The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has faced renewed scrutiny over allegations of its continued interference in south Yemen and the island of Socotra, despite repeatedly claiming to have withdrawn militarily from the country. Meanwhile, the UAE is defying its traditional Gulf ally Saudi Arabia, as an apparent rift widens between the two countries.
Yemen is once again being neglected among the international community’s priorities, as its six-year-long war intensifies, while Yemenis are left to pay the price. In northern Yemen, Houthi forces continue their offensive on Marib city, seeking to capture the previously stable governorate, cement their dominance over the country, and dislodge Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s internationally recognized government.
US President Joe Biden promised to end Yemen’s war and halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia in February, but Washington’s efforts to advance peace have since fallen short of their expected aims. Indeed, although Washington has somewhat pressured Saudi Arabia, repeated visits of US officials to the Gulf have failed to reconcile the Houthis and Hadi government. Crucially, the UAE’s role has slipped under the radar, giving it a green light to advance its interests in the impoverished country.
At worst, the UAE has faced criticism for stark humanitarian violations, from running prisons across the south in which the most medieval torture methods have occurred, to reported collaboration with Al Qaeda.
The UAE has operated shrewdly and has been able to advance its foreign policy in a proactive yet subtle manner.
The UAE has operated shrewdly and has been able to advance its foreign policy in a proactive yet subtle manner. It has continued supporting the Southern Transitional Council (STC), forming a mutually beneficial relationship where the UAE seeks to control south Yemen’s ports and natural resources, while the STC strives to establish an independent southern state per pre-1990 unification lines.
Continued Emirati Interference
On August 29, a deadly missile and drone attack hit a Hadi government camp in the southern coastal city of Aden, where the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council has battled with the Saudi-backed Hadi government. The incident, which left at least 30 pro-Hadi soldiers dead, was blamed on the Houthis.
While the Houthis may have been involved, they did not claim responsibility for the attack. It is important to note that the faction usually boasts of successful assaults on their Yemeni foes or firing on Saudi territory. Various Yemeni observers who spoke to Inside Arabia referenced growing speculation that the UAE may have been involved in the strike. Emirati war planes have indeed attacked government forces in the past, such as in August 2019, when Hadi’s forces almost prevented an attempted takeover from the STC.
Regardless of the truth behind such speculation, the UAE has evidently sought to secure its clout in Yemen, and has not fully reconciled with the Hadi government. On September 6, Al Masdar Arabic reported that Emirati war planes were hovering above the southern Shabwa governorate, following popular protests against Emirati military equipment being shipped to the STC.
Abu Dhabi and the STC perceive Shabwa as a crucial component of any future southern Yemeni state, due to its natural resources.
Tensions between the STC and Hadi forces have escalated over the oil-rich governorate of Shabwa since January 2020, despite the Riyadh Agreement – a power-sharing deal between the two parties – being announced just two months before. According to various observers, Abu Dhabi and the STC perceive Shabwa as a crucial component of any future southern Yemeni state, due to its natural resources.
Moreover, the Middle East Eye reported that STC officials have once again denounced al-Islah – Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood-aligned party that is allied with the Hadi government – by slamming the faction as the main obstacle to peace in Shabwa and claiming it wants to exploit the governate’s assets. Like its Emirati patrons, the STC has a burning hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood, meaning that reconciliation over Shabwa would prove a difficult challenge.
Quest for Red Sea Dominance
Gaining control of Yemen’s Socotra Island adds a significant advantage for Abu Dhabi’s quest for dominance over the Red Sea and Bab el Mandeb, and Emirati vessels have reportedly been seen shipping weapons into the island. Socotra’s residents and Yemeni analysts have alleged that the UAE is trying to manage the island’s tourism and use it as a base for geopolitical ventures in the Horn of Africa and Bab el Mandeb.
However, it is not just Socotra that the UAE has set its eye on. In May, Yemeni officials sounded the alarm over a new suspicious military base in Yemen’s Mayun Island, which is situated strategically within the Gulf of Aden. Tariq Saleh, leader of an Emirati-aligned militia and nephew of Yemen’s late President Ali Abdullah Saleh, later confirmed that his forces were indeed stationed on the island.
Additionally, Debkafile – an Israeli investigative news site with ties to Israel’s intelligence agency – claimed the UAE built an attack helicopter base on the island, to control oil tanker and commercial shipping through the Red Sea’s southern chokepoint and up to the Suez Canal.
“[The base] will also give the Emirates a jumping off pad for rapid deployment forces to reach Yemen, although they withdrew from the civil conflict there during 2019-2020,” the report stated.
The Debkafile article added that Emirati vessels loaded with heavy engineering equipment, building materials, and troops had moved into the island in May.
Although Abu Dhabi did not acknowledge its ties to the base, Yemeni officials believe this is the UAE’s latest effort to expand its influence in the country and run nearby shipping lines.
A Growing Saudi-UAE Split
This newfound Emirati assertiveness comes as it moves away from Saudi Arabia and reorient its foreign policy, to cement itself as a dominant regional power. The UAE’s activities in Yemen could eventually risk a deeper rift between the two Gulf powers, even though they previously managed their disagreements over Yemen. After all, Saudi forces apparently cancelled an Emirati flight to Socotra on September 21, indicating that their quiet rivalry could have tangible ramifications.
Previously, the UAE had used Saudi Arabia’s more bellicose stance as a thick smokescreen to advance its own regional influence. However, the UAE’s divergent position over Yemen signaled it was always keen to defy Riyadh’s traditional hegemony—though it took a more calculated approach after its cover was blown in August 2019, when it bombed Hadi’s forces.
Now that it sees Saudi Arabia in a more vulnerable position, the UAE has more room to assert itself.
Now that it sees Saudi Arabia in a more vulnerable position – particularly as the Biden’s administration has attempted to scale back the Kingdom’s military intervention in Yemen – the UAE has more room to assert itself.
It is not only Yemen over which Saudi and Emirati divisions are worsening. In July, Abu Dhabi defied Saudi Arabia’s plans to cut oil output, sparking disarray within OPEC+, while economic competition has grown between them this year. Such disagreements could be a driving factor behind the UAE’s current operations in Yemen and its defiance of Saudi Arabia.
Despite such a predicament within the Gulf, Abu Dhabi has simultaneously sought to present a more respectable face towards the international community. Its rapprochement with fierce rivals Turkey and Qatar in August, has made some observers believe it is adopting a more diplomatic position, after years of geopolitical animosity. Meanwhile, it has strengthened ties with China and Iran, as Washington’s authority wanes in the Middle East.
Nonetheless, the UAE’s continued interference in Yemen suggests it still aspires to enhance its regional influence, and that its reconciliation with its former adversaries was designed only to salvage its deteriorating global image.