With the prevailing sense of “mission accomplished” in the United Arab Emirates’ role in Yemen, increasingly there is debate over whether this might be the time to draw down troop levels. The UAE believes that its intervention in Yemen has been successful in assisting various southern allies in the fight against Al-Qaeda and in containing the expansion of the Iran-backed Houthis, despite an unprecedented loss of Emirati lives. Yet this perceived military success does not mean the Emiratis are planning to leave Yemen any time soon.
According to Emirati analysts, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the de facto leader of the UAE, values military and diplomatic engagement with the Saudis due to a shared regional interest in countering Iran and because he thinks it maximizes Emirati influence on a Saudi domestic agenda that the UAE hopes includes reining in Wahhabi extremism. Compounding the likelihood that the UAE will remain in Yemen is their sense that only they – not Saudi Arabia or the internationally recognized, formal Yemeni political leadership it backs – are doing the real work of fighting the war and rebuilding infrastructure.Yet while both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are committed to the war in Yemen, they are backing different local actors. Emiratis familiar with national security issues say that the UAE’s alignment with southern Yemeni fighters is necessitated by the fact that President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi is a serial incompetent who remains in his Riyadh compound, though their critics argue that, willfully or otherwise, they are fostering different southern Yemeni secessionists who are weakening Yemen still further. The Saudis, for all their own frustration with Hadi, remain committed to him and therefore to the Islamist alliances that his deputy, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s former military chief, puts together. The Emiratis are advising the Saudis to go back to the former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, believing his growing disputes with the Houthis, his tactical allies, can be encouraged to become a permanent breach.
At times these differences have created competition for influence and even conflict. In February, the Emiratis and their Yemeni allies fought Saudi-backed Yemeni fighters loyal to the nominal President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi for control of the Aden airport, a struggle that prevented an Emirati plan to move north to Taiz. The risk of such confrontations remains, although because the UAE eventually secured control over the airport, it will likely focus on consolidating its existing southern power bases. Lacking ground forces anywhere in Yemen, the Saudis worry that the UAE could be carving out strategic footholds for itself, undermining Saudi influence in the kingdom’s traditional backyard. This fear is compounded by the Emiratis’ advocacy of Saleh and by the UAE’s gradually expanding role in Red Sea security. In countering the Houthis’ on-shore missile capability that targets U.S. and Emirati shipping, the UAE has complemented its nascent East African naval presence in Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somaliland. The UAE’s emergent naval role contributes to keeping open the vital Bab al-Mandab waterway linking the Red Sea with the Arabian Sea, aided by the UAE’s military presence on the Yemeni island of Socotra.
The UAE denies that its March 2017 plan to take the Red Sea port city of Hudaida using some Saudi airstrikes, but mostly Emirati special forces on the ground, is an indication of its attempt to carve out strategic footholds in Yemen. However, the Saudis fear, given their own reticence to put boots on the ground and the UAE’s proven military, political and financial influence in the south, that strategic northern Yemeni territory could also come under de facto Emirati authority. The UAE is asserting Nahyan’s more muscular Emirati nationalism in preference to its traditional soft power tool of financial leverage. There is little popular discontent with this despite the loss of 122 Emirati lives in Yemen so far. The Emiratis believe that their military involvement in Yemen has deterred Iran and other potential aggressors by emphasizing that not only does the UAE buy military kit, but it can use it effectively. For their part, the Emiratis are incredulous that Saudi ground forces are only prepared to cross the Yemeni border in limited numbers and solely in defense of Saudi territory, not to aid the supposedly joint fight against the Iranian-backed Houthis. The Saudi Arabian National Guard’s aviation wing is mobilizing southward at the end of 2017, confirming Emirati perceptions that their ally is prioritizing border security over taking military risks to win the war.
In addition to the differing military approaches of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Yemen is also an arena for their different approaches to political Islam. The UAE has semiofficially endorsed secularism in all regional states’ domestic and foreign policy, as shown in statements by Ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba and an op-ed in the state-approved newspaper Al-Ittihad in late August. This is partly intended to highlight to other countries that the UAE rejects formal political Islamism at home and abroad. However, there is also a genuine Emirati conviction that an autonomous clerical role in matters of state encourages extremism and threatens regional security. By keeping close to the Saudis in Yemen, Nahyan believes he can encourage Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to make changes to the Saudis’ Islamic compact.
The UAE has repeatedly encouraged the Saudis to abandon the Islah Party, the Yemeni variant of the Muslim Brotherhood. Under King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, Islah has come back into Saudi acceptance despite the increased hostility of the Saudi leadership to the Brotherhood generally, partly because its highly tribalized and distinctly Yemeni basis of support distinguishes it from the political party organizations the Brotherhood has elsewhere in the Arab world. The Emiratis are not interested in such distinctions, and reject working with Islah on any basis. Instead, the Emiratis argue that Saleh is the only Yemeni political figure with the tribal patronage, charisma and common sense to restore some of the country’s national integrity. The UAE can seemingly live with the contradiction that Saleh, like his former military deputy Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, has used Islamists of all stripes to suit his political ends, viewing this as evidence of the former Yemeni president’s tactics rather than his strategic conviction.
Likewise, the Emiratis believe that the current, strictly tactical alliance between Saleh and the Houthis, which regularly features standoffs and spats, could easily be overturned, and that providing money and arms to Saleh would encourage him to crush the Houthis and inevitably weaken Iranian interests in Yemen. For their part, the Saudis continue to argue that Saleh has irrevocably crossed a line, after decades when they were obliged to deal with him for fear of the alternative. Emiratis are increasingly seeing Saleh’s son Ahmad Ali Saleh, who commanded a division of his powerful Republican Guard and is widely believed to be residing in Abu Dhabi, some say against his will, as another possible Emirati-backed national, or at least northern, Yemeni leader, though nobody pretends that he would be free of his father’s authority. For the UAE, only the Saleh family has any chance of bringing together the differing tribal and political factions – including the major northern Hashd tribal confederation once used by the Saudis to support Islah – into anything remotely resembling a coherent whole. That the Saudis still do not seem to have a realistic alternative, with Hadi merely an international symbol of legitimacy with little political or military substance on the ground, only compounds the sense of stasis in Yemen.
Yet the UAE also accepts that ultimately only the Saudis can initiate any strategic change of political alliances. In this environment the UAE is likely to continue to consolidate its role in the south and in the Red Sea, hoping in the process to maximize its influence over political developments in Yemen and, indirectly, in Saudi Arabia. This will continue to risk Emirati disagreements with a Saudi Arabia that the Emiratis simultaneously view as the necessary lead political actor over Yemeni affairs and a cautious military actor that prefers airstrikes over a serious commitment to securing changes on the ground.
Neil Partrick is the editor and lead contributor to Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation (IB Tauris, 2016). Follow him on Twitter @neilpartrick. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 28, 2017, on page 7.