UAE's Hidden Agenda in Yemen

Published December 23rd, 2018 - 08:08 GMT
Yemeni pro-government forces gather in the port city of Hodeida on December 17, 2018. A ceasefire in Yemen's battleground port city of Hodeida and its surroundings start on December 18, 2018, officials say, after renewed fighting threatened the hard-won accord struck in Sweden. STRINGER / AFP
Yemeni pro-government forces gather in the port city of Hodeida on December 17, 2018. A ceasefire in Yemen's battleground port city of Hodeida and its surroundings start on December 18, 2018, officials say, after renewed fighting threatened the hard-won accord struck in Sweden. STRINGER / AFP

In March 2015, Abu Dhabi joined Riyadh’s military intervention in Yemen supporting the ‘Decisive Storm’ plan to remove the Houthis, a Zaidi Shia led rebel group, from Sanaa. Since then, the UAE has further entrenched itself in Yemen’s conflict: Playing a utility role, it’s support has been readily present through training and equipping soldiers, as well as providing on the ground support.

Although Abu Dhabi fights alongside Saudi Arabia to defeat the Houthis, its strategy has contrasted from its ally. Whilst Saudi Arabia modus operandi has been intense aerial strikes, the UAE has favoured training and funding Houthi opposition in south and west Yemen.

UAE forces in Aden (AFP File Photo)

Decomposition of Saudi motivation behind the intervention leads to consideration of shared borders, historical ties and a web of reinforcing policies - notably strategic exhaustion of Riyadh’s effort against Iran.

UAE’s agenda however is not as clearly decipherable. It’s rumoured that they have a dual-remit: To fight both the Houthis and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). To accomplish this, on the Red Sea coast, they are backing local and southern forces to fight Houthis. In Southern Yemen, however they are backing forces that oppose AQAP.

Though as Abu Dhabi invests more in Yemen, it becomes increasingly obvious that there agenda goes above the Saudi-led Coalition narrative. Abu Dhabi has proved opportunistic in Yemen as the conflict has enabled it to gain western legitimacy as a counter-terrorism partner in the fight against AQAP, increase its regional hegemony and control as many ports as possible.


Yemeni pro-government fighters in western Dhubab  (AFP File Photo/ Saleh Al-Obeidi)

Fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

Abu Dhabi’s seemingly positive role in combating AQAP plays directly to their own interest as it allows Abu Dhabi to play a primary client of the US in the region and distract from any suspicious or potential illegal activity it may be carrying out in the region. The counter-terrorism role in Abu Dhabi’s operations has successfully rose tinted public vision towards their participation in the Yemeni conflict.

In the fight against AQAP, Abu Dhabi has formed, trained and equipped a number of counter-terror forces in southern Yemen: the security belt forces present in Aden, Lahij and Abyan governorates; the Shabwani Elite Forces present in Shabwah governorate; and the Hadrami Elite Forces present in the Hadamart governorate. These policies have significantly increased Yemen’s internal divide, inflaming tensions in an already fragmented country.

Yemeni pro-government fighters in Hodiedeh Port (AFP/File Photo)

Although conflicting narratives exist, reports have emerged of alleged deals between AQAP and UAE through which mediation has led to a transfer of territory. Most of which being when AQAP’s left Mukalla, a southern port city of in April 2016, which the organization had controlled for a year. The transfer was done through a deal that allowed AQAP fighters to leave the city, reportedly with as much as $100 million of looted cash.

Conflict within the coalition

One of the key issues standing in the way of a peaceful conclusion is the lack of clarity between Saudi and UAE backed forces.

Saudi Arabia might lead a zealous air campaign but this does not match the UAE’s rigorous ground presence. Emiratis’ troops on the ground could be indicative of an attempt to carve out strategic footholds in Yemen in order to increase hegemony in the region. Beyond troops on the ground, Abu Dhabi forces are also committed to the training of local fighters. Many districts are controlled by UAE backed southern secessionist militias such as ‘The Security Belt Forces’ an extremely powerful force in the South, trained by Emiratis.


Saudi F-15 jets used in air campaign on Yemen (AFP Photo/Fayez Nureldine)

Abu Dhabi’s military intervention in Yemen could pave the way for perilous implications in the long term given tactical differences to Saudi Arabia. The Emiratis maintain their alignment with southern Yemeni fighters which is necessitated by absent Hadi in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia backs Islah, which the UAE despise and see as an offshoot of the Muslim brotherhood. Although the Muslim Brotherhood in Islah is variably different to that elsewhere in the region, the UAE still loathe them and support southern Secessionists and Salafists who conflict with Islah. Salafists also do not have bad relations with Al-Qaeda whom the Emiratis are also fighting against.

Such conflicting policies are only destabilising Yemen further as there is potential infighting in the southern regions. Clashes between the Southern Transitional Council backed by the UAE and Hadi aligned forces in Aden erupted in to open clashes in January that lasted a few days. This battle exposed the friction within the coalition and underscored Abu Dhabi’s military dominance. It is imperative for the stability and minimisation of conflict in of the region that forces begin to coalesce in their aims and begin to reinforce rather than

Economic advantages

Abu Dhabi’s presence in Yemen can also be seen as long term strategy of setting itself up in the region. In addition to securing its own economic interests, Abu Dhabi’s aim to secure as many ports as possible in Yemen is a way to position itself as one of the major players of international trade. UAE created Dubai port World in 2005 which is a global port operator by a merger of Dubai Ports Authority and Dubai ports of International. The company is currently one of the world’s leading port operators as it manages the ports of Bossaso in Puntland, Berbera in Somaliland, Doraleh in Dijbouti, Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.

Abu Dhabi has successfully managed to exploit the conflict to build its bases in Yemen as it has established its military forces in Mukalla and Aden, where the UAE also controls the commercial ports. It is not unlikely that the current offensive led by UAE backed forces on the port city of Hodeidah is not an attempt by Abu Dhabi to control the last major Yemeni port. As the UAEs secures its own geopolitical ambitions by entrenching itself more and more in Yemen’s conflict, the Yemenis are once again taking the burden.

Abu Dhabi malign activities in Yemen has largely gone unnoticed because of intense speculation of Saudi’s disastrous and clumsy military campaigns. Though the Gulf is exploiting the conflict for their own adventurous visions which is being ignored due to their stated allegiance to get rid of AQAP.


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