Summary: UAE forces begin withdrawing from Yemen. Saudi Arabia increasingly isolated and will have to reconsider.
Reports began to emerge at the end of June that the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s most prominent partner in the coalition fighting in Yemen, was scaling back its military presence. Reuters was told by Western diplomatic sources that this was because tension between the US and Iran was threatening security closer to home. There has been no official confirmation but more detail has gradually emerged. Yesterday 8 July a senior Emirati official said the drawdown had been planned for over a year and coordinated with Saudi Arabia. It was “heightened” after the signing of the Stockholm agreement in December, and mainly affected Hudaida, the northern port which was the subject of the Stockholm agreement. The Emirati base in Assab in Eritrea was also affected because it was a staging ground for operations in Hudaida. The decision was “very much to do with moving to from what I would call a military-first strategy to a peace-first strategy.” The official naturally emphasised continuity claiming that there was little concern about a power vacuum because the UAE had supplied and trained 90,000 Yemeni government fighters.
Giving no figures the Emirati official said troop numbers were “definitely down” and equipment had been moved. According to the Wall Street Journal (behind a pay wall) the UAE aims to pull most of its forces out of Yemen, and has already withdrawn tanks, helicopters and hundreds of soldiers. US officials said that the UAE had been stung by growing opposition in Washington to the Yemen war and by fears that they would be a prime target for Iran should President Trump order an attack there. The UAE would focus its efforts in Yemen against al-Qa’ida, IS and other extremists. According to a Carnegie report there is an important division between Saudi and Emirati policy on Islah, effectively the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, because Riyadh supports President Hadi who is mainly backed by Islah. Abu Dhabi is obsessively hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood. UAE troop withdrawals “could ignite local players’ rivalries, especially in cities like Aden and Taiz, divided between pro-Emirati Salafi separatists and pro-Islah militias.”
According to a WINEP report quoting UAE sources Emirati units are almost 100% out of Marib and 80% out of Hudaida, but they will continue “counterterrorism” operations from their base in Mukalla, eastern Yemen.
Taking a long view, the decision to withdraw is no surprise. In the 20th century Saudi Arabia, the British Empire and President Nasser’s Egypt learnt in turn that it was impossible to set Yemen to rights in accordance with their own views and policies. In the present conflict some of Saudi Arabia’s traditional friends prudently declined to get involved, and some who did get involved have already drawn back. Unlike Saudi Arabia UAE territory is not directly threatened by conflict in Yemen.
According to the WINEP report quoted above, while the UAE claims that its mission is largely complete, the decision to withdraw is more likely a “reluctant but stonily pragmatic recognition that they cannot sustain—militarily, financially, and most important politically—any longer at the current state of bloody impasse.” The decision “is almost certainly causing tension with Riyadh, which must now rethink its own approach to the war.” An additional reason for dissociating the UAE from what is essentially a Saudi war must be the tarnishing of Saudi Arabia’s image, above all in Washington and above all by the Khashoggi murder. Although Saudi Arabia is so much bigger, the UAE does not see itself as the little brother. Indeed in the relationship between the two crown princes, both effectively leaders of their countries, Muhammad bin Zayid (MBZ) and Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), MBZ may have the upper hand.
For the present the UAE remains in the south (where it has long been suggested that it may be sympathetic to the southern separatists) and in the east, the main area where al- Qa’ida and IS have flourished, fortunately directing much or most of their violence against each other. Numbers are uncertain, but it may be easier for the UAE to keep its mercenaries in Yemen than to keep its own troops. Their withdrawal will be unwelcome to Saudi Arabia, made even more important by the question mark over Sudanese participation; Sudanese troops, possibly as many as 14,000, are the main support to the Saudi ground forces, and their future must depend on developments in Sudan which at present are impossible to predict. Historical precedent suggests that the claim to leave behind loyal Yemeni forces will not survive Yemeni reality long – loyal to whom? How long before Saudi Arabia too has to call it a day?