Infighting among the Arab coalition in Yemen is starting to resemble a civil war within a civil war. Disagreements between Saudi Arabia, the coalition leader, and junior partner the United Arab Emirates in Yemen is nothing new, and in some ways last weekend’s events looked like only the latest in the tussle between them: Two UAE-backed entities, the Southern Transitional Council and its military wing, the Security Belt, attacked Yemeni government forces, which are supported by Saudi Arabia and led from afar by exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in the southern port city of Aden. The militias seized the presidential palace and several military bases.
What’s different about this round of infighting is the context. In May, the United Nations brokered a cease-fire that required rebel Houthi troops to withdraw from the key port city of Hodeida, though airstrikes by the Arab coalition on Houthi targets there in June called into question the U.N.’s assertion that the withdrawal had been completed. Four days before these strikes, a Yemeni official claimed that the UAE was plotting a military coup against Hadi. It was a credible claim even at the time, given the STC’s threat to overthrow Hadi last October, and one that was further validated by the STC’s seizure of the presidential palace in Aden last weekend.
Then, beginning in June, the UAE started to slowly leave the country. Emirati forces made what the UAE described as a “strategic” withdrawal from Hodeida – ostensibly as part of the U.N.-led peace process that prompted the Houthis’ partial exit – and “tactical” retreats from other cities, including Aden. By July 2, some sources were reporting as much as an 80 percent drawdown in UAE forces from in and around Hodeida, a full withdrawal from Marib, and an ongoing tactical withdrawal from Aden. Emirati sources also reported that the UAE had scaled back its presence in Assab, Eritrea, by 75 percent. (Assab is where the UAE trains soldiers and launches airstrikes on Yemen.) Around July 6, control over the Emirati forces’ headquarters in Mocha had been transferred to Saudi Arabia.
Throughout these withdrawals, Emirati officials repeatedly issued statements insisting that the military would continue to participate in the Arab coalition and would honor its commitment to countering Iranian influence on the Arabian Peninsula. Three Western diplomats, speaking to Reuters, said the UAE’s withdrawals were in fact related to escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran that began when four tankers were attacked in an Emirati port in May. That the UAE would want to bring troops home to protect its coasts seemed credible.
But in early July reports surfaced that Emirati forces were redeploying to Yemen. In early August, the Emirati foreign affairs minister confirmed as much. If the UAE is indeed redeploying, it might suggest that the earlier withdrawals were, in fact, tactical. But details on any such redeployment are scant, and other reports suggest the withdrawal is continuing – painting a rather muddled picture of the UAE’s position in Yemen.
A Narrowing Strategy
What is certain, however, is that the UAE’s perception of the war in Yemen – and of its winnability – has changed. The UAE is no longer comfortable expending all the resources it’s contributed to the war, especially as tensions in the Strait of Hormuz threaten the country’s maritime trade. This makes the UAE’s interest in controlling Yemen’s southern coast all the more pressing.
The recent infighting in Aden thus takes on greater significance. The UAE appears willing to scale back its presence across much of the country, including in combating the Houthis, even as it doubles down on its control over southern Yemen.
Hence the meeting, purportedly on maritime issues, between Emirati and Iranian officials in July. Officially, the two countries discussed fishermen’s rights to cross into each other’s waters for commercial purposes. But the timing of the meeting – on the heels of the reports that UAE forces were redeploying and just a week and a half before the STC attack on the Saudi-backed Yemeni government – makes the official version highly suspect.
It’s possible that the UAE and Iran reached a tacit agreement to leave each other alone in Yemen. Their territorial interests are complementary; Iran-backed Houthis are now concentrated north of Hodeida, with their seat of power in Sanaa, while the UAE is interested in securing possessions in the south. If the UAE is to redirect its forces away from hotly contested arenas like Hodeida to the south, it wouldn’t threaten the Houthis; in fact, there would be fewer Emirati forces available to fight them.
The UAE has other reasons to reconsider its commitment to the war in Yemen. Following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the American public became much more interested in Saudi Arabia’s behavior on the world stage, particularly in Riyadh’s role in the Yemen civil war. Both chambers of the U.S. Congress have passed legislation to curtail U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in the war. President Donald Trump has vetoed some of these bills, but the dissension is there. The U.S. is less willing to turn a blind eye to the conflict, making a difficult war much harder for the Saudi-led Arab coalition to fight.
That leaves Saudi Arabia with Houthi forces at its southern doorstep, threatening its airports with Iranian-supplied missiles, and with less Emirati ground support. Throughout the war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has relied on the UAE’s ground forces, which it supports from the air – a strategy that limits Saudi casualties and, therefore, the Saudi public’s opposition to the war. If the UAE pulls back to the south, Saudi Arabia will be forced to either commit more ground forces to a quagmire of a war or to reach some kind of accommodation with the Houthis. Iran’s goal in supporting the Houthis all along has been to tie Saudi Arabia down; forcing the Saudis into this position would benefit Tehran, too.
The obvious problem with this theory is that the STC is no friend of Iran. Even after taking Aden, its leader even said the STC was committed to Saudi Arabia. Still, it would be easier for the UAE and its allies to make these kinds of commitments from a position of power – namely, consolidated control of the south. The UAE needs to be playing on its own terms, which at this point probably includes pushing for a political settlement that will relieve the demands on its manpower and resources to a war that seems, at best, to be a stalemate. And what better time to push for a settlement than now, since the UAE has control over Yemen’s southern coast and the surrounding maritime routes.
What Happens Next?
The UAE’s withdrawals and redeployments, its meeting with Tehran, and the infighting in Aden make it more likely that a political resolution to the war in Yemen will divide the country in two. To manage discontent with the war on the home front, it’s more likely Saudi Arabia will need to reach an agreement with the Houthis. But even if they reach a political settlement, Saudi Arabia will not be able to divert its attention from its southern border, constraining what it can do in the rest of the Middle East to counter Iran’s influence. An enduring Houthi presence in northern Yemen is not the most powerful stick in the world, but it’s one that Riyadh knows that Tehran could use to poke it in the eye at inopportune moments. (It also makes it less likely that half of one of our 2019 forecasts – that Iran’s position in Syria and Yemen will weaken – will come true.)
Last, this would portend a deepened rift between the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Going its own way in Yemen is a sign that, where its interests diverge with Saudi Arabia, the UAE will be willing to pursue them regardless of what Riyadh wants. The two are still aligned on some issues – not least their shared fear of Iran – but this will represent another point of tension, and possible division, between the Gulf’s two monarchies.