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The UAE's 'withdrawal' from Yemen is merely an illusion Open in fullscreen

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey

The UAE's 'withdrawal' from Yemen is merely an illusion

'UAE still arms and finances various proxies engaged in warfare' writes Fenton-Harvey [Getty]

Date of publication: 8 July, 2019

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Comment: Any alterations to UAE's strategy will not hinder its long-term ambitions to control Yemen's ports and resources, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.

Reports of the United Arab Emirates scaling back its forces in Yemen are promoting the fantasy that it is willfully withdrawing, and moving towards a peace plan instead.

In reality, its involvement is far from over. If a military reconfiguration does occur, it will instead simply allow the UAE to resume its goal to control Yemen, only in a more covert manner. 

Western and Emirati sources have claimed that the UAE decided recently to end the presence of its forces in various parts of Yemen, reportedly to focus on domestic security amid growing US-Iran tensions.

Media sources quickly picked up on this, hinting that the UAE's four-year-long involvement in the Saudi-led war on Yemen could be winding down. 

"We do have troop levels that are down for reasons that are strategic in [the Red Sea city of] Hodeida, and reasons that are tactical" in other parts of the country, a senior UAE official told reporters

"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 I think what we are doing." 

There are indeed some cases of the UAE withdrawing its own troops, such as the reported vacating of a military base near Khokhah near Hodeida on 8 July, and Sarwah near Marib. 

The UAE's supposed withdrawal is not only exaggerated, as it still arms and finances various proxies who are engaged in warfare, but any alterations will not hinder its long-term ambitions to control Yemen's ports and resources.

Emirati attempts to reduce its overt warfare are connected to soaring international awareness about the Saudi-led coalition's role in abuses in Yemen

Instead, Emirati attempts to reduce its overt warfare are connected to soaring international awareness about the Saudi-led coalition's role in abuses in Yemen, and pressure from within Yemen.  

The UK High Court notably ruled British arms licenses to Saudi Arabia as "unlawful" in June, promoting suspension of future arms licences not just to Riyadh but other Middle Eastern clients, including the UAE.

With this, and determined US congressional and senatorial attempts to halt American support to the coalition, the UAE is seeking to prevent any blowback and punishment from its western allies. Though Western military support to the coalition will unlikely fully end in the near future, these growing criticisms risk tarnishing Abu Dhabi's international reputation - something it is desperate to avoid. 

While Saudi Arabia's foreign policy is more blatantly destructive, the UAE operates in a craftier manner, operating behind the smokescreen of Riyadh's overt actions whilst attempting to forge a more respectable international image. 

Riyadh will likely continue its bombing campaign, while the UAE is seeking to adapt its own strategy, creating an illusion that it is less involved in the conflict.

The UAE has still established the necessary ties within Yemen to secure its influence from afar

Furthermore, as the Houthis show increasing resilience against Saudi Arabia and the UAE's war, the faction will clearly not be defeated easily. In fact, reports that Ansur Allah are taking the fight to Saudi Arabia shows they are more than capable of pressuring the coalition.

With this, and the huge expenditure associated with the war, the UAE is trying to avoid more costly conflict which could clearly backfire on them. 

The UAE has sought influence over south Yemen throughout the Yemen war from 2015, using its role in the Saudi-led coalition and an alleged 'anti-Al Qaeda' campaign to operate an independent foreign policy and expand its regional ambitions. 

Read more: What is the UAE's game in the Horn of Africa?

Yet awareness of its abuses grew particularly last year, following revelations of its links to Al Qaeda in Yemen and its extensive prison network, designed to crush dissent under the guise of 'counterterrorism', and root out its enemies, including the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned al-Islah. 

Despite reports of its main forces withdrawing, the UAE has still established the necessary ties within Yemen to secure its influence from afar. 

Currently, the UAE supports around 70,000 militia fighters, who are not from the UAE, nor do they have any accountability to the Yemeni government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi or Saudi Arabia.

It has established militias in various governorates under the umbrella of the 'Security Belt'. There is no sign of these factions halting their actions; and so they can fulfil the UAE's geopolitical ambitions on Abu Dhabi's behalf. 

There is continued fighting in regions such as Shabwa, an oil-rich province which the UAE seeks to control. It has freedom to fund various groups, including its militias and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in Aden, which it hopes will dominate a future Yemeni state.

Pressure on the UAE from within Yemen itself is also playing a role in curtailing its foreign policy ambitions.

These growing criticisms risk tarnishing Abu Dhabi's international reputation - something it is desperate to avoid

Widespread protests in various governorates, particularly Shabwa and Mahra, have put pressure on the UAE to end its occupying policies in Yemen. Notabtly Socotra has seen increased anti-UAE activity; such a local struggle is forcing the UAE to rethink its policies.

Yemeni ministers, from local governors to even President Hadi himself, who notably called the UAE an "occupying power", have sounded the alarm about the UAE's policies. A likely scenario is that the Yemeni government is notifying Saudi Arabia about Abu Dhabi's actions, and deal is being brokered for the UAE to scale back its involvement. 

The Emiratis might now take a more hands-off approach. In June, the UAE it increased its humanitarian efforts, which giving it more influence and soft power over some parts of Yemen.

Among these was notably a $100 million power plant in Aden, clear evidence of their aim to reconstruct and empower a pro-Emirati southern Yemeni state, and gain favour within it.

While Abu Dhabi may present these development projects as a means to help impoverished Yemenis - which the UAE itself is responsible for damaging, they are in fact a form of creeping colonisation of the country. 

As Yemen's state has effectively collapsed from the Saudi- UAE war on the country, such destabilisation increases the prospect of a separate southern Yemeni state. This would grant UAE easier access to the Yemeni ports that it lost after the Hadi government's accession, and that it has sought to fully control throughout the civil war.

Restrictions on who can finance various different parties in Yemen are also necessary. An arms embargo should also be imposed and strictly enforced, so that the UAE will be deterred from supporting various militias in the country.

In the long term, only increased international pressure on UAE will help scale back its military ambitions and prevent it from hijacking Yemen's peace efforts.


Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey 

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

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