On July 9, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) withdrew its military forces from Yemen’s port city of Hudaydah, in order to transition from a “military-first strategy to a peace-first strategy.”
Emirati officials justified this redeployment by claiming that UAE forces needed to focus on confronting Iran and highlighting Abu Dhabi’s success in marginalizing the Houthi’s as a major political force in southern Yemen.
Although these factors contributed to the UAE’s policy shift in Yemen, the UAE’s decision to scale back its military intervention in Yemen was also triggered by international pressure and a desire to suspend a protracted military campaign.
Backlash against the UAE’s alleged arms shipments to al-Qaeda in Yemen and criticisms of the UAE’s role in worsening Yemen’s humanitarian crisis have also damaged the UAE’s international reputation.
Even though the UAE is downsizing its military presence, Abu Dhabi does not wish to surrender its influence in Yemen.
To preserve its favorable strategic position, the UAE will selectively engage in counter-terrorism operations in Yemen, assist its proxies in their efforts to consolidate hegemony over southern Yemen, and expand its diplomatic involvement in Yemen.
In spite of the UAE’s troop draw down from Yemen, initial reports suggest that Abu Dhabi will maintain a military presence in its base on al-Mukalla, a former al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) stronghold that was exchanged by the UAE in 2016.
The UAE will keep this deployment because it fears that AQAP could gain supporters by claiming that the UAE is plundering southern Yemen’s resources and instigating south Yemeni separatism.
Although the UAE insists that it consulted with Saudi Arabia before announcing a draw down from Yemen, Abu Dhabi’s hostile relationship with Saudi-aligned President of Yemen Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and support for the STC rankle Saudi policymakers.
As Abu Dhabi’s hegemony over Aden complements its rising military presence on the Red Sea and Horn of Africa, the UAE will ensure that its troop draw back does not weaken its influence in southern Yemen.
The UAE has also reportedly directed the STC to establish a parallel army to the Hadi-controlled Yemeni military.
Once this process is complete, the STC’s military force will consist of an estimated 52,000 troops in southern Yemen and sizable numbers of Emirati technical advisors.
This level of military strength effectively prevents pro-Hadi or Houthi forces from expelling the UAE’s Colombian proxies through military force.
By empowering local military forces, the UAE is able to shroud its hegemony in southern Yemen and prevent large-scale popular unrest that would weaken its long-term influence.
As the UAE’s credibility as a mediator has been damaged by its involvement in egregious human rights abuses and adversarial relations with both the Houthi’s and Hadi’s government, Abu Dhabi is unlikely to promote cross-factional dialogue in Yemen.
Instead, the UAE will likely use its economic clout and links to paramilitary groups as points of leverage to influence the development of Yemen’s post-war political institutions.
Once multilateral peace negotiations resume, the UAE will lobby for Hadi’s replacement by a new president that is more amenable to Emirati interests.
Even though many international media outlets have conflated the UAE’s troop reductions in Yemen with a military withdrawal, the UAE remains firmly committed to advancing its strategic interests in Yemen.
The UAE is likely to preserve its hegemony over southern Yemen and could exert considerable influence over Yemen’s future political trajectory.
Even if these successes are achieved, however, Mohammed bin Zayed will struggle to distance the UAE from its instrumental role in bringing about Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe.
Anadolu Agency / ABC Flash Point WW III News 2019.