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Amal Nasser

A double-edged operation for UAE in Gulf of Aden

UAE's priority is to secure the Yemeni coastlines including in the Gulf of Aden [Getty]

Date of publication: 13 October, 2016

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Comment: Under the guise of participating in the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen, UAE is actually looking after its broader interests in Aden, writes Amal Nasser

A year after the liberation of Aden from Houthi control we see the influence of the United Arab Emirates in Yemen, or at least the southern part of it, growing bigger and bigger.

The UAE is a known participant in the Saudi-led coalition that launched a war on March 26 2015 to fight against the Houthi rebel group's military expansion in Yemen. Yet the motivation and extent of the UAE's involvement in this war are not as clear cut as they are for Saudi Arabia (KSA).

Although the narrative of solidarity among the Gulf Council countries is very present in justifying the UAE's participation in this war, it is evident that UAE-KSA worldviews are far from identical. Despite this, they clearly intersect at few crucial points.  

While Saudi interest in and influence on Yemeni affairs goes back to a time when (the north of) Yemen was a kingdom, not a republic, the UAE interest in Yemen is younger than the United Arab Emirates itself.

Emirati interest in Yemen has grown significantly over recent years, and first manifested itself in 2008 when the Emirati state-owned Dubai Ports World landed a contract to develop and manage the Port of Aden during the reign of Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

A deal that was surrounded by allegations of corruption, nepotism and misconduct that eventually led to its cancellation in 2012 after the popular uprising against Saleh and the formation of an interim government whose anti-corruption body asked the parliament to cancel the deal.

The launch of the Saudi-led intervention in March 2015 gave the coalition countries a chance to enhance their political influence in Yemen

According to Waed Bathib, transport minister at the time, the reason behind the cancellation was DP World's failure to carry out investment projects on time in the Port of Aden. The inquiry into DP World's execution of the Aden Ports management deal was granted in reaction to public frustration over the mismanagement of the Port of Aden, one of the country's important assets and sources of income.

It did not take long for the UAE to resurface in the Yemeni public affairs scene. In April 2013 Ahmed Ali Saleh, the son of former President Saleh and then chief commander of the republican guards, was appointed as the Yemeni ambassador in the UAE, where he still resides even after he was dismissed from his post in December 2015.

His appointment can be explained by the Saleh family's large investments in the UAE, and raises speculation around the ties between Saleh's family and the UAE that might have led DP World to win the bid for managing the port of Aden, despite a better bid being put forward by the Kuwaiti port management company KGL.

The launch of the Saudi-led intervention in March 2015 gave the coalition countries - especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE - a chance to enhance their political influence in Yemen with a presence on the ground. The liberation of the city of Aden from the Houthi-Saleh grip was the one of the coalition's top priorities - and eventually happened four months later in July 2015.

Securing those investments from antishipping attacks is more of a pressing issue for the UAE

The priority given to the battle for Aden was rooted in the city's political and symbolic importance, yet the battle for Bab al-Mandab strait and the recapturing of the city of Mukalla (Southeast of Yemen) suggest an economic significance to these battles.

This idea is supported by the UAE's reluctance to free Taiz - Yemen's second most-populated city - from the Houthi-Saleh grip. The city is largely dominated by forces loyal to the Islah Party - a party largely aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, the UAE's foes - and is not coastal, unlike the cities of Aden and Mukalla, and therefore might bear less significance to the UAE.

Prior to the liberation of Mukalla from the AQAP loyal fighters, DP World returned to Aden on October 2015 to discuss ways of assisting the local authorities with the development and management of the Port of Aden.

The recent attack by the Houthi militia and forces loyal to their ally, Saleh, on an Emirati Navy vessel in the Red Sea, was strongly condemned by the UAE government as well as the internationally-recognized Yemeni government in an indication of the importance of the security of the Red Sea for the Emiratis.

The incident raised calls for assisting the Yemeni government to regain control of its Red Sea coastline to reduce or rather eliminate the Houthi antishipping threat in the Red Sea.

Restoring peace in Yemen is the only answer to stopping antishipping as well as border threats

While the Saudi-led operation in Yemen has declared its main objective is to restore the legitimate government, which would require helping the internationally recognised government regain control over the whole country - the UAE's efforts seem to prioritise securing the coastlines of Yemen in the Red Sea as well as in the Gulf of Aden.

The presence of Dubai-based DP World's investments in the horn of Africa, explain the UAE's focus on securing Yemeni coastlines during turbulent times in the country. In May this year DP World won a bid to manage and develop the Berbera port in Somalia for 30 years.

This came a year after the UAE cut diplomatic ties with Djibouti in April 2015 after an Emirati aircraft talking part in the airstikes on Yemen made an unauthorised landing at Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, and was not welcomed by the Djibouti authorities.

UAE-Djibouti relations were already going through a rocky phase prior to this incident when Djibouti's government tried to rescind DP World's concession at the Doraleh Container Terminal in 2014, which DP World has been managing since 2008, without success due to a UK-court ruling in favor of DP World.

This tension with Djibouti was an incentive for the Emirates to turn to neighboring Eritrea and its Assab port, where the UAE landed a 30-year deal to use the Port and Airfield of Assab for military purposes. Securing those investments from antishipping attacks is more of a pressing issue for the UAE than restoring the internationally recognised government in war-torn Yemen. 

While the war in Yemen continues, it remains difficult to project whether the country can benefit from the comeback of DP World to Aden. Restoring peace in Yemen is the only answer to stopping antishipping as well as border threats, and bringing the interests of the coalition countries together could be a step closer toward ending this war and eliminating those threats.

Amal Nasser is a Yemeni economist and writer based in Berlin. She is a non-resident fellow at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @amal_nasser

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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