Reports that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is withdrawing from Yemen have been met by surprise and relief in equal measure.
For the past four years the UAE has quietly conducted a multifaceted military, security and political campaign in Yemen. And all the while Saudi Arabia was officially the lead nation in the War against Yemen and the Saudis appeared willing – if not happy – to take the rap for the countless mishaps in the war.
By most credible accounts, the UAE’s involvement in the Yemen War has been greater than Saudi Arabia’s, and Abu Dhabi’s concealment of this fact, speaks volumes about the Emirates’ diplomatic and public relations prowess.
By the same token, and in view of the depth of the UAE’s involvement in the Yemen conflict, it would be surprising, to say the least, if the UAE suddenly stopped its involvement there.
So, what is going on?
War of conflicting motivations
Every conflict is multi-layered and complex, but in the case of the Yemen War, the complexity is on a massive level, in part because of the internal dynamics, but more importantly because of the multiplicity of the foreign players involved.
Saudi Arabia assumed leadership of the multi-national force which attacked Yemen in March 2015, ostensibly to remove the Houthis (officially known as the Ansarullah movement) from parts of the capital Aden and to subsequently drive them from their strongholds in the north of Yemen.
Saudi Arabia framed its campaign as a battle to remove Iranian influence in Yemen. The Houthis adhere to Zaidism, a Shia sect which is markedly distinct from the Twelver Shiaism dominant in Iran and Iran. In fact, in devotional and theological terms, the Zaidis are much closer to Sunnis than they are to Shias.
Nevertheless, at the political and ideological levels, the Houthis are close to Iran as they have embraced the so-called “resistance” discourse. This places them on the same spectrum as regional Iranian allies like Lebanese Hezbollah, albeit at a much lower level.
But the War in Yemen is much more than just fighting the Houthis; in fact it can be argued that containing the Houthis is not even the top priority.
The Saudis’ main concern is to install a Riyadh-friendly government in Aden. This is a goal that the Saudis have pursued for decades, but it acquired a new-found urgency following the overthrow of Ali Abdullah Saleh in February 2012.
At the helm of Yemeni politics since July 1978, Saleh was viewed in Riyadh as too headstrong and volatile and was assessed to be a barrier to Saudi influence in Yemen.
Thus, Saleh’s overthrow – in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring movement – was viewed in Riyadh as an opportunity to intervene directly in Yemen with a view to influencing the formation of a new leadership on Saudi terms.
But Saudi plans were thrown into disarray in part because of the political chaos in Aden and Sana’a following Saleh’s removal, but more importantly because the ensuing vacuum was filled by the Houthis who at first consolidated their grip on the north and then began to move south.
So, what was the UAE’s motivation for joining the Saudi-led coalition?
Abu Dhabi’s focussed campaign
The UAE’s foreign policy is effectively run by Abu Dhabi. The latter moved swiftly to consolidate control over policy-making at the federal level following the seismic shifts brought about by the so-called Arab Spring.
Like all the Trucial states of the Persian Gulf, the Emiratis were concerned by the apparent overthrow of the old Arab order in key Arab countries such as Egypt, and to a lesser extent Tunisia and Libya.
Furthermore, the vicious Civil War-cum-Proxy War in Syria brought home the dangers of political cleavages escalating into armed conflict.
But from the outset, the Emiratis had more parochial war aims than the Saudis.
For a start, the Emiratis were not as committed as the Saudis to Yemen’s territorial integrity. In fact, the UAE has actively encouraged the dissolution of Yemen by backing southern separatists.
The core secessionist organisation, known as the “Southern Transitional Council” (STC), raised the stakes in October 2018 when it called on its members and followers to “take over” public institutions in Aden and other cities in the south.
Another UAE objective in Yemen has been to degrade the local chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, known as Al-Islah.
Last October, an investigative piece by Buzzfeed News, exposed the UAE’s political assassination campaign in Yemen. According to the report – which has been widely quoted in the international media – the UAE had hired American ex-soldiers to assassinate the leaders of Al-Islah.
The method used to implement these policies, notably the use of foreign mercenaries, has been the trademark of the UAE’s operations in Yemen.
In November 2015, the New York Times revealed that the UAE had sent up to 450 Colombian mercenaries to Yemen.
Other reports have indicated the dispatching by Abu Dhabi of Australian, South African and Sudanese mercenaries to Yemeni war zones.
Instead of fighting the highly motivated and ideological Houthis, UAE-led mercenaries have largely been used to set up and train local paramilitaries in the south which can then be used to deepen Abu Dhabi’s political grip over key southern power centres.
What next for the UAE in Yemen?
So, is Abu Dhabi really going to give up on its massive investments in Yemen, pack up and leave?
Not likely. Even if the Emirates withdraws its formal forces from Yemen, it will continue to exert influence through its local proxies, notably the STC and allied groups.
But there is now even doubt as to whether the Emirates will withdraw its formal troops.
Writing in the Washington Post on 22 July, the UAE foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, said that not only will the UAE military presence remain, but that the Emirates will continue to “advise and assist local Yemen forces”.
So, there we have it, all the recent talk of a UAE withdrawal from Yemen is overblown.
Looking ahead, the UAE is set to achieve some of its key war aims in Yemen, notably a sustainable presence in the Yemeni south.
By contrast, Saudi Arabia is set to fail spectacularly, for not only has its failed to articulate coherent war aims, but by contrast to the UAE, the Saudis have directly clashed with the highly motivated Houthi forces.
The Houthis have even taken the war inside Saudi Arabia, as demonstrated by the near-daily missile and drone strikes on key Saudi infrastructure.
The UAE, and Abu Dhabi specifically, has escaped that fate and is now set to reap at least some dividends from its heavy investment in the Yemeni conflict.
Involvement in the Yemen War is part of the UAE’s broader strategy of articulating a muscular foreign policy, as evidenced by its military bases in Somaliland and Djibouti, and intervention in the ongoing Libyan Civil War.