Yemen & UAE Analysis: UAE’s increased role in Yemen highlights goal to expand influence; likely to heighten tensions with both Saudi Arabia, anti-Houthi coalition
- The increasingly active and prominent role of the UAE in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, as underscored by their counter-militancy efforts and involvement in the wider conflict against Houthi forces, underscores their goal to expand their influence and control in Yemen’s southern governorates.
- The focus on Yemen’s south and supporting secessionists serves the UAE’s interests in attempting to consolidate their strategic hold over the south to further their commercial interests. Emirati control over critical port cities and energy infrastructure in a potentially independent southern Yemeni state would enable the UAE to elevate its own standing, particularly in the trade and energy sectors.
- Potential obstacles to such ambitions include possible efforts by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants who may exploit local grievances against the UAE’s role in Yemen and persistent tensions with pro-Hadi forces, largely unfolding in Aden.
- Clashes between UAE-backed forces and pro-Hadi elements remain likely to recur. Tensions between these parties will further increase as the UAE maintains its support for southern separatists. However, in the long-term, such developments are unlikely to result in a permanent rift between the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
- Those remaining in Sanaa and Aden should initiate contingency and emergency evacuation plans given the international intervention and airstrikes, while avoiding all travel to outlying areas.
- Over the past months, tensions have increased within the anti-Houthi alliance between various factions. For example, on January 28, clashes took place between President Hadi-backed Presidential Protection (PP) forces and UAE-backed pro-Southern Transitional Council (STC) forces in Aden’s Khormaksar District. The incident started when pro-Hadi forces attempted to block access to pro-STC demonstrators planning a protest against the Hadi-led government in Khormaksar’s al-Aroudh Square.
- On January 29-30, clashes between pro-Hadi forces and pro-STC elements occurred across Aden, including near the Fourth PP forces base in Dar Saad. The UAE-directed Security Belt Forces (SBF) reportedly captured the base, while pro-STC elements were stationed in the vicinity of the al-Maasheeq Palace, the headquarters of Prime Minister Ahmed Obaid Bin Daghar. The International Red Cross stated that 36 were killed and 185 wounded in the clashes.
- Further clashes occurred between PP forces and unidentified gunmen in Aden’s Dar Saad on February 21, killing one and wounding six. The gunmen reportedly attempted to target the house of a PP forces’ officer. Unconfirmed reports stated that the gunmen belonged to the UAE-backed SBF.
- UAE-backed forces have additionally launched a number of operations targeting militants across southern Yemen over the past months. The UAE’s official news agency announced the beginning of “Operation al-Faisal” on February 17 against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Hadramaut Governorate’s Wadi al-Masini, located west of Mukalla. The operation was conducted by the UAE-backed Hadhrami Elite Forces (HEF) and ended on February 19.
- Emirati authorities announced the launch of “Operation Decisive Sword” on February 25 in northern Shabwa Governorate against AQAP, which was carried out by the UAE-backed Shabwani Elite Forces (SEF), who are backed and supported by the UAE.
- “Operation Sweeping Torrent” was announced by the UAE’s official news agency on March 7, and entailed clearing the Mahfad District and Wadi Hamara area of Abyan Governorate of militants. The operation, which was conducted by the SBF, concluded on March 11.
Assessments & Forecast
- The UAE has taken on an increasingly active and prominent role in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, with the ultimate aim of expanding its own standing and control in the country’s southern governorates. The UAE’s involvement in counter-militancy operations and in the conflict against the Houthis has made these efforts more apparent. UAE-backed local militias launched three successive operations against AQAP across the south to mitigate the threat of attacks from the Sunni jihadist group, as the UAE’s aligned forces are consistently targeted by AQAP. Through such localized operations, UAE-backed forces also aim to clear and secure areas surrounding Aden and Mukalla, which host a heavy UAE presence and thus serve as a base for targeted anti-militancy campaigns. Additionally, the UAE appears to be bolstering its standing in the wider conflict against the Houthis, with reports suggesting that it has taken the lead from Saudi Arabia as the main driver of the coalition since August 2017. This development may have been triggered by the Houthi threat of launching a ballistic missile on Abu Dhabi. Notably, the Shiite group previously claimed to have successfully launched such a missile at the UAE’s Barakah nuclear facility south of Abu Dhabi on December 3, 2017, although reports later indicated that the missile fell in Yemen’s al-Jawf Governorate.
- These developments have granted the UAE direct or indirect jurisdiction of growing territory in southern Yemen, including sensitive and critical locales such as the Aden International Airport, the island of Socotra, and the Bab al-Mandeb Straits. Through the UAE-backed militias, including the HEF in Hadramaut and the SEF in Shabwa, the UAE has recruited Yemeni fighters and provided them with weapons and training, while taking advantage of these local forces’ separatist aspirations in order to fulfill its own agenda. The focus on Yemen’s south and supporting secessionists is likely connected to the fact that it holds the concentration of most of the country’s natural resources and strategically important infrastructure. This serves the UAE’s interests as it effectively controls the main ports in Aden and Mukalla, which could potentially be linked with Dubai’s Jebel Ali Port, as well as the liquified natural gas (LNG) plant in Shabwa Governorate’s Belhaf, and an oil-export terminal near Mukalla. Emirati control over such infrastructure in a potentially independent southern Yemeni state would enable the UAE to elevate its own standing, particularly in the trade and energy sectors.
- FORECAST: The UAE may, however, face some obstacles in expanding its control. For example, should negative perceptions grow stronger, they are liable to impede Emirati efforts to win over the local southern populations and also have an effect on the UAE’s efforts in the energy sector. Precedent indicates that local tribal alliances in the south may react to possible increased tensions with the UAE in the future to force energy companies to suspend operations. For example, in June of 2014, the Hadramaut Tribes Alliance (HATA) forced a Norwegian and a French company to halt operations in Hadramaut alleging that the companies practice discriminatory hiring policies toward Hadramaut tribesmen.
- Furthermore, the UAE’s heightened role in Yemen has already led to tensions among the anti-Houthi forces, most prominently between UAE-backed factions and forces affiliated with the Hadi government, as underscored by the several rounds of clashes in Aden over the past months. FORECAST: Over the coming weeks and months, these clashes may recur, as the UAE is unlikely to significantly halt their efforts in Yemen and will continue to support elements with interests opposing to Hadi’s, mainly the southern separatists. The likelihood of a new round of clashes is further heightened given that the UAE is taking advantage of the local authorities’ reported lack of familiarity with governing and the lack of sufficient Hadi-aligned forces present on the ground, as President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi and most of his government operate out of Riyadh. Aden is a particular hub for such clashes, as tensions between both sides in the city tend to flare up quickly, specifically over issues regarding areas of control between the various forces.
- FORECAST: In the medium to long-term, these frequent clashes and continued tensions are likely to have repercussions for Saudi-UAE ties. This will especially be the case due to the Emirati support for the southern separatists, as Saudi Arabia and President Hadi remain firmly opposed to any fragmentation of the Yemeni state. For them, removing Houthis from power and securing the Saudi-Yemeni border regions are the most important goals of their intervention in Yemen, goals which would be significantly complicated should they lose the support from southern forces. That said, as both countries continue to remain vital partners in an anti-Houthi coalition and in light of the strong ties between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, these tensions and clashes are unlikely to lead to a permanent rift at this time.
- Those remaining in Sanaa and Aden should initiate contingency and emergency evacuation plans given the international intervention and airstrikes. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support plans.
- Avoid all travel to outlying areas and overland travel, due to the limited government and security presence, ongoing clashes and airstrikes, as well as the heightened threat of attacks and kidnappings.
- Foreigners, particularly Westerners, continuing to operate in Yemen should maintain a low profile, exercise heightened vigilance, and avoid locales frequented by foreign, particularly Western nationals. To mitigate the risk of attacks or abductions, ensure that places of stay are equipped with sufficient perimeter security details, alter travel routes, and avoid disclosing sensitive itinerary information to unknown individuals.