Why did the UAE take over Socotra

Abu Dhabi is slowly withdrawing from the Yemen war

The troop reduction in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Yemen promptly became apparent at the end of June at a time when tensions with Iran in the Persian Gulf were rising to the risk of war: Nevertheless, says Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group on Twitter as almost all experts, the withdrawal of the UAE from the Yemen war is not due to the new Gulf crisis, but corresponds to Abu Dhabi's long-term strategy and has been going on for some time.

In contrast to Saudi Arabia, for which the dispute with the Iran-backed Houthi rebels is a profound ideological question, the UAE is pursuing very specific goals in Yemen: on the one hand, to contain the Houthis, who took the Yemeni capital Sanaa in 2014; on the other hand, the fight against Islamist extremists and the protection of the Emirati interests in southern Yemen.

In the port city of Hodeidah on the west coast of Yemen, the UAE achieved an important goal with the UN-mediated Houthi withdrawal - which was delayed, under difficult circumstances, but ultimately took place. The ports in and near Hodeidah can no longer be used by the Houthis for arms smuggling. This allows Abu Dhabi to reformulate its strategy from "military first" to "peace first".

The Yemenis take over

The reality is a little more prosaic: The UAE have trained and equipped around 50,000 Yemenis in Yemen, who are now taking over the Emirati agendas. In the central province of Marib, liberated from the Houthis, all UAE soldiers have already withdrawn, in Hodeidah around 80 percent. But the presence in the southern port city of Aden will also be reduced. This is accompanied by a troop reduction in the Emirati military base of Assab in Eritrea. Only the Al-Qaeda hotspots, such as al-Mukalla or Shabwa in the south, are apparently to be monitored directly for longer. There are no reliable figures on the past and current troop presence; the UAE also paid foreign mercenaries in the Yemen war.

At the beginning of July, UAE-sponsored Yemeni troops moved into the strategically important island of Socotra in the Arabian Sea: they were welcomed by some of the residents, not only because the UAE are providing aid and investing in Socotra, but also because the UAE is seen as a guarantor against it that the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood Party Islah is taking hold. Other Yemenis even speak of a UAE occupation of Socotra.

Here the interests of the UAE and Saudi Arabia have long been different. Riyadh continues to support the weak Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi; he is too friendly towards Muslims in the UAE. In the south there are even clashes between Hadi-loyal Yemeni soldiers and UAE-supported groups, including separatists.

The Emiratis and the Saudis never actually fought side by side in Yemen: In Hodeidah, for example, the UAE troops had replaced the Saudi troops. However, Saudi Arabia is the leader of the alliance that intervened in the Yemen war in March 2015 after the Houthis captured the port city of Aden.

The spirits are divided

Abu Dhabi and Riyadh nevertheless swear their unity in Yemen, the UAE withdrawal was carried out with Saudi agreement, it is said. But there are also differences in dealing with the recent Gulf crisis with Iran. This became clear when the Emirati foreign minister in a statement at the end of June refrained from accusing Iran as the originator of the attacks on oil tankers off the coast of Fujeirah - one of the Emirates of the UAE.

Awareness has grown in the UAE that they would be on the front line in a direct confrontation with Iran: a catastrophe especially for Dubai, the center of the Emirati economy apart from oil. But that also applies to the conflict in Yemen and the attacks by the Houthis on their neighbors with drones and missiles.

Rumor has it that there has recently been growing dissatisfaction among the leaders of the other emirates (Dubai, Sharja, Ras al-Khaima, Fujaira, Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain) over the course that the de facto ruler of the UAE, the Crown Prince of Abu, is taking Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Its policy has made the UAE a regional player, but it is risky. (Gudrun Harrer, July 16, 2019)