In a few months’ time it will be two years since the Saudi-led coalition began its operation in Yemen. The war continues with the Saudi-led coalition reiterating its aim that Houthi and Saleh forces withdraw from the country and President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi be reinstated as premier. However political actors continue to be split on whether the coalition is intervening in Yemen, or invading it.
Religion, territory and the tribal politics of Yemen are discussed often; though the war is largely portrayed as one with the ultimate aim of winning control of the capital Sana’a. The UAE’s role in the conflict shows that other aspects are being overlooked and there is more to the battle.
Reports emerged last week showing the Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed Bin Salman expressing concern over the UAE’s role in Yemen. He allegedly stated that he believes the UAE plans to split Yemen into two. This comes after the UAE deployed troops to recapture Shabwa from Al-Qaeda and further reports stated that the UAE is establishing a security belt between Hadhramout and Shabwa to control the oil fields. This will eventually lead to the expulsion of northern Yemeni troops from the southern province.
UAE and its favouritism of the south
March will not only mark the start of the Saudi-led coalition’s military operations in Yemen, it also marks the success of the Houthi’s to control areas southwards from the Yemeni capital. Their military grasp on Taiz tightened and the conditions to build the siege that is currently starving over half a million people were being set in place. Houthi and Saleh forces also advanced rapidly into Lahij and Aden in March and, by 25 March 2015, they had taken control of the Aden International Airport. Both central Yemen and southern Yemen were rapidly falling into the hands of Houthi and Saleh forces at the time in which the Saudi-led coalition began its airstrikes.
Southern Yemen was liberated from Houthi and Saleh forces within months. On 15 July 2015, in a cryptic statement, UAE Foreign Affairs Minister Anwar Gargash said the war is practically over for Emirati troops. By 17 July, Hadi announced that Aden was liberated. At that point, many expected Houthi and Saleh forces to retreat from Taiz. This did not happen, if anything, their grip on the city intensified.
The main reason behind Aden’s success and Taiz’s failure was because of the difference in the way in which the anti-Houthi/Saleh resistance forces were backed in the two provinces. Generally, in southern Yemen, the UAE invested time, money and even the lives of their own troops to fund, train and back the local resistance forces, with the most backed and most powerful being the Heraki forces.
The resistance in Taiz has received little help from the UAE or even the rest of the Saudi-led coalition. Until today, apart from sporadic arming and training, the main assistance local fighters have received from the coalition is airstrike co-ordination as they push forward on the ground. It was clear early on that the UAE had little interest in securing Taiz or other northern provinces in Yemen.
It would however be inaccurate to say that the UAE is completely passive in its role in the northern parts of Yemen, especially when looking at the way it took part in training the national army and tribes in Marib.
Even when resistance forces make significant gains against Houthi and Saleh forces, they are usually unable to sustain them because of the lack of support they receive. In March this year, local fighters were able to gain control of Beer Basha, ending the Houthi/Saleh siege on Taiz, however they were not able to sustain their gains and they lost control of the area soon after.
The UAE and the Saleh regime
Within less than three weeks after the start of Saudi-led coalition’s offensive, there were reports that Riyadh began to express concerns about the role the UAE was playing in the Yemen conflict. An anonymous official told the Arabic media that Riyadh is dissatisfied with the UAE’s stance towards the developments in the conflict. The source also explained that there were suspicions of “a UAE attempt to hold the stick from the middle by taking part in Operation Decisive Storm on the one hand while supporting the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh on the other.”
Before the revolution, in 2008, then President Ali Abdullah Saleh gave Dubai Ports a contract to manage the ports in Aden. When the contract was dissolved after the revolution, Yemenis who were against the Saleh regime saw this as a cause for celebration, because it symbolised the end of an investment project in which, ultimately, the Saleh regime was the prime Yemeni beneficiary.
The fact that Saleh’s son Ahmed is still in the UAE and was appointed Yemeni ambassador to the country after the revolution under the Hadi government is also symbolic of the way in which the Saleh regime allowed Abu Dhabi to secure its interests in Yemen. It also hints that even after the Yemeni revolution, the Saleh family’s economic ties to the UAE remain strong.
While there are small signs that show Abu Dhabi wants Saleh to return to power, the Sheikhdom’s previous and current relationship with Saleh and his family remain relatively friendly. This doesn’t show the UAE has political support for Saleh; rather it displays the strong economic ties between the former Saleh regime and the Emirati government. Rather than looking to reinstate its former ally, the UAE is now seeking new measures to secure its interests.
UAE economic interests in southern Yemen
For years, Abu Dhabi has understood the way in which Aden holds strategic significance to its development of the Emirati economy. Having a strong sphere of influence in Aden means the UAE would have significantly easier access to the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, along with an alternative route to the Strait of Hormuz via the Gulf of Oman.
Securing control over the Indian Ocean and Red Sea means stronger presence in East Africa for the UAE. This is especially important if the UAE wants to expand its military ambitions in East Africa, as it has displayed in Eritrea’s Assab port. The port has been used by the UAE as a naval base, air base and as a training hub.
This should not come as a surprise, as Abu Dhabi has for long shown aspirations of expanding its military capabilities. The UAE was also the only Arab country to send its forces into Afghanistan with NATO in 2003, giving them first hand training with the most powerful military in the world. Even before that, in the 1990s, the UAE’s military spending had increased significantly.
Economic interests also play a role. Having such a strategic presence in the coastal regions of southern Yemen does not only mean the military interests of the UAE are secured, but also its economic interests. Access to the various ports and waterways also presents a large opportunity for the UAE to expand its trade markets.
It is undeniable that the Saudi-led coalition has a single aim in Yemen: to restore matters to the way they were before the Houthi coup of September 2014. However, separate agendas and interests must not be ignored. The UAE clearly executed its interests and influence in Yemen during the Saleh regime, but in post Saleh Yemen, the Sheikhdom is using alternative measures to secure its interests in the country. If the southern sectionalist activities persist, a new debate on the future of the country’s unity may be started.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.