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UAE scaling back military role in Yemen

July 10, 2019

The UAE is beginning a partial military drawdown in Yemen. Experts say the country is pushing for a political solution to end the conflict, but growing US-Iran tension in the region may also have played a role.

Damage in Yemen from a airstrike by the Saudis
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Huwais

Since 2015, an international Saudi-led coalition has been waging a destructive war in Yemen. But the military campaign targeting the Houthi insurgency has no apparent end in sight, and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula also still has a presence in the country.

It now appears that the United Arab Emirates is rethinking its involvement in the Saudi-led coalition. Multiple media reports this week citing UAE officials say the country's military is withdrawing from parts of Yemen, including the port city of Hodeida. According to a report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank citing UAE officials, the country has handed over control to specially trained forces from Yemen, and pulled the majority of its troops from its base of operations in Eritrea.

Read more: 7,500 kids 'killed or maimed' in Yemen since 2013, UN says

Too many objectives at once

According to media reports, the UAE has justified its withdrawal by arguing its military objectives have largely been accomplished in southern Yemen, and that UN involvement in the conflict necessitated a reduced presence.

UAE troops march in a military parade in Abu Dhabi
UAE soldiers have been fighting as part of the Saudi-led military coalition in YemenImage: picture-alliance/robertharding

However, the UAE's motives for pulling out of Yemen may be of a different nature. Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst for the Arabian Peninsula with the International Crisis Group, says that the country pursued two goals: to fight the Houthi rebels, and to go after Yemen's numerous Islamist groups. In the mind of the UAE, these range "from the Muslim Brotherhood all the way to al Qaeda," Dickinson says. But this stance, she explains, has "been quite controversial in many places because a lot of the Islamists they view as extreme or terrorist organizations are, in the view of many, sort of mainstream organizations." Dickinson says the UAE has realized that it set too great a challenge for itself, noting the country "was sort of brought into" the war by its ally, Saudi Arabia, and as a result it has "never really been completely comfortable" with its role there.

This, along with the tremendous cost of the war, means the UAE is now looking to support a political solution to end the Yemen conflict, Dickinson says. "What the UAE decided is that [it] will do a unilateral drawdown in order to change the morning momentum of the conflict again — hopefully towards talks — but certainly in a way that protects [its] interests, which is to really limit [its] commitment in Yemen and reduce the burden that is placing on the region against such a small state."

Read more: Germany exports weapons to Saudi-led alliance in 2019

In search of a political solution

In December last year, negotiations between Yemen's warring parties commenced in Stockholm. There was little progress, yet the foundation for a long-term political solution may have been laid. If a new round of talks were to begin with the opposing sides honoring these prior agreements, progress could be made on issues that have deeply concerned Saudi Arabia and the UAE for years. Among them is the fact that rebels could continue smuggling arms through the port of Hodeida.

Houthi rebel forces standing in front a boat in Hodeida
Houthi rebels have been fighting against Saudi and UAE forcesImage: Reuters/A. Zeyad

The UAE, however, will not fully withdraw from the region. The country plans to keep mercenaries, among them 10,000 Sudanese fighters, stationed in Eritrea. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy also reports that the country plans to continue its anti-terror operations, which are chiefly aimed at al Qaeda, from its primary base of operations in the city of Mukalla.

Read more: The Sudanese military — a pawn of the Saudis?

UAE and Saudi Arabia: Close allies

Riad Kahwaji, the director of the Dubai-based Near East and Gulf Institute for Military Analysis, is not surprised by the UAE's drawdown. He says that the coalition has recently trained Yemeni forces to replace coalition troops. Moreover, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are close allies, Kahwaji noted. He says the "level of coordination between the UAE and Saudi Arabia is very advanced and therefore any military move from either side will come, of course, after coordination between them." This is why he believes the Saudis have likely long known about the UAE's plans to step back.

In fact, the Saudis may even welcome this move, Kahwaji told DW. Growing tension between the United States and Iran has made the security situation in the region increasingly unpredictable. Kahwaji believes the UAE may have even pulled its forces from Yemen in order to be prepared for a possible military confrontation with Iran — a situation in which they would likely once again join forces with the Saudis.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East