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Has the UAE jumped the Saudi ship in Yemen?

People gather round damaged buildings after the Saudi-led military coalition carried our air strikes in Sanaa, Yemen on 16 May 2019 [Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency]
Damaged buildings are seen after the Saudi-led military coalition carried out air strikes in Sanaa, Yemen on 16 May 2019 [Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency]

Two days ago, Dubai-based academic Dr Abdul Khaliq Abdullah said that the war in Yemen is over for the UAE. Of course, we can’t say that his tweet was posted by an official individual, but it does indeed represent a new trend in the Emirates, which has taken a sharp turn on Yemen and relations with Iran. It is worth noting that this new position has appeared suddenly, and there is nothing to suggest any coordination between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi recently.

The UAE entered a coalition with Saudi Arabia with the intention of defeating Iran and its proxies in Yemen. It is also an original partner in the blockade of Qatar, based on the fact that the government in Doha has ties with Tehran.

In this sense, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been in step, which some saw as making a difference in international and regional politics. However, the UAE’s measures over the past two weeks reflect a change in its reading of its role and abilities, as well as the threats to its policies.

Abu Dhabi has realised that the war in Yemen will not be settled militarily. Four years into the coalition’s involvement, there is no indication of a victory any time soon. On the contrary, the UAE has become an occupying force opposed by the Yemenis, who accuse it of seeking to divide Yemen into two distinct entities.

READ: ‘Yemen will never be united,’ says ex-aide to UAE sheikh

The ballistic missile and drone attacks by the Houthis have posed a new threat which Abu Dhabi did not take into consideration when it agreed to join the Saud-led coalition. There is also no doubt that the UAE has started to read US intentions more precisely, as President Donald Trump is not intending to engage in a war with Iran, especially while he is preparing a re-election campaign. Moreover, the warnings by Iranian-backed Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to the UAE have set alarm bells ringing; his talk of the high price that the “glass cities” will pay has prompted Emirati leaders to accelerate their withdrawal from Yemen and rapprochement with Iran. The withdrawal was not phased, and until recently the Emirates had behaved like any other colonial force in southern Yemen.

Houthis patrol Sanaa, Yemen on 5 December 2017 [Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency]

We do not know the exact degree of coordination between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, but we do know that Saudi Arabia tried to dissuade the Emirates from withdrawing from Yemen, but to no avail, apparently. The UAE has started to reconsider its positions and it seems that it does not want to be cannon fodder in an upcoming war. Distancing itself from Saudi Arabia and its policies in the region has become its means of survival in advance of the storm clouds gathering.

Such independent moves are expected to anger the Saudis. Ultimately, though, the Emirates’ decision to withdraw and reach an understanding with Iran is realistic and rational. There are signs that Dubai in particular does not agree with the official UAE policy. The wealthy emirate acted as the trade outlet for the Iranians, but this has declined as a result of the sanctions imposed on Tehran and the UAE’s alignment with Saudi Arabia in its approach to Iran. The attacks on oil tankers in Fujairah port was another cause for concern about the future of the UAE’s political, economic and security stability.

READ: After Yemen, the UAE’s next target could be Libya

The leaders of the Emirates may have noticed that the US has pulled back in its threats to Iran. They may also have reasoned that playing such games with the Iranians will not happen without the UAE paying a heavy price.

In short, the UAE has realised that the Saudi boat is no longer safe and that it will, almost inevitably, sink; this has pushed Abu Dhabi to jump ship and seek safety. It would not come as a surprise if Riyadh eventually follows suit and also pulls out of Yemen, prompting a similar change in policy with regard to Iran.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Sharq on 5 August 2019

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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AfricaArticleMiddle EastOpinionSaudi ArabiaSudanUAEYemen
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