8. Case Study: The UAE and Yemen
Along with its support for Khalifa Haftar in Libya, perhaps the most visible manifestation of the UAE’s more assertive foreign/national security policy in the region has been its involvement in the Yemen war. Whereas in Libya the UAE is one of a number of parties supporting Haftar, in Yemen Abu Dhabi was for a number of years the main backer of southern secessionist and Salafist forces in the south of the country. As in other cases described in this paper, while the UAE’s involvement in Yemen might appear to be part of a comprehensive regional strategy, it has also in many ways been developed through tactical circumstances rather than careful planning. The sudden drawdown of forces in mid-2019 in response to international media criticism of its role and the heightened threat of a regionalized war with Iran also demonstrates the speed with which decision-makers can adjust their approach.
Before the Arab uprisings: business as usual
Before 2011, the UAE had a relatively conventional relationship with the Sanaa regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was seen as an ally – albeit not always a trustworthy one. One of Zayed’s early overseas initiatives was a project to rebuild Yemen’s Mareb dam, in what is said to be the al-Nahyans’ ancestral homeland. Saleh came to power as the project gathered momentum in 1978. Southern Yemeni merchants, particularly those from Hadramawt province in the east, had long cultivated business links in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and many more southerners left for the emirates after the socialist takeover in South Yemen in the 1960s, taking up positions in business, the police and the emirates’ militaries.
From the early 2000s, the UAE became more involved in discussions around security sector reform in Yemen, with the emergence there of a new military and security elite clustered around members of Saleh’s family. Economic ties also grew, as liberal-minded economic officials and the ‘young reformers’ close to Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali (who also led the elite Republican Guard, the main beneficiary of the Jordanian training scheme) moved to open up Yemen’s economy. In 2008 DP World, the Dubai ports operator, entered into a joint venture with the Yemeni state-owned Yemen Gulf of Aden Ports Company to run the port of Aden, as part of an ambitious regional expansion drive through which DP World also took over management of Djibouti port. According to one former Yemeni diplomat with ties to the Saleh family, relations before the 2011 uprisings were ‘normal’ for the region, adding that Ahmed Ali, who in the years before the 2011 Arab uprisings was being prepared to succeed his father, while encouraging economic reform in Yemen, enjoyed a particularly close relationship with MbZ and his inner circle.
The Arab uprisings and Islah
The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings spread quickly to Yemen, with large protests erupting against the Saleh regime. Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist party, which has a Muslim Brotherhood wing, joined the protests. Al Jazeera covered the uprising intensively (as it did the other uprisings in the region), leading Saleh to blame Qatar for the unrest. The protests swiftly descended into running street battles between Saleh loyalists and Islah supporters and allies, and by the end of 2011 Saleh had effectively been pushed out. He formally ceded power to his vice-president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, under the terms of a transition agreement brokered by the GCC; the deal was largely overseen by Saudi Arabia and the UN.
Three activists who were involved in the 2011 uprisings describe being invited during the transition to meetings at the UAE embassy in Sanaa, where they were encouraged to engage in anti-Islah activities. The focus at the time, they say, was limited to ensuring Islah did not become the dominant political player in Sanaa. By the account of one northern Yemen activist who became a regular visitor to the embassy:
The main thing was that you attack Islah. If you did that, there was going to be plenty of support. It was very clear from early on that they did not want Islah in power, and in 2012, 2013 there was a feeling that that was a possibility.
When, in 2014, the rebel Houthis began to make their way from their northern heartlands south towards Sanaa, the UAE position was unclear. It was widely speculated at the time that President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi was attempting to set Islah and the Houthis against one another in the hope that they would both be terminally weakened – an approach that may have been attractive to Abu Dhabi. The Houthis entered Sanaa with relative ease in September 2014, however, and Islah-linked military and police units and militias chose to stand down after Hadi refused to declare war on the Houthis or send loyalist military units into battle with them, effectively handing the group – and their quiet backer, former president Saleh – control of the capital.
Civil war: happenstance success
In March 2015 Saudi Arabia announced the formation of a 10-country military coalition, including the member states of the GCC other than Oman. Operation ‘Decisive Storm’ was initiated by a blistering aerial campaign against Houthi–Saleh military positions, but did not at first prevent the rebels and loyalists of the former president from gaining more ground. The Saudi intervention reportedly came as a surprise to many of the kingdom’s allies, who were given around 24 hours’ notice of the campaign. In the telling of one Western official: ‘They were not quite as surprised as us, but it still took them aback that they were suddenly part of this military coalition.’ Yet the UAE was to become Riyadh’s principal coalition partner on the ground, even if the two rarely worked in lockstep. Abu Dhabi’s support for local forces produced the majority of battlefield successes against the Houthis in Yemen, and its allies in the south went on to form a powerful new political bloc. In the north, tribal–Islamist forces backed by Riyadh have been less successful. The UAE’s military reputation has been enhanced by its involvement in Yemen, but this was in reality more by happenstance than based on carefully calibrated strategy.
When the war broke out, the key fronts were in Mareb, Aden and Taiz. A major issue for the coalition in the early days of the conflict was understanding exactly who was fighting on the ground, in Aden in particular. Although the Hadi government claimed to be in control of the ‘Southern Resistance’, the task of defending the south was undertaken by a mix of local southern secessionist and Salafist fighters with limited support from Hadi. Operations to oust the Houthis from Aden and the wider south were largely conceived of, planned and executed by the elite, US-trained Special Forces unit of the UAE Presidential Guard. Later, the UAE would help train, equip and deploy forces to help retake other southern governorates.
The UAE’s decision to involve itself in the war in Yemen was seen as being part of a wider campaign of relationship-building between MbZ and Saudi Arabia’s then newly installed defence minister, MbS. But UAE officials claim that a big part of the calculation was the ambition to reverse the trend of Iranian expansionism in the region. A foothold for Iran on the Arabian Peninsula was also a step too far, according to one Emirati diplomat:
A lot of the decision to go to Yemen was to do with Iran. The way we see the last 20 years is of Iranian expansion. They had three capitals [Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus] and Yemen was next. And Yemen was a big red line. We couldn’t allow this to happen in our back yard. Our presence in Yemen isn’t about Saudi Arabia per se but the Iranian threat to Saudi Arabia.
All the same, the UAE has charted its own course in Yemen since the Houthis’ ouster from the south. Indeed, by 2016 the UAE appear to have effectively decided that its main focus would be counterterrorism initiatives and a quiet campaign against Islah, only returning to the forefront of the wider war in early 2018. In the interim, the UAE focused on building up local forces that it sponsored on the ground. Its primary allies were southern secessionist groups who came into mounting conflict with the Hadi government, as well as quietist Salafist forces. The UAE’s continued presence on the ground in southern Yemen, and its sponsorship of local groups, had several overlapping effects. It helped foster rivalry between the Hadi government and the secessionist forces the UAE sponsors, resulting in a battles for control of Aden in January 2018 and again in August 2019. It has empowered Salafist forces there that stand accused in some cases of ties to Al-Qaeda. And, particularly in US military circles, it has burnished the UAE’s reputation as a capable military force. Meanwhile, it has also led to growing anti-UAE sentiment not just in the Houthi-controlled northwest and the Islah-dominated north, but also among many southerners.
Before 2011, Abu Dhabi was unused to having its actions scrutinized with any regularity in Washington or London. But its involvement in Yemen, along with Libya, has changed that, and not everyone within the UAE system was ready for the shift.
The Yemen war also played into Abu Dhabi’s attempts to build national identity within the UAE itself, even after a Houthi attack in Mareb in September 2015 that left 45 Emirati soldiers dead, just a year after a new national service law had introduced mandatory military service for Emirati men under 30 years of age.
A key lesson for the UAE in Yemen meanwhile has, according to one official, been the need to improve its strategic communications. Before 2011, Abu Dhabi was unused to having its actions scrutinized with any regularity in Washington or London. But its involvement in Yemen, along with Libya, has changed that, and not everyone within the UAE system was ready for the shift. Even if Abu Dhabi can convince policymakers and other officials of the UAE’s positive role – as it has seemingly done in Washington, for instance –general publics in the West generally remain highly sceptical.
This lesson was learned particularly acutely in 2018, when UAE-backed Yemeni forces pushed up the western Red Sea coast towards the port city of Hodeida, eventually encircling it despite UN-led attempts to prevent a battle for this vital trade hub (on which an estimated 11 million Yemenis depended). The US intervened both to prevent an assault and to push the Hadi government into accepting a deal – the Stockholm Agreement of December 2018 – to demilitarize Hodeida. Having argued for years that it could win the battle for Hodeida, the UAE only came to realize both the likely scale of the military challenge and the public relations fallout in the event of a fight for Hodeida. In a clear demonstration of the speed with which UAE decision-makers can adjust strategy, by mid-2019 the Emirati forces had begun dismantling their presence on the Red Sea coast. Whereas when the demilitarization was first proposed Abu Dhabi had been against it, six months later it would claim that the drawdown was in support of the Stockholm Agreement.
Even as the UAE began to formally withdraw from Yemen, its local allies attracted controversy. In August 2019 secessionist forces of the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) forces initiated a battle for Aden that resulted in a complete takeover of the city, and attempts by STC-affiliated forces to push into government-held territory in neighbouring Shabwa and Abyan governorates. A subsequent fightback by government of Yemen forces was undertaken with alleged support from Riyadh, bringing Saudis and the Emiratis into what some speculated was in effect a proxy war in Yemen, although both countries deny this.
Box 3: A troubling record on domestic and regional human rights
‘The United Arab Emirates’ intolerance of criticism continued in 2018,’ Human Rights Watch stated in its 2019 World Report: ‘The government continues to arbitrarily detain and forcibly disappear individuals who criticize authorities.’
Both Human Rights Watch and the UN Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) have highlighted the case of prominent pro-democracy activist Ahmed Mansoor, who in 2018 was sentenced to 10 years in prison for ‘insulting the “status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols,” including its leaders, and seeking to damage the UAE’s relationship with its neighbors by publishing false reports and information on social media,’ Human Rights Watch said, citing the local newspaper The National.
As regards its involvement in Yemen, the UAE has been accused of orchestrating a programme of assassinations against religious leaders in the southern city of Aden, and of overseeing the arbitrary detention and torture of people in areas under control of its local allies. According to Human Rights Watch: ‘[UAE-backed] forces have used excessive force during arrests and raids, detained family members of wanted suspects to pressure them to “voluntarily” turn themselves in, arbitrarily arrested and detained men and boys, detained children with adults, and forcibly disappeared dozens.’
In October 2018 Buzzfeed News released a report on the activities of Spear Operations Group, a US-registered security firm whose founder, Abraham Golan, was extensively interviewed for the piece. He claimed to have been engaged by the UAE to execute a series of assassinations targeting clerics and others affiliated with Islah, including Anssaf Ali Mayo, the leader of Islah in southern Yemen: ‘There was a targeted assassination program in Yemen … I was running it. We did it. It was sanctioned by the UAE within the coalition.’
In early 2019 the UAE was accused, along with Saudi Arabia, of inadvertently supplying US arms to Al-Qaeda and the Houthis. In a February 2019 report for CNN, it was stated: ‘Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners have transferred American-made weapons to al Qaeda-linked fighters, hardline Salafi militias, and other factions waging war in Yemen, in violation of their agreements with the United States.’