The United Arab Emirates has begun withdrawing some of its forces from the Yemen Civil War, a significant development which could signal the beginning of the end for the humanitarian crisis. However, although Emirati forces are being recalled, the drawback does not equate to a complete removal of UAE involvement, but merely an evolutionary change of strategy.
Since 2015, various factions have engaged each other in Yemen. Prior to 1990, the country was actually two separate nations. Under the unification plan, it experienced a civil war a few years later, a revolution during the Arab Spring protests, a coup three years later, and another civil war following that. The three decades of turbulence post-unification have been enflamed by tribal factions, some of which push for secession. Further complicating matters, the UAE, in partnership with Saudi Arabia, have taken it upon themselves to fight in the current war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Collateral damage is inevitable in any war, but for the Yemenis, conditions have been brutal, with the United Nations declaring it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. An estimated 20 million people are at risk of disease and famine, with a third of the population starving. It has displaced millions of already-impoverished civilians and, according to researchers, has already seen 131,000 non-combat fatalities.
These facts were trivial to the regional powers waging the proxy war – Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – and even more remote for the nations arming them. The United States, the world’s largest exporter of weapons, has profited off selling as much military equipment as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are willing to purchase. US President Donald Trump even boasted about the amount of money Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pledged to spend on weapons.
The inhumanity of the crisis alone should have been enough reason for any of the groups involved to seek a peaceful resolution, but those discussions have not been happening. It took the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi for the rest of the world to open their eyes and ask themselves, and their elected officials, if supporting Saudi Arabia and its wars is really necessary. Backlash against western support for Saudi Arabia has grown enough that the UAE no longer wishes to associate itself with the Riyadh regime.
Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed has historically allied himself rather closely with Riyadh, forming a power bloc that keeps Iran at bay. Together, they also managed to force a blockade of Qatar, but they are not without their differences. After the tanker attacks off the coast of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed refrained from directly blaming Iran, taking a different approach from Saudi diplomats. Now, he’s breaking from Saudi Arabia once again by removing Emirati troops from Houthi-contested frontlines.
Instead, the UAE is turning its focus both to fighting terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and Daesh. Emirati-trained Yemen fighters will pick up a bulk of the fighting that they leave behind with the creation of a new militia. This militia will have all the support of the UAE, but none of its fighters. In this way, Mohammed bin Zayed’s government can continue to fight for its interests – a pro-Emirati government – through money and equipment instead of blood. The new militia is worth noting, as it reportedly is part of the Southern Transitional Council, the secessionist group, and its troops could number as many as 52,000.
Although exiled Yemeni President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi and his government oppose the Houthis, the UAE is apparently using the opportunity to seize more power over the nation, or at least the southern part if it secedes. Hadi’s government has been internationally-recognized, and the idea of an Emirati-backed militia fighting in tandem has not gone over well.
The UAE also faces a renewed backlash on the island of Socotra. In early 2018, its forces effectively seized the small island as a “security measure.” Situated in the Arabian sea between the coasts of Yemen and Somalia, it has easily been the most peaceful place in Yemen, as it avoided the bloodshed of the civil wars. As a response, Saudi Arabia sent its own forces, forcing the two sides to withdraw to the airport and seaport. Now, more Emirati forces have flooded the island prompting a protest in the capital of Hadibu on June 30.
Extricating foreign powers from the Yemen Civil War would be one of the first steps towards finding an end to the crisis. Although the UAE is limiting the involvement of its troops, it still has every intention of having a hand in Yemen’s future, thereby requiring continued participation in the proxy war. Whether Emirati troops or a Yemeni militia, whether fighting Houthi rebels, or terrorists, or seizing a peaceful island, the UAE will maintain its foothold. The removal of its troops from a few of the frontlines has more to do with distancing itself from international pressure sparked by Riyadh’s actions than a sudden warming of its heart.