Alwaght- In mid-July, Emirati media outlets and officials said the UAE plans to pull its forces out of Yemen, a decision seen to be driven by the fear of becoming target to the Yemeni ballistic missiles and combat drones that over the past months turned into nightmare for the Saudi leaders whose country is under their regular attacks.
Despite a month of the Emirati decision which means Saudi Arabia will be left alone in the battleground, Abu Dhabi actions over the past few days send highly mixed signals about the withdrawal suggesting that the Emiratis are playing a game behind the scenes. The issue has been even clearer recently with the fresh wave of southern Yemen’s violence and protests that bear signs of the UAE meddling. Reacting to the situation, the leaders of Yemeni Ansarullah movement have warned about treacherous game Abu Dhabi plays in their country, calling for the Arab country to show commitment to the exit plan. But how can Ansarullah’s threats make Abu Dhabi discontinue its military intervention? And what are Abu Dhabi’s options to move out of the dilemma of trying to stay safe against Ansarullah’s attacks and saving the ostensible alliance with Riyadh?
UAE objectives in the south
Since the beginning, the UAE joined the Saudi-led military coalition intending to play a role in southern Yemen and get a toehold in the strategic regions. Its role was to command the ground forces. The Arab country pursues political, economic, and geopolitical goals that are roughly achievable with a focus on the south. The UAE’s economic life is deeply dependent on the ports and it struggles for an upper hand in the regional race of commercial ports. When in 2006, Yemen approved Al Noor City project in the south with an estimated investment of $140 billion, the Emiratis rushed to foil it using Dubai-based DP World company. The project, designed to be launched with massive international partnership, was to transform Yemen ports into a commercial hub potentially forcing UAE ports to rank lower.
When Saudi Arabia proposed a war against Yemen, the UAE fast approved, seeing the opportunity ripe to build an influence in southern Yemen to bring under its control the two major ports of Aden and Hudaydeh, an achievement granting it control on a junction linking West Asia to Europe and Horn of Africa through the Red Sea and Bab-el-Mandeb. That is beside the fact that the Emiratis for a decade have been thinking about bypassing the Strait of Hormuz, a goal realizable through a sway in Yemen’s south.
Politically speaking, the UAE is opposed to any sort of Muslim Brotherhood power gain. During the war, it either through confrontation or through proxy forces waged war against Yemen’s Brotherhood which is represented by Al-Hirak and Al-Islah movements.
The south is important to the Emiratis to the extent that their push for its split from the north triggered a bitter dispute with the resigned president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Abu Dhabi backed the Hadi-sacked governor of Aden Aidarus al-Zoubaidi and his loyalists to establish the Southern Transitional Council (STC). To logistically support the anti-Hadi STC, the UAE seized the Socotra Island.
Strategy in the south after exit announcement
At home, there is serious criticism against Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s partnership of adventure with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Anadolu news agency of Turkey in a report on a secret meeting of the UAE quoted Dubai ruler Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum as saying: “We should comprehensively review our foreign policy. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars every day. This policy is costly for us and we gained nothing in return. Escalation of tensions in the region undermines the security of the Emirates.”
While the coalition’s military costs are rising every day, the Arab bloc hit all of Yemen regions it could strike during 52 months of unceasing bombardment without any major gains. On the opposite side, Ansarullah with a well-calculated doctrine every day covers new and less predictable positions of the hostile forces inside and outside of the country with its missile and drone strikes. The revolutionary movement reportedly has marked for missile attacks at least 400 spots inside the enemy territories yet to be hit by high-accuracy missiles. These potential threats drove the UAE to calm the tensions with Iran, as a regional power seeking a ceasefire in Yemen, and negotiate with Sana’a with a promise to unilaterally quit the war.
Despite the exit promises, the AP news agency has lately in an analysis of the UAE withdrawal process wrote that the Emiratis trained 90,000 local proxy fighters in southern Yemen and top military commanders from the UAE are still in the war-devastated country providing military advice to the allied forces. The news agency continued that Aden airbase is still under their control.
But forces cut in Yemen while their number is already shrouded in mystery is unacceptable for Ansarullah. That is why recently the movement stepped up pressures against Abu Dhabi. In a Tuesday television address, Ansarullah’s leader Abdul-Malik Badreddin al-Houthi called on the UAE to stop its “occupation” and realize its exit pledge. He advised Abu Dhabi to withdraw for the protection of its economic interests, otherwise “the circumstances will be dangerous for the Emirates.” Comments by Ansarullah spokesman Mohammad Abdel Salam on Wednsday echoed Al-Houthi’s warning to the UAE.
Ansarullah’s strategy pushed the Emirati rulers to the notion that victory in Yemen is unthinkable and that they should keep away from the quagmire the Saudis stepped in before Yemen missiles rain down on their cities. As an initial step, they want to cut forces in the south.
Ali al-Dhahab, a Yemeni military expert, warned that in the coming days Aden situation will reach explosion point because the situation between Hadi camp and the UAE-backed STC is on the brink of explosion. He predicted a fierce battle in the city, a factor motivating the Emiratis to exit Aden to avoid the clashes.
The second step is making sure that Hudaydah port stays away from new clashes so that Abu Dhabi will not need to respond negatively to Riyadh’s call for assistance to massive attacks. But this cloudy policy cannot last long and the UAE finally has to prefer its economic interests and security over the war partnership with Riyadh which for bin Salman is a matter of face.