Strategic Considerations of the UAE’s Role in Yemen

The United Arab Emirates’ intervention in Yemen has raised questions about its commitment to the goals of the Saudi-led Arab coalition to restore Yemen’s legitimate government in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2216 of 2015, which affirmed the country’s unity, independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. UAE policies and activities in Yemen have fallen short of the resolution’s goals. Indeed, there are many legitimate questions about whether the Emirates is interested in keeping the country unified and sovereign under a national government recognized by the international community and, presumably, supported militarily and financially by the coalition.

The UAE in Yemen

As a rising power in the Arabian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates is pursuing an ambitious strategic agenda that has taken it to southern Yemen, the Arabian Sea, and the Bab al-Mandab area at the southern entrance to the Red Sea. Important plans in this agenda are to mobilize different political and economic assets for an expansionist role and to sign bilateral commercial agreements that allow it to widen the UAE’s influence. Essentially, the UAE seeks to increase its strategic reach by building military installations overseas that can be staging grounds or simply bases for projecting power.

The UAE is establishing a strategic foothold at the southern entrance to the Red Sea.

Operation Decisive Storm (later renamed Operation Renewal of Hope) by the Saudi-led campaign that was launched in March 2015––ostensibly to help restore the legitimate authority of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to the capital, Sanaa––represented a welcome opportunity for the UAE to expand its strategic reach. From the early stages of the war, the UAE concentrated its efforts on southern and eastern Yemen, from Aden to Hadramawt Province. It has deployed military forces stretching from Mocha Port on the Red Sea to Mukalla in the east. This latter expansion was accomplished with the assistance of American troops whose mission has been to fight Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In Mocha, the UAE helped establish a local force of 400 fighters.

At sea, the Emirates controls Yemen’s Socotra island in the Arabian Sea and Perim island (also known as Mayyun, in Arabic) in the middle of the Bab al-Mandab waterway. The forces it supports there are loyal to the UAE instead of the legitimate president of Yemen. Its main strategic objective was the creation of a local environment that allows it to control the Gulf of Aden and its environs as well as Socotra island at the tip of the Horn of Africa. Such a plan may very well result in the secession of southern Yemen.

But in addition to deploying forces on Yemeni soil, the UAE sought and gained access to Berbera Port in Somaliland, the region in northern Somalia that is seeking international recognition with Emirati assistance. An agreement was signed with the port authority to use an area of 40 square kilometers in exchange for UAE’s funding of security forces training, support, and protection. DP World, a Dubai company, also signed a contract worth $442 million with the port to use the facility for 30 years. This area will also have an adjacent free trade zone, complete with installations, which will make the port a hub for UAE commercial activities and will give the Emirates a base in the Gulf of Aden. At the same time, the UAE has secured a military presence on Assab Port in Eritrea, which is used to support military activities in Yemen.

The UAE’s competition with Turkey in the Red Sea and its anti-Muslim Brotherhood stance may complicate its plans for the Horn of Africa.

On the other hand, DP World lost a battle to manage the Doraleh Container Terminal in Djibouti after accusations by the Djibouti government that the company bribed officials to extend the monopoly agreement for 50 years. However, the London Court of International Arbitration sided with the company, clearing it of the charges—but to no avail. The government of Djibouti terminated its contract, precipitating a major setback since the terminal lies in a strategic area within the Gulf of Aden and, by rail, can connect the Indian Ocean through the gulf with Ethiopia and the African heartland.

From a strategic point of view, it is important to understand the UAE’s expansive plans in the wider region through the lens of its competition with Turkey for prized naval points in the Horn of Africa and along strategic maritime points in the Red Sea. Turkey has ideological differences with the UAE, specifically regarding the Muslim Brotherhood, but it seems to have already established good relations with Somalia and Sudan. In the context of Turkey’s relations with Qatar and its military presence on the Qatari peninsula, these Red Sea-Horn of Africa face-offs could represent a problem for the UAE’s strategic agenda regarding Yemen.

Challenges to UAE Designs

The United Arab Emirates has an important demographic shortcoming that affects its ability to do what it wants in Yemen and elsewhere. Its native population constitutes only about 17 percent of the UAE’s entire population in 2018, which limits its leaders’ ambitions. It is not alone in this demographic imbalance, of course, for all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states—except for Saudi Arabia—have a very small native population compared to expatriates. This has domestic as well as external national security implications since each state, including the UAE, needs to staff its bureaucracy and military and security institutions. While the Emirates has imposed a national draft, it still has a problem supplying the manpower necessary for an expanded military mission. This is why it has relied on well-trained mercenaries in its operations, such as those in Yemen. It is noteworthy that the country has extensive relations with former US Navy SEAL officer Erik Prince, the founder of the so-called Academi (formerly Blackwater). Reports also speak of a paucity of Emirati commanding officers for the armed services. Perhaps what made the UAE’s military mission in Yemen more difficult was the costly missile attack by the Houthis on a UAE base in Maarib in 2015, in which scores of soldiers were killed.

Emirati operations in Yemen have not escaped scrutiny and criticism. There have been reports of secret prisons in southern Yemen operated by the UAE or UAE-supported entities. The Emirates would also like to add areas of Taiz Province to Aden Province in preparation for a future federated Yemen, thought to be a resolution for the issue of southern secessionism. This last point can explain Emirati medium- and long-term plans to assume a favorable position regarding areas of the country that stretch from the east, on the coast of the Arabian Sea, to the west on the Gulf of Aden, and north toward Mocha on the Red Sea.

It is thus expected that if Yemen breaks up again in the future, the UAE would automatically be the hegemon in the south. Having assisted the establishment of southern militias and encouraged southern secessionist leaders to break with Sanaa, this could very well be a fait accompli. The UAE has supported the former governor of Aden, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, and others, like Hani bin Breik, a state minister, in establishing a Southern Transitional Council that coordinates political moves with South Yemen’s former president Ali Salem al-Beidh—who, over the last two decades, has led the cause of restoring the pre-1990 status of two Yemens, one led from Sanaa and the other from Aden.

Neither have moves in the south escaped Yemen’s President Hadi, who has lodged complaints with Saudi Arabia, the UAE’s partner and main supporter of the legitimate government. However, his entreaties do not appear to have made much headway with Riyadh, and this prompts serious questions about the latter’s knowledge and even silence about the UAE’s ambitious Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and expected leader of the UAE after the eventual death of his brother, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed. Saudi Arabia does not even appear to be concerned about the competition that MbZ and the UAE represent to Saudi interests in the Gulf of Aden or the Red Sea. Indeed, if southern Yemen splits from the north and the UAE becomes the hegemon there, Saudi Arabia may be in for a rude awakening after it had expended blood and treasure trying to fight off the Houthis for control of Yemen. What the UAE really reaps in Yemen may directly expose the kingdom to unwanted and unwarranted strategic repercussions, mainly an Emirati condominium over an area of vital importance for Saudi national security.

Alternative Strategic Steps for the UAE

First, the UAE’s geographic location is both a problem and an opportunity. While its isolation inside the Gulf may seem limiting in terms of geographic reach, its location on the Arabian Sea provides a strategic advantage for being a major power there. It is thus important that the Emirates should be interested in augmenting its maritime relations around the stretch of the Arabian Sea toward the Indian Ocean.

The UAE should find a way to restore its sovereignty over its Iranian-occupied islands instead of seeking distant bases around the Red Sea.

Second, the UAE’s major maritime facility is in Jebel Ali in Dubai, inside the Gulf, and this makes it vulnerable to conditions in the Strait of Hormuz, controlled by Oman and Iran. To address this vulnerability, the UAE would do well to expand and improve its port at Khor Fakkan on the Gulf of Oman, or to develop the adjacent port of the Emirate of Fujaira; this would be instead of going all the way to Berbera in Somaliland or Assab in Eritrea. Such a plan could also address the UAE’s worry about Pakistan’s and Iran’s development of their port facilities, which Abu Dhabi considers competitors to its commercial ports. In other words, why rent facilities far away from home if the UAE could develop its own that are open to the Indian Ocean?

Third, the UAE’s policies in Yemen put it in conflict with Sanaa’s legitimate government, a situation that is better handled peaceably. For instance, instead of laying the groundwork for a partitioned Yemen, the UAE and other Gulf Cooperation Council states could admit Yemen to the alliance and benefit from its vast human reservoir. This would be an ideal solution for the GCC’s demographic problem, especially in the security realm; it would also benefit Yemen, which is the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula and the Arab world.

Fourth, the UAE is called upon and must work to regain its three islands that are occupied by Iran: Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. It would only be logical for the UAE to expend its energy and treasure restoring national territory that can provide great strategic advantage in the Gulf.

Fifth, and finally, the UAE would do well to augment its relations with the United States. At the same time, it would be wise to accept, together with Saudi Arabia, a reconciliation with Qatar for the common purpose of challenging Iran and its designs in the Gulf, Yemen, Iraq, and other countries in the Levant. The UAE can use both its soft and hard power instruments to advance its own interests and those of its sisters in the GCC. It could also advocate and implement a project for expanding the GCC to include Yemen and Jordan. Such additions could be more beneficial than seeking influence far from the Gulf and at the expense of Yemen’s unity and territorial integrity.

Abdulwahab Al-Qassab is a Visiting Scholar at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Dr. Abdulwahab Al-Qassab and read his previous publications click here