ongoing Houthi struggle as well as increasingly in the Islamist fight in the South [of Yemen]. This takes the conflict onto new ground,” Dickinson wrote.
She added that “a final element shapes the situation now: the regional dynamic. Tensions with Iran were not the impetus for the withdrawal, but they have certainly complicated it. The UAE has sought to de-escalate, and Yemen may now form a part of that.”
Since the liberation of the main southern Yemeni city of Aden from Houthi control in 2015, Emirati forces along with coalition partners have been training and enabling Yemenis there. When the preparation of local forces is completed and they are capable of running and protecting their own areas, coalition forces leave with only small advisory or humanitarian-support units remaining.
As one Emirati source familiar with the humanitarian efforts of the coalition in Yemen said, “the forces are there not only to fight the Houthis and other terrorists but also to help Yemenis reclaim their lives and rebuild.”
“Rebuilding what the Houthi militias have destroyed is part of the coalition forces’ mission in Yemen, securing liberated areas and sending aid supplies to communities,” he said.
One of the main examples is clearing liberated areas from mines planted by the Houthi militias, some of them Iranian. Once the areas are clear, the demining units leave either to redeploy in other areas or go back after completing their rounds.
All this does not mean that views do not sometimes differ among the coalition partners, but they are able to reach a common agreement on the best way to achieve their goals. The UAE leadership sees its strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia as more strategically important than any trivial differences that may arise here or there.
As for Yemen, the Emirati strategy is clear and identical to the Saudi one: to help the Yemenis reclaim their country from Iran-backed insurgents, to curb Iranian influence in the Arabian Peninsula, and to eradicate the terrorist threat posed by Al-Qaeda and IS from Yemen.
In the process of achieving this, tactics may change and differences occur, but ultimately the strategy is one.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: No major shift in Yemen