The July 14 announcement of Aden’s liberation has proven to be a game changer in the Yemen conflict. After the Houthis lost Aden, they have been experiencing several losses in the rest of the country. August 4 was especially traumatic for them, as they lost control of the largest airbase in Yemen, which has a strategic geographical location because it is situated directly on the route to Taiz, which would potentially strengthen the anti-Houthi forces located in the north. It also served as the US counter-terrorism headquarters under both Saleh and Hadi until late March 2015, when 100 station troops were evacuated, which means it is a provider of logistical and military assistance to the anti-Houthi forces.
The current military boost of the anti-Houthi forces has been used as leverage to justify the Arab coalition, mainly the strategy of airstrikes organised in Riyadh. The mistake that is being made by such analysts is that they look at the operation as a whole and using a monotone approach to the diverse tactics being used by the Arab coalition.
When I spoke to the Ibb resistance spokesman Sheikh Abdulwahad Haydar, he informed me that the process of clearing Ibb from the Houthi forces was organised by the Emirati army and offered much praise to them. He said that the UAE provided training and logistics in addition to organising the offensive against the Houthis. The UAE deployed estimated 1,500 troops to Yemen in a mix of both Emirati citizens and UAE residents of Yemeni origins, who have worked either in the armed forces or in the police in the beginning of August, as an extra push after the success of Aden. It is important to remember that Ibb is still conflicted territory at this stage.
The UAE have even earned public respect of Ali Abdullah Saleh. He, along with Emirati, British and American diplomats, met in Cairo on June 23. Earlier this week, Saleh delivered a speech in Yemen Today TV stating the importance of not criticising the UAE. This comes after him mercilessly cursing the Arab coalition in a speech he made outside his house after it was bombarded by a Saudi airstrike on March 10. It is not that Saleh has softened his approach towards the Arab coalition, or that he has somehow become supportive of the operation as a whole. He has singled out the UAE, not only because they appear to be taking an increasingly independent role in finding a political solution to this crisis, but because their control of the situation on the ground is becoming more apparent.
When the airstrikes were the main strategy, little was done to push the Houthis back. The airstrikes simply halted the Houthi growth by putting them at a logistical disadvantage. It is also important to keep in mind that the main target Sana’a is still under Houthi control after five months of bombardment.
Saudi military spokesman General Ahmad Asiri kept talking of a plan to “hit the enemy at their base to weaken them at their strongholds” and sporadically spoke about preparing ground forces. In the first daily briefing he said that there were no solid plans to send in ground forces. At that point in time, he was also trying to liaise with Pakistan to participate in the operation, which failed. This proves there was no official strategy of carrying out airstrikes led by Saudi in the first phase and ground forces led by the UAE in a second phase. This strategy naturally flowed after the initial airstrike campaign failed to show significant retreat of the Houthis. The Houthis are still present in many of the Northern provinces, including the main airstrike target Sana’a and are only starting to retreat from Northern provinces after the ground operation of mobilising and assisting Yemeni anti-Houthi factions started.
When looking at the quiet growth of the Emirati military, it should not be a shock that they have such capabilities. The UAE post-Arab Spring have shown increasing levels of independence in their expeditionary capabilities. In August 2014 they took part in an air campaign with Egypt to target Daesh bases in Libya, without alerting the United States of their action. In doing so, the UAE was sending out a political message that their island is more than just luxury shopping malls and extravagant architecture; it is also aiming for unmatched military capabilities. Their military expansion is not only to exert power onto other countries in the region, but it is also because they are in a sensitive position in the Arab-Iranian power struggle, due to decades of strategic border disputes.
The 1990s showed an influx of arms deals with world powers. They first purchased LeClerc tanks from France, seen being used by anti-Houthi forces in 1993. Between 1992 and 2000, they purchased 593 BMP-3 combat vehicles from Russia. A defence cooperation accord between the UAE and the UK was signed in 1996, but under the governments of Blair and Brown, little was done to materialise the agreement. In 2011, when security threats began to increase, their defence purchases made them the world’s fourth largest defence importer, on a $10 billion annual budget.
The UAE have also been taking initiative in training and forming strategic alliances, which has helped their army grow immensely. Yousef al-Otaiba, Emirati ambassador to America stressed last year that the UAE participated in every major military coalition with the US from 1991, including Somalia and Kosovo. This gives them a unique military edge not only within the GCC, but amongst fellow Arab armies.
The UAE was also the only Arab country to send its forces into Afghanistan with NATO in 2003, exposing them to first hand training with the most powerful military in the world. Its Dhafra Air Base has also been a trigger behind their success. In 2008, the UAE signed an agreement with the French to install an air base in Dhafra in addition to a navy presence at the Zayid Port. 2014 showed immense American presences in Dhafra, where more air strikes are launched than anywhere else in the region. Dhafra is the only overseas American air base where F-22 aircrafts are located. Not only does this show the imperative to securitise the MENA as much as possible, but it is also symbolic of the trust between the two countries and the growing Emirati military power.
The ground operation in Yemen has not only shown that the UAE is able to mobilise forces, but it has also shown that they are increasingly becoming a regional military power. The Yemen conflict is hinting that they are soon going to be on the forefront of future Arab military operations. The only question that this leaves is that five months into the conflict, it is still unclear whose war this really is.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.