Following the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) successful efforts to diversify its economy away from hydrocarbons, and after becoming a regional trading hub, maritime security has become an ultimate priority for the UAE’s foreign policy. War in Yemen has opened the window of opportunity for the UAE to pursue its maritime ambitions by securing indirect control over three key strategic locations: the Bab al-Mandab strait, Aden Port, and the island of Socotra, which are all located near some of the busiest shipping routes in the world.

In the last decade, the UAE pursued a rather aggressive foreign policy, often relying on its hard power tools through military interventions and military support of its local partners in other states, especially in the Horn of Africa, Libya, and Yemen. But since 2019, the Middle Eastern power has started to recalibrate its foreign policy.

Nevertheless, the recalibration of UAE’s foreign policy does not mean that Abu Dhabi will abdicate its ambitions as a maritime military regional power. Its muscular foreign policy has just been enriched by the diversification of its diplomatic portfolio with the addition of new soft power initiatives that will enable Abu Dhabi to achieve its strategic geopolitical goals. While the announcement of the $982 million arms deal for four Falaj-3 offshore patrol vessels, for the UAE navy, certainly implies that the country will continue to increase its naval forces, the UAE has also joined several regional initiatives, such as Operation Sentinel, which aims to protect navigation and international trade in the Hormuz strait, as well as the European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH), the France-led European mission to patrol and surveillance in Hormuz, by hosting its headquarters.

DP World is the main driving force of the emerging UAE geo-commercial maritime “empire.”

Besides the diplomatic and military dimension, the UAE has made significant geo-economic investments around waterways in the region, with DP World being the main driving force of the emerging UAE geo-commercial maritime “empire.” According to Dr. Jens Heibach, a research fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA), DP World is a major –– and probably the most important –– pillar in the UAE’s diversification strategy.

Despite its military withdrawal from Yemen in 2019, the Southern Yemeni regions remain in the UAE’s sphere of influence through vast military and political support to its ally, the Southern Transitional Council (STC). The STC was formed from tribes and groups of the Southern Movement, which seeks independence of South Yemen along the old partition borders between North and South Yemen (1967-1990).

The UAE’s re-engagement in the conflict after deploying the Giant Brigades in the battle for Marib (the last stronghold of the Yemeni government) is believed to be the main cause for Houthi retaliatory attacks on UAE and its shipping lane in January. This has put Abu Dhabi in a very delicate security situation, as it is seriously risking its security at home by engaging with the STC.  Houthi missile and drone attacks on UAE territory have sent a strong message to Abu Dhabi that they may face a similar fate as Saudi Arabia, which has been under constant threat for years. On the other hand, the complete withdrawal and abandonment of strategic posts in Yemen would mean a savior blow to Emirati maritime ambitions, as they would lose control over strategic posts in Yemen

Dr. Heibach also believes that South Yemen is crucial for the UAE. He thinks that this might well have been the key reason for the UAE joining the Saudi-led intervention in 2015, and it was no surprise that the UAE focused on South Yemen early on during the campaign. Dr. Heibach added that there is yet another point raised by many Yemenis. He argues that the UAE had –– and still has –– a vested interest in keeping major Yemeni ports from becoming competitors to the Emirati ones.

The UAE has a vested interest in keeping major Yemeni ports from becoming competitors.

Dr.Giuseppe Dentice, a prominent Italian expert on international relations of the Middle East from Centro Studi Internazionali Ce.S.I and teaching assistant at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, thinks that Houthi attacks will not change Abu Dhabi’s approach in the area, nor will the UAE change its strategy in the Persian Gulf region. “I’m quite certain that this situation could play favorably in Abu Dhabi’s Yemen foreign policy, in particular, to demand greater involvement from the USA,” he told Inside Arabia. He also expects that the UAE will ask Washington for new military aid to ensure that the security of the country and the other Arab partners in the Gulf area is protected against any kind of threats.

Nevertheless, with Saudi Arabia desperately wanting to end the bloody Yemen episode and seeking a way out, it seems that the UAE will have to face even greater difficulties if it wants to maintain its position in the country. While some see the departure of highly unpopular Yemeni President Mansour Hadi and the unification of the anti-Houthi bloc as the first steps towards the peace negotiations, the final outcome is highly debatable as the  Houthi militia did not take part in the preceding talks in the Saudi capital Riyadh, nor are they represented in the newly founded Presidential Leadership Council (the new eight-member council). 

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Dr. Heibach observes that the war in Yemen was always a multi-level conflict, and while the official Saudi-UAE-led coalition might soon come to an end for good thereby opening the door for meaningful intra-Yemeni negotiations, the conflicts within Yemen, both at the national and sub-national level, will stay and continue to be manipulated by external powers. Although the UAE-backed Southern Movement is very heterogeneous, one should not forget that the call for secession is still on the agenda of many actors in South Yemen. Dr. Heibach, therefore, thinks the conflict over the future structure of the Yemeni state between actors in North and South (and in the South Itself) is unresolved, thereby making it easy for external factors, such as the UAE, to play on internal Yemeni divides to meet their objectives.

Thanks to the UAE-supported militias, Dr. Dentice explained that Abu Dhabi is “de facto” controlling all the main commercial ports (primarily Aden, Mukalla, and Ash Shihr in Hadhramawt) and the coastal area neighboring the oil export terminal of Bir Ali (Hadhramawt) and the LNG terminal of Balhaf (Shabwa). Accordingly, the resumption of Shabwa and other neighboring areas in South Yemen, and the maintenance of an artificial status quo based on the de facto division between North and South of Yemen, are the necessary guarantees for the success of its strategy.

The UAE should be prepared for more retaliatory attacks from the Houthis.

However, the UAE should be prepared for more retaliatory attacks from the Houthis, whose leader, Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, has vowed to “liberate all of our country and take back all the areas that were occupied by the enemies.” Nevertheless, finding a compromise with them should not be entirely excluded. Dr. Heibach recalls that “more than once, the Houthis have proven their capability of forging tactical agreements, [and] even tactical alliances, with former foes. Why shouldn’t they come to terms with the UAE if such an agreement safeguarded their interests?” To be sure, from the Houthis’ point of view, “such an agreement would be of a temporary nature only. But they have been in the game for quite some time, and I think they have learnt that some goals cannot be attained quickly [and] that you need to have some staying power,” he told Inside Arabia.

Finally, the future of the entire region will be also determined by the Maritime Silk Road, which is part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  As the Yemeni coast will play an integral part in this initiative as a vital base of the maritime trading hub, the presence –– or absence –– of the country may have far-reaching consequences as it could increase or diminish the role of regional players such, as the UAE. This is even more evident in the context of the “Cold War 2.0” build-up between China and the US, as control over strategic locations, such as the Bab al-Mandab strait, Aden Port, and Socotra, may give the UAE even greater leverage in its relations with China and the US.  But Yemen’s strategic position has also been a curse for the country. Dr. Heibach cited the words of Ghassan Salamé, a prominent Lebanese academic, politician, and diplomat, who once said that many of the problems Yemen has been facing stemmed from that fact that the country was “(trop) bien situé” [too well situated].

Nevertheless, Dr. Dentice thinks that the Emirati maritime strategy will move in continuity with the Chinese BRI as a partnership between China and the UAE that goes beyond energy. Beijing is highly interested in strengthening its political presence in the MENA region, filling the strategic vacuum left by the US disengagement that, in turn, is redirecting its efforts toward Indo-Pacific. Dr. Dentice observes that by targeting strategic US partnerships in the Gulf and with the UAE in particular, China aims to loosen the network of global alliances built by Washington since the 70s. In his view, the ultimate goal of superpower competition is control over the maritime route for East-West trade and a gateway to the Indo-Pacific region. This puts Yemen at the center of this competition.

The Emirati maritime strategy will move in continuity with the Chinese BRI.

As for Dr. Heibach, he believes the future of the geopolitical chess game in Yemen will depend on how consolidated the UAE’s influence with Yemeni actors will be, what China can offer those and other Yemeni actors, and of course, how China will approach them, which in turn depends on how well the Chinese understand the conflict dynamics inside the country. “The UAE clearly has the edge over China, and the US for that matter,” he further noted. But one should also not forget the Yemeni actors, as they are not just motionless pawns in this game, and they know how important they are to external actors. Dr. Heibach affirmed that the actors have their own interests, and when these interests are no longer being served, they change alliances.

Therefore, the questions needing to be answered are: How many meaningful Yemeni groups are there? What are their interests? And to what extent are they diverging or converging, and why?