How the UAE is entrenching its strategic influence in Yemen

A Dragon tree on Socotra Island, Yemen. [Getty]
6 min read
09 June, 2021
Analysis: Despite claiming to have disengaged from the war, the UAE is shifting its attention to Yemen's islands.

As the United States pursues its peace process for Yemen, Washington still ignores a consistently overlooked threat to stability in the country: the role of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Saudi Arabia has focused its attention on the Houthi offensive on the Marib governorate, the last stronghold of the Riyadh-backed government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

And as the Houthis have consolidated influence in the north, Riyadh has also been watching the eastern governorate of Mahra, through which it reportedly seeks to build an oil pipeline, thus giving it a new transport line to the Indian Ocean.

Abu Dhabi seeks to project regional power, control southern Yemen's ports, and maintain influence over shipping in the neighbouring Red Sea and Bab el Mandeb strait

Despite repeatedly claiming that it has disengaged from Yemen’s war, the UAE has still retained a presence in Yemen through backing the Southern Transitional Council (STC).

It seeks to project regional power, control southern Yemen’s ports, and maintain influence over shipping in the neighbouring Red Sea and Bab el Mandeb strait.

A new suspicious military base was recently sighted in Yemen’s Mayun island, which the UAE could also be targeting for its geopolitical interests. Mayun, which is also known as Perim, belongs to the Aden governorate and is situated strategically within the Bab el Mandeb.

Socotra Yemen
The United Arab Emirates is in de facto control of Yemen's Socotra island. [Getty]

Although Abu Dhabi has not claimed responsibility for the base, Yemeni officials say this is the UAE’s latest effort to expand its influence in Yemen and control nearby shipping lines.

Following the initial reports, an Israeli investigative news site, Debkafile, with reported ties to Israel’s intelligence agency, claimed the UAE built an attack helicopter base on the island, as a “means of controlling oil tanker and commercial shipping through the Red Sea’s southern chokepoint and up to the Suez Canal.”

"It 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 said.

Analysis
Live Story

It added that Emirati vessels loaded with heavy engineering equipment, building materials and troops have been sighted moving into the island since May.

Although Debkafile did not mention verified sources, and its work has previously been scrutinised for such reasons, the claims fit with what the UAE has tried to accomplish in the surrounding region.

“I think the UAE’s latest actions in Yemen speak to the nature of their presence there over the last several years,” Shireen al-Ademi, assistant professor at the Michigan State University, told The New Arab.

“We know the UAE has been involved there in ways that the Saudis have not been involved. For example, the assassination campaigns, the secret prisons, the takeover of Socotra,” she added.

“And so, this latest escalation highlights its desires to have more of a long-term vision of control than the Saudis.”

We know the UAE has been involved there in ways that the Saudis have not been involved. For example, the assassination campaigns, the secret prisons, the takeover of Socotra

After all, the UAE is reorienting its strategy in the Horn of Africa, where it has faced challenges in recent years. In February, it announced the withdrawal from a military base in Eritrea, which it used as a launch pad for operations in Yemen.

Security concerns following Ethiopia’s conflict in the Tigray province likely prompted Abu Dhabi to relocate its military facilities to a more stable location.

The UAE has therefore reportedly upped its activities on the island of Socotra too, ever since STC forces seized the island in June 2020. In March, the director of Socotra’s port was sacked after he alleged that an Emirati weapons shipment was transferred to STC forces.

While the historic island of Socotra would enable the UAE to project military power regionally, it has also sought to exploit it.

Foreign tourists have increasingly been sighted on the island, without the Yemeni authorities’ permission, even though the island is still recognised as being under the authority of the Yemen government.

Marib displaced [Getty]
Yemeni children are pictured at a camp for internally displaced people on the outskirts of the northern city of Marib, on 18 February 2021. [Getty]

In recent years, the UAE has operated tours to the island, which is usually hard to access. Some local sources and news agencies have also accused the UAE of allowing Israeli tourists on the island, following assertions that the UAE and Israel have cooperated to control the island since the September 2020 Abraham Accords, although this has not been confirmed elsewhere.

On 1 June, Emirati-backed STC militias reportedly stormed and expelled employees from the headquarters of the official Yemen News Agency (SABA News) in Aden, the temporary seat for Yemen’s government, although the STC has long dominated the city.

Despite the Riyadh Agreement finalised last December, which unified the UAE-backed STC and Riyadh-backed Hadi government, this indicates the UAE’s threats to Yemen’s unity are not yet over.

The UAE is reorienting its strategy in the Horn of Africa, where it has faced challenges in recent years

Arms and impunity

Like other Middle Eastern countries, the UAE has adopted a more cautious approach following Joe Biden’s electoral victory in the US presidential elections last November.

However, despite upping its actions in Yemen and its islands, Abu Dhabi has managed to avoid US criticism. Ultimately, the key aim is to keep Washington on its side, and this has apparently worked.

Despite pressure from rights groups, the US continued with a huge arms sales package in April worth $23 billion, which includes F-35s, drones and other advanced equipment.

This contradicts Biden’s pledge in February of “ending all American support for offensive operations in Yemen, including relevant arms sales,” and would likely bolster Emirati military actions in Yemen and elsewhere regionally.

Analysis
Live Story

Aside from supporting a peace initiative, Biden has largely failed to diverge from the legacy of Donald Trump’s administration in the Yemen war, which provided vast military support to the UAE.

While being a key backer of Saudi Arabia’s military operations against the Houthis, critics have pointed out its crucial enabling of the UAE’s attempts to solidify influence in Yemen’s south.

After all, American weapons, including US-supplied armoured vehicles equipped with heavy machine guns, including M-ATV, Caiman and MaxxPro models, have been documented in the hands of Emirati-backed militias.

A CENTCOM document has also revealed that the US has trained Emirati forces and air fighters for "combat operations in Yemen". Meanwhile, Yemeni prisoners in Emirati-run prisons have reported US personnel in interrogation centres, in which UAE-backed forces have tortured and abused detainees.  

Aside from supporting a peace initiative, Biden has largely failed to diverge from the Trump administration's legacy in the Yemen war, which provided vast military support to the UAE

In a bid to reduce Yemen’s violence, Timothy Lenderking, the US Special Envoy to Yemen, visited Riyadh, Oman, Jordan, and Abu Dhabi last week. Lenderking, however, praised Abu Dhabi, with the US Embassy in Yemen Twitter account writing: “the UAE remains a critical partner in resolving the conflict in Yemen,” signalling that Washington’s impunity will continue.

“The fact that Biden continues to enable the UAE and see them as ‘partners of peace’ is not surprising, given that the US is also playing a very negative role in Yemen,” added Al Ademi.

“They are all partners in this coalition [against Yemen], so it wouldn’t make sense for one belligerent to hold another belligerent accountable.”

“But it also shows the hypocrisy of the US calling the UAE ‘partners of peace,’” she said.

Addressing the immediate violence between the Houthis and Saudi-backed forces is naturally an urgent concern, as it could plunge Yemenis into further humanitarian anguish. 

However, the UAE role should not be overlooked in peace talks. Otherwise, it could prolong the fragmentation of Yemen, and undermine efforts to achieve stability.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey